John Ahearn

I was in the peanut gallery in the Colab shows, a very confused, quiet, introverted person who had an unclear sense of my own purpose in life. But this evolved through the activities I participated in with Colab. I started taking a Super-8 camera and shooting the streets of New York and later started shooting just in the subway. Then I did a movie based on the blizzard downtown. This was in the late 1970s. Some of these things we used for a cable TV show called the All Color News. This taught me that I wasn't really interested in being a studio artist and that the secret to my development spiritually and artistically was to leave my space and to go out and to explore other places. The problem was that there was a lot of pressure at the time because of Colab artists who were making movies. A lot of them were making these feature-length films and presenting them. I was trying to figure out how I was going to do something like that. So I started getting into this idea that I wanted to make a monster movie. At the time I was staying at Patti Astor's apartment. She was a film star in Amos Poe's movies and the like. I had known her from childhood. In the apartment was a book on makeup for film and television. In that book I learned how to do face castings. So I started having friends come over to do face castings. A friend of mine named Robert Coney asked me to do a performance for him. Well it wasn't really a performance. He was doing a piece called Corporate Casting. He wanted me to cast someone as though they were going to be regimented into the "straight" world.

I was a landscape painter in college, so this was totally new. I must preface this by saying that Tom Otterness had already been making sculpture, and there was a new thing happening in Colab with these theme shows that had to do with a pressure to make your work spontaneously by hand, a handmade art work that we would then put on the wall in an "art show." Given the avant-garde art world at the time, this was considered completely ridiculous. You don't have artwork on the wall because it was all about video and installations and film and things like that. So a tongue-in-cheek joke was to make an "art show." That was what the theme shows were all about. It was a social thing. People were literally just making stuff up and putting it on the wall. I had an idea to do something like that with the casting. So for one of Robin Winters's shows, I did a casting of him and put it in the show as art: I painted it as sculpture.

Around this same time, Stefan [Eins] was beginning Fashion Moda in the Bronx. I think my brother Charlie suggested to me that I try to go and do a casting up there. So I took my casting materials up to Fashion Moda. I had already been doing a lot of Super-8 movies on the trains, and I had gone to the Bronx. But then I found I really liked making art up in the Bronx. I loved being up in The Hub, the Third Avenue area, because it was really busy and there were crowds of people everywhere. I discovered I really liked getting away from other artists. Maybe they were the ones that made me nervous. I actually felt much more comfortable up in the Bronx than I had downtown. I always felt so nerdy downtown, you know? Insecure and everything, but up in the Bronx I felt right at home. I felt very comfortable up there.

I was establishing the South Bronx Hall of Fame, and the purpose of it was to make glory and magnificence out of the fact that these people were all residents of this neighborhood. I wanted to treat this like a wonderful thing of pride and interest. I wanted the casts to be funny and interesting. It was a performance in the sense that we were doing all the castings in the [Fashion Moda] storefront. To me this is related to the Times Square Show. This work at Fashion Moda was around 1979.

The reason I wanted to be outside of downtown was because I did not think downtown was populated by real New Yorkers. What I thought of when I got to New York was Weegee and the 1940s—the old New York, the fedoras. And I thought it was still there; the thing was it wasn't me. It belonged to all the people of color who were on the trains. Those were the real New Yorkers, not me. I was a visitor there. I wanted to connect with the real New Yorkers. That became an ambition of mine: to connect as an artist with who I considered to be the real New Yorkers, which were the Black and Latino populations that I saw filling all the trains that I was riding. And so when I went to the Bronx I thought, "Now I'm here." Through Fashion Moda I started learning about the Studio Museum, which at the time really was a studio museum: It was a place where artists had studios.

At that time, I was thinking about Coney Island. We were going to Coney Island all the time back then. This is a very famous image of Coney Island [referring to photo tacked to the studio wall]. This art was up [on display at Coney Island] back in the 1970s. Can you see a connection between this and the sculpture? The painted plaster? I wanted it to look like the kind of art you would see in a state fair. So in my own mind, there was only one show that I knew of that was really important, and that was the 1913 Armory Show. That's what I thought was a real art show. Well in my mind the Times Square Show [TSS] needed to be the inverse of the Armory, that instead of bringing cutting-edge art to the hayseeds of New York City—which was what the original Armory was—the TSS would show art by these younger artists who had a commitment and a kind of solidarity with regular everyday people. It was sort of bypassing things that I maybe didn't understand properly, which was the history of contemporary art. It was bypassing Artforum and a lot of the more difficult intellectual ideas of contemporary art. We were going to win our livelihood by winning people directly. As opposed to going through the art world, we were going to go the other way around. 

We chose Times Square in a momentary flare of ambition. The idea was to make this for all of New York City, to have a location that was the absolute crossroads and central to everyone. It was specifically not an art world location. It was more like a location that would appeal to the imagination of people outside New York and outside of the art world, a location that was a tourist center. It was also legendary as the worst place in New York City. I thought that the tourists may have been a little scared by the place, but in general people were going there in droves. So it wasn't empty, it was very lively. Yes, there were Kung Fu movies and peep shows. And there were a few things up there already. There was Tin Pan Alley, a bar started by Maggie Smith. Nan Goldin was up there. Kiki Smith was up there as well as a lot of people who you haven't heard of. A lot of them were Colab members. Ulli Rimkus was already working up there in a bar at that time. It wasn't like no one had ever been up to Times Square other than as a tourist. There was Danceteria. I was thinking critically about the theme shows: they were a dream but they were a tiny circle [of people], and Fashion Moda was great but it also had this kind of a circumscribed local quality to it. One of the great things about Fashion Moda, and obviously Joe Lewis is part of this effort, instead of it being racially segregated the way things often were, there was more [racial] mixing and contact with black artists. One of the huge disappointments after the TSS was how things returned to their previous place afterwards, meaning that everybody went off into their segregated areas. The curators who often supported a lot of these ideas did not include the black artists who were in that moment. David Hammons was not included for a while. Of course Basquiat was an exception but that is something else.

I wanted to mention something about the idea of the Kung Fu movies and also the Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s and other movies in the 1970s that related to 42nd Street, like Taxi Driver. There were others [movies] that if they weren't literally about Times Square they were about that kind of world. French Connection was an extremely important movie. Now, I don't remember any part of it that was in Times Square, but there is nothing in it that is taking place downtown. It is all the other worlds outside of artists' areas.

I'm trying to develop the theoretical concepts around what was going on at the time. You have to give Robin [Winters] and Coleen [Fitzgibbon] credit. They have very advanced minds and are very advanced thinkers and artists. I'm sure they were thinking about Oldenburg's Store and other historical precedents, but Stefan Eins also had a store before the TSS that was called 3 Mercer Street Store in Soho. 3 Mercer Street came way before Fashion Moda, in the early 1970s. A lot of Colab artists and other people showed there.

The other thing I would like to mention about popular art…I got to be very good friends with Rigoberto Torres. His uncle, Raul Acre, had a statuary factory. It's important to think about how these people were manufacturing statues, up to five-hundred at a time. The subject matter of the statue was whatever would sell, but it was primarily for a Latino-Catholic community, which included both Catholicism and Santeria-related statuary. But they would also have a tiger or they would have French Rococo peasants with umbrellas and then they would have images of Elvis, kind of like Coney Island in a way. The connection between that and Coney Island is very close I think. And they were selling these very cheap. So we were going to visit him [at the statuary factory] in 1979. I think I mentioned that Tom was already doing sculpture; but he was also visiting Raul's factory, so he was also getting some ideas from that.

Christy [Rupp] had long been involved with a very serious commitment to the welfare of animals and the environment. When she came to New York and started hanging out with the rougher Colab crowd, instead of the animals being like something you would get at the Bronx Zoo, she focused on rats and cockroaches. Rats especially were a huge project of hers. She made both figurative images of rats and even more importantly she made the images of rats running along streets that she wheat pasted around the city. The city was in the middle of a terrible rat epidemic at that point. There was garbage out on the street all the time. In a way it was ironic, sort of like a celebration of the rats, but it also put her art right in the middle of this thing [the rat epidemic] that was going on.

The Real Estate Show [RES] was a much more politically radical statement than the TSS. From my point of view, the TSS was, from the beginning, designed to be the opposite of the RES. By that I mean the RES was a political action, although it had great art related to it, such as Becky Howland's octopus. RES meant much more to everyone just as an idea. It was not something to visit. Between you and me, it was an action. It wasn't an idealistic action about the idea of where the art itself could go. It was more political.

For me, in my mind when I thought about the TSS I wanted the opposite of what a lot of people remember it as; this punk trash thing where you have just piles of garbage and you staple it on the wall, and you have this thing and it's a big mess. That wasn't what I was thinking about. I wanted something that people could participate in, that people would visit. They would come down and bring their friends, and maybe it would be a center for people. It was definitely an alternative to a white cube. It was meant to be humorous but also as a dialogue with regular people who were going to be in Times Square, because they could go and visit this place. Also it was a way to lure artists up to Times Square and out of their comfort zone in a sense.

So what I dreamed of for the Times Square Show was that it would be pulling all these things from different directions. It was very important to have artists from Harlem, and we had outsider [or anonymous] artists in the show. I think the interest in outsider art is shared by a lot of people involved in the show. Just like Fashion Moda showed artists from all different walks of life, we had that kind of thing there in the TSS.

Colab is a political organization, so I guess what I mean by that is that when you have activities you need to draw up support. It is political in that you need to line up the people who are on your side versus the other side, just like Congress or something like that. And so the way I remember it, was that the person I felt closest to in Colab was Tom Otterness. I remember speaking to him about this subject, about having a show in Times Square. When you are getting your ideas straightened out, sometimes you need to do that privately. If you open up an idea to a group of forty people at once, people respond, "Ok, we want to do that but we want to take it over there…." So by the time we had TSS sessions, where we were discussing the show with large groups of people, we already had the building. I remember being in Times Square, seeing the building and then finding out that it was owned by Mr. Finkelstein who had the New Amsterdam Theater which was home to Ziegfeld's Follies long ago. He had Flo Ziegfeld's office. That theater was later bought by Disney. That wasn't the building we used. He had another building that was a former massage parlor. We made an appointment with Mr. Finkelstein, and I went there with Ulli Rimkus and Coleen Fitzgibbon. Coleen was the President of Colab at the time, although she is way more important that just being the President of Colab, that was just one of her roles at that time. Coleen was magnificent. Some people just have natural charm, I wouldn't know what it was if it hit me over the head. But that's ok…I think it's crazy that a bunch of absolute nobodies would walk into his [Finkelstein's] office and walk out with permission to use his building. I can't understand why he did it really.

During the show, the floor plan of the building was drawn up. The notes on the floor plan are my handwriting. This is a group thing with some people having more to do with where things were happening. And I think I had a lot to do with that. This was one of the great moments in Tom's career, because he was being so creative. He did really amazing things at this moment in time. In particular the boards that were hung on the outside of the building. I wasn't doing any work, because I was so busy being in the middle of everything. I didn't have anything in the Souvenir Shop, but I had the live casting out in front of the Store [Souvenir Shop].

Rafiq was very close to Jack Smith so there is a connection there. To oversimplify the Exotic Events program, I would say it's a combination of Rafiq's Super-8 theater combined with the crowd that was at the Tin Pan Alley bar. The Mudd Club was also very influential on the TSS, a lot of the energy came from there. A lot happened at the Mudd Club and Club 57 after the TSS.

One of the main places where we got money from was the Beard's Fund. They gave us a grant, and they gave it to us in three or four days. Ellary Eddy was the representative from the Beard's Fund. A lot of the chasing after money from people didn't work or go very far. Ellary was great. Henry Geldzahler was very supportive of the show. His private secretary, Angela Fremont, was an artist who showed her large pink pig painting in the show [on the second floor].

The notes deal with general work of the whole building, who goes in which rooms and design ideas. All these names represent different projects that were part of the exhibition. Each one of the names is a note about the development of different projects and me trying to keep up with everything that everyone was doing. I just remember talking to people. I don't remember these notes coming from meetings per se. I think we got the space as much as a month in advance, so a lot of these notes were being written on the site.

Money Love and Death was definitely, on my part, an homage to Coleen and Robin's theme shows and also a commentary on those particular words "money," "love," and "death" because they had shows that were like that. My idea was to use Christy Rupp's rats at the bottom and then it went to Coleen and Robin's plates and then to Cristof Kohlhofer' bills. There was a gradation of posters on the wall but that was only copying Robin's thing. And it was his work, my memory was that I helped to put it up there.

The Portrait Gallery was a tongue-in-cheek nod to the Washington DC portrait gallery. We did have found artwork in there from the street. I thought it was a beautiful room with a lot of nice things in there. In my opinion, what we were trying to do was to make a very clear simple installation that was almost classically installed, not too crappy. So in a way this [the second floor] was the central spot in the show. The core was to get to the second floor layout and follow it until you ended at the windows to the street. As you come up the stairs, you are being led in that direction. I think it drew people through this installation. I am trying to argue that it was not just an insider thing for only the artists involved. I think that if someone didn't know what they were walking into, there would still be something for them there. Of course that is just my idea.

What I thought we were going through in the 1970s was a prohibition against object making. There was an edict on the cutting edge against studio art making, painting, sculpture, all that kind of thing. Colab was absorbing some of this but underneath the skin of Colab was more of a 1960's drive towards social engagement. It wasn't enough for artists to make art with a minimal aesthetic. Colab was toying with the idea of people being artists, but it was in quotes or italics. Like we are not really gonna do it but more pretend to do it. There was a lot of pretend stuff; the Lounge Lizards were considered pretend jazz music. It was a way of saving face a little bit, so you couldn't be criticized for not doing it properly…because you were not real.

In a way, the tongue-in-cheek was not so much to act cool but to protect our own feelings. We had a night that was designed as the collector's night [at TSS], to my knowledge there was not one artwork sold, but it was a collector's night meaning it was a night that all the work was to be announced, and that was why we made this map. As people came in they were to be given this map. The map was done after things settled in a bit, maybe mid-point in the show. When people came and put up new work during the show, it wasn't too bad. I never remember it being a problem personally. I don't remember stuff getting trashed.

Almost everything in the show was done within two years of the show itself. But then there was Alex Katz. Alex Katz had these portraits everybody loved that were already up in Times Square, way up high, visible from the street. Women's faces that were very anonymous looking. I thought they looked so cool. I called him up, went to his studio, and he lent me the maquette for that piece and that was in the show.

Colab had many class tiers to it. The top class was the people who were doing the most creative work, had the best ideas, the best energy and were the most connected with all the important things in life. And everybody else was just like peasants. Generally, what would happen was once someone developed a reputation, they would leave the group. This happened a couple times in Colab. If you look at the artists involved with the show so many of them did really interesting things after the show. I'm not saying they did these things because of the show but a lot of them were not known before the TSS. For a while Brooke Alexander almost became the Colab gallery.

I feel really disappointed with a lot of things that I had hoped for [as a result of the show]. I thought there was a lot more unity going into the show among black artists, white artists, Latino artists. I'm not blaming anyone; maybe I am the one at fault here. What evolved in the early eighties in this area fell apart after that a little bit. I was hoping for more vitality. I was accused of actually retreating to the Bronx after the show and becoming a hermit. Maybe that's true, but that's what felt natural. I had this project going on with Rigoberto so we started doing this community work. That's where I felt good.

I think it is disappointing that in a sense what it [the TSS] did was influence the art world rather than replace the art world or change the art world very much. In a sense, the art world found a place for it. For example there was a whole East Village gallery scene that started with FUN Gallery.

As told to Shawna Cooper, August 5, 2011

John Ahearn (b. 1951, Binghamton, NY)
John Ahearn graduated from Cornell University, Ithaca, NY in 1973. In the 1980s his sculpture was exhibited at institutions including Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY; Bronx Museum of Art, NY; Brooke Alexander Gallery, New York, NY; Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; P.S.1, Long Island City, NY, as well as internationally in Australia, Brazil, Chile, Germany, Japan, and The United Kingdom. In May 2012, Ahearn and his longtime collaborator Rigoberto Torres reconstructed the South Bronx Hall of Fame (1979), initially presented at Fashion Moda, for Frieze Projects, New York. Additional information is available at http://www.alexanderandbonin.com/artist_bio/john-ahearn.

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