Jane Dickson. Times Square at Night, 1980. Courtesy of the artist.
Colab was born when New York was bankrupt, and you could do whatever you wanted. People had bigger survival problems to focus on. A lot of the work we did was shocking or offensive or political; at the time, no one could imagine that anyone would ever care. When there were the NEA/Culture Wars years later, I thought, "Really? Somebody’s noticed what some of my friends have done and they’re arguing about it in Congress!" I mean, I just thought we were doing it for the ten people who thought it was interesting and that nobody else was ever going know about this art.
The Times Square Show comes out of the history of Colab and of that moment. At the time, everybody was trying to figure out what the next thing was in art, would it be political/late/post-conceptualism? Painting had been declared dead and there was a lot of excitement about performance and new media. Image making and content were radical acts. It was also this great moment, pre-AIDS, where the club scene (especially the gay club scene) was really exciting. Colab was doing loft art shows and many of us were also showing in discos and bars, like the Mudd Club, and everybody had a band. Colab started before I got to New York. People like Robin [Winters] and Coleen [Fitzgibbon] had the idea for artists to call themselves an organization, apply for funding, and use all of the money we got for art, none for overhead like other arts organizations. The small amounts of money attracted diverse people to keep coming to meetings, arguing intensely over how to spend the money, either on equipment, a magazine, a cable TV show, an art show, or a theater . . . everyone was trying to win support for his or her faction. This forced really aggressive debates.
The idea was to break this art-star monolithic paradigm and see what might happen if people work together. As I see it, the result was that Colab attracted people who were ambivalent about the attention that they were getting for their art careers. The dream was that everyone would promote each other instead of having to push for themselves. Of course when the spotlight arrived, this began to break down. A lot of people were wearing many creative hats, were young and hadn't really figured out what they were doing yet, or what they were going to do.
Really up until the TSS, nobody came to our shows except our peers, very few other people. So you could risk anything, and if people saw and responded to it, great. If they didn't respond, you realized, okay, I made something that people are totally ignoring; what do I learn from that? It was very inspiring in that way. I felt like each show was a chance to try on my friends’ clothes, I mean their approach to art, to try making manifestos or video installations and so on. The TSS was a huge watershed in that it was a moment when a lot of people first got commercial attention.
I believe the purpose of art is dialogue. The TSS was a great way to further the dialogue. Also at the time the art world really was dead. Conceptual art was ascendant partly because the art market had collapsed. Whenever the art market is high, painting comes back. Whenever the art market tanks, then people do installations and conceptual art because they can’t sell it anyway so what the hell. They say, "Oh! We were not in it for the money, we were just in it for the ideas." There weren’t very many places to show our art. People like Paula Cooper and Leo Castelli were not gonna show Colab artists, so we decided to do our own shows, show our work to each other, and to other like-minded people. We decided to put our ideas out there and create a location for conversation. In a way, it's hard to imagine that before the Internet that was what you had to do. In those days, you actually had to be there.
The whole purpose of Colab from the beginning was to be a collective, it was anti-hierarchical and every show had a couple of people who would take the initiative and say, “Let's do a show on doctors and dentists, let's do a show about real estate.” So there were a few people who put in the effort to make it happen, but then everyone would participate. There was never anyone who instructed the artists or edited the artists. You know, when Jenny Holzer went, “Let's do a Manifesto Show,” anybody could contribute. I could put this cup in and say, “This is my manifesto, deal with it.” And it was not her place to say, “That's not a manifesto.” Assuming that the Times Square Show conformed to a traditional structure, including curators and so forth, is a particularly touchy subject for me, because I feel like women get consistently written out as history goes along. As you talk to all these people, you'll find that they did huge amounts to make this happen. It was a really big show and one or two people simply couldn't have done it all.
I was already presenting my animated ads in Times Square on a daily basis. I was working as a designer and animator on this computer billboard at One Times Square called the Spectacolor Sign, and so I was already very familiar with Times Square. It was my home turf, and I was really excited to connect my worlds. I was already showing up in the Bronx at Fashion Moda and in group shows that Christy [Rupp] organized. Many of us had been talking about doing the show in Times Square for a long time. I remember when John [Ahearn] said, "Oh, let's do a Times Square show," and people were like, "Yeah that's cool."
The TSS was a bigger venue than we had ever had before, and somehow that moment was just a perfect storm. Everything came together. People had done enough shows; people were better at working together and anticipating what needed to be done; and then we knew to put out the word so that people like the twenty-two-year-olds Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf showed up, as well as David Hammons, and lots of other people. We thought it was exciting.
I knew enough about Times Square to know that it was not a neighborhood we were going to influence. It's a bus stop. It was then, and it's maybe even more so now. People came there to pick up tricks, turn tricks, go to the theatre, pickpocket, go to strip clubs, go to cheap kung-fu movies. It's this endless moving sea. I began working in Times Square in 1978. Charlie and I lived there from 1980 until '93, and I had a studio there until 2006, so I spent thirty years in Times Square, where I also got to do the Revelers mosaics for the MTA Times Square subway station in 2008.
I had already made this drawing of the hands playing three-card monte, because in those days they were all over Times Square. I worked the nights and weekends shift behind the Spectacolor Sign; so when it came time to do the poster [for TSS], I brought in this three-card monte image and said, "How about this for the poster?" and everybody's like, "Oh, okay, that's totally Times Square." Charlie [Ahearn] took it and made it into the poster. And then I used that image for the thirty-second animation on the Spectacolor billboard, it started with the same three playing cards and hands come in to do a wipe to reveal the words "Times Square Show." I ran it I think once an hour the whole month of June 1980.
When the space was located, I went with Walter [Robinson] to talk to the Public Art Fund to try to raise money for the show. Various people were going to talk to different organizations. Jenny Dixon was, at that point, running the Public Art Fund. She said she loved the idea of the TSS but they couldn't work on a one-month timeframe, and so couldn't give money for a show next month. But when I told her that I was going to do a month-long series of ads for the TSS on the Spectacolor sign, she was very interested in this billboard.
I got the job with Spectacolor because I studied animation in college, and worked as a cel painter when I first came to New York. I saw an ad in the New York Times in 1978 that said "Wanted: artist to learn computers." This was before computer art classes existed. At the Spectacolor office they told me they had discovered that they couldn't teach art to computer people, so they wanted to hire artists and teach them to design animated ads using computers. I knew this was the cutting edge, but I imagined the job would have no influence on my artwork. I was designing ads with lights on a dark background at work and painting at home. I became fascinated by glowing lights emerging out of darkness, which is still a focus of my work. There was a moment when the people I worked with at the sign invited me to go out to Hollywood with them to start special effects companies, but at that point I had just done my first one-person painting show at the FUN gallery, in the East Village. I didn't really enjoy art directing or computers, so I chose a medium from the nineteenth-century over one from the twenty-first.
After the TSS I went back to Jenny and said, "I've asked my boss, I can do an artist series, but if I do it I want to curate it for the first year. I'll be the animator/facilitator and a participating artist." So this project eventually introduced Jenny Holzer to LED lights and it shaped her career. Keith Haring, David Hammons, Matthew Geller, and Nancy Spero... It was a really stellar group of my then-unknown friends and the project continued for years and eventually got transferred over to Creative Time.
At the TSS, it was obvious that the place really needed installations, which I was interested in exploring, so I chose to collaborate with my friend, sculptor Jody Culkin. We did the staircase from the second to the third to the fourth floor. I would say it was more her aesthetic than mine with brightly colored, odd padded elements on the walls, fake Roman columns, shiny vinyl elements, and Christmas lights. We incorporated papier-mâché animal heads by Kiki Smith, large photos of macho guys by Mike Glier, and others. As Jody and I were installing the staircase, a then-unknown David Hammons appeared. Joe Lewis had told him there was a free-for-all brewing, and he came to check it out. After introducing himself he headed out to Times Square, returning quickly with a bag of empty Night Train bottles (the preferred wino brand) he'd collected on the block, which he proceeded to crush and then sprinkle down the right side of the staircase we were working in. When Jody and I protested the glass carpet he'd laid, David gave us a little shrugging smile as if to say "Deal with it, kids." And left.
I had done a series of monoprints, which became the book "Living with Contradictions," and I put these prints up between the columns. These prints were about the new challenges of domestic life. I had just started living with Charlie [Ahearn] and I was feeling "Wow, this is hard!" This was actually the very beginning of my quote "real work," because that was the moment when I decided I'm only gonna make art about things I know something about. I thought, "What do I know something about? Well, what do I talk to my girlfriends about? Guys." I began to make cartoons about my experiences and then I invited Lynne Tillman to write a text for them. This was followed during the TSS by a series called Hey Honey Wanna Lift? The whole book is cartoons of pick-up lines and my observations of men's relationships with their penises. Women always think it's hilarious.
I did the "City Maze" cardboard installation at Fashion Moda in September 1980, after the TSS. In 1978 and '79 I was trying to paint on black garbage bags, because I was trying to capture light coming out of darkness. I did a couple of large portraits of Ulli [Rimkus] and of Kiki [Smith] on garbage bags that were in the TSS portrait room. I can now tell you that paint doesn't hold on to that surface very well.
For the Real Estate Show I had also done a series of eight pieces on black garbage bags in which I painted cell-like rooms, kind of like real estate listings, as if you peeled the front off of a tenement and looked inside of it at all these rooms. The Real Estate Show is one of the shows that exist way more in lore than it did in its one-day existence. It was a great political move: some people broke into the space, and we went in and installed our work. It was December 31st. I remember it was so fucking cold in that building. The walls were radiating cold. I remembered going in to pin up my piece and then going outside and standing on the sidewalk to get warm. Then the police shut it down.
At the TSS there was an immense amount of attitude, you know, everybody was yelling and just full of opinions. Some of the people went on to do wonderful things and some people not so much. I don't think there was an obvious correlation between attitude and future success.
Back then, New York was imploding, and we were fooling around in the ruins. Now I think, hopefully this recession will not be as bad as it was in the seventies; but it's a hard time now, and it's a hard time for young artists. I've observed that now after a few years of really difficult times, young artists are humbled, considering starting collectives and maybe showing art in part of their loft. They consider that maybe they do have to find some backdoor way to get their art out to the world. Young people still want to be as famous as ever but similar to when Colab started out, the idea has emerged that it's not going to be a smooth, uphill ascent and that you might have to take some detours. Colab was a real, great, experimental group, and if you look at all that came out of it, it has sort of an extraordinary legacy.
As told to Shawna Cooper, August, 2, 2011
Jane Dickson (b. 1952, Chicago, IL)
Jane Dickson studied art at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris, and the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. She graduated with a BA from Harvard University, Cambridge, MA in 1976. She exhibited her paintings, drawings, and prints throughout the 1980s at New York City spaces including ABC No Rio, Artists Space, Brooke Alexander Gallery, the Brooklyn Museum, Fashion Moda, Fun Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, P.S. 1, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Dickson served as a Colab officer in the early 1980s. She currently teaches at Pace University, New York, NY. Additional information is available at http://janedickson.com/.