The Bar Project: Voices from an Artists' Community

by Francie Lyshak

 

Francie Lyshak Brad Ellis Evan Lurie Joe Vojtko
Lavinia Coop Bette Bourne John Lurie Tony Nunziata
Ray Dobbins Gary Indiana Larry Mitchell Bill Rice
  Allen Frame Richard Morrison  

 

Steven Harvey

Musician, Painter, Gallerist

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An audio clip excerpt from the interview with Steven Harvey

Francie: This is an interview with Steven Harvey on July 26, 2013 recorded at his gallery on Forsyth St (steven harvey fine art projects/SHFAP). We’re here to talk about Steven’s memories of The Bar and Bill Rice’s studio in the late 70s, early 80s, also the influence of the other artists and that time on him and on his work as an artist and gallerist.

Steven: I met you and Richard Morrison around 1976. That was when you were living in a loft in the building with my father’s then significant other, an artist named Ann Gillen. I think that I must’ve met Bill almost that year. He gave my newborn son, Sam, a bicentennial stamp as a souvenir. Sam was born in 1976, so he must’ve been an infant when he gave it to him. I remember meeting you all--Richard Morrison, you and Julia Dares. We made a movie with Julie that you were involved in, called by Bicentual Valentine. I shot a super 8 film of it. It was my first interaction with you and Richard and it was really fun. I remember it was a great project. It made a very strong impression on me.

Francie:  How old would you have been at that time.

Steven:  In 1976 I was 23 years old. I was old enough to be married and have a child. By the early 80s, within the next 8 years, I get to know Bill Rice better in his studio and the space that Peter Rizzo colonized next door.  I had an exhibition at the Free Lunch, the space that Peter had next door. Bill had a storefront at 7 E. 3rd St. He had a floor thru on one side and there was a half apartment next to it on the East side of it that was a space that Peter used for some shows.  He later moved to 13 E. 3rd St. where Bill had the whole back to the front with the garden access in the back, where we did the Salon/Saloon show in 1984.

My father had a loft on Cooper Square. He used to do shows in his loft.  He would hang art from himself, his sister who died 1967, Anne Harvey, myself, other people he knew, his significant others, his neighbors. People would just come up the stairs. He would put a sign out front. They were called The Last Sail or The Alternative. Then he was also doing stuff, as it went on, like environmental pieces in the loft, painting the floor. That was my first experience installing work. Then in Salon/Saloon, we spent a lot of time installing it. It was on all these messed up old walls. The place was very decaying, ramshackle. We put a lot of time and care in. It made a vivid impression on me as to what work can look like in an interesting environment, interestingly selected, a little against the grain, you know like the vibe was so strong.

Of course, simultaneously there were all these events going on in the backyard at Bill’s backyard. We saw things by Gary Indiana who presented one or two plays. There was the Sparkle movie night. That was one of my favorites. It was a favorite of Richard’s, a very cool, beautiful movie that was remade recently. That movie has a Curtis Mayfield soundtrack--on the soundtrack album, sung by Aretha Franklin, in the movie sung by Lonette McKee, Irene Cara and others. We did a backyard screening of Sparkle.

There were those crazy beautiful Gary Indiana plays with music by Evan Lurie.  The vibe was like some incredibly fertile kindergarten for the older people. It was just like unbelievable. Anything could happen there.

Francie: Yes, it was totally extraordinary. It sounds like Bill influenced you as a curator.

Steven:  Also as a painter.  I was a painter the whole time. I would say that I identified very much with his touch as a painter.  The paintings that I made ten or fifteen years later were of bodies and they were very thinned out. Bill painted very thinned a lot of the time, very turped-out with no medium whatsoever.  I did the same thing, only painting with mineral spirits or turps. I’d say that there was a sense of the naturalness of his touch that I admired.

Certainly my experience of doing the show of Salon/Saloon influenced me in ways that I can’t begin to tell you about--how to make exhibitions. There was a show at the same time that went on in the 80’s that Ross Bleckner did at The New York Studio School, a small group show. It was very interestingly selected. At that time it seemed very raw. The rawness of Bill’s ascetic for me is something I continue to be interested in.

Francie: What about the community?  It seems to me that it we’re considering not only Bill, but the community that Bill had created around him. We kind of became a part of that community. What effect would you say that had on you?

Steven:  Let’s talk specifically about Richard Morrison, who was Bill’s closest friend and my close friend. Richard was a wonderful enabler, in the most positive sense of the word, to everyone around him. He helped everyone do their work, to realize their work. He was selfless in doing that and incredible. At the same time he was making highly sophisticated, very interesting work on his own. For instance, at that time Richard had an apartment right around the corner from here on Stanton Street.  At one point I was making a movie and he let me take over his apartment for months. We just hung all the film on his walls and he helped me edit this movie. Literally there was film hanging all over his apartment for like four or five months. I can’t remember how long it was. We’d go down and work on it. There was that sense of an alternative artistic universe—the ability to realize projects on a shoestring. It was fantastic. In a larger sense it was an amazing aesthetic community. One of my favorite performers in that period was Jeff Weiss, who had his Medicine Ball Caravan Theater on 9th Street in the East Village. I used to go. I’d take people to go to that place. Bill knew Jeff well and they performed together. That sort of spirit, that energy that was in his theater, to me was very much what was interesting in that neighborhood.  Jack Smith was another part of it.

Francie: Describe that spirit if you can.

Steven: Weiss’s spirit was so phenomenal. It was like,  ‘Kids, let’s put on a show.’  It was like out of a Mickey Rooney movie--like it was him and Judy Garland. Yet it was all transgendered and confused and contemporary and so interesting and yet with this joie de vivre that was unbelievable--that sense of just doing things, just doing things, making the play in the backyard.  Music was a big part of it.  I was doing music at that time. I had a band called Youthinasia. Evan Lurie would play with us occasionally. He was part of the community around Bill, and his brother John Lurie, who has a painting in the current group show in my gallery. He was over the other day to see the show and he was asking me about all the people we used to know.  “Where are they now?”  I met John at the same time as I first met you guys. He was in this apartment on 2nd Avenue around Gem Spa at 122 Second Avenue that was Larry Mitchell’s apartment too. There was all that. There was the music. There was the painting. There was the theater. There was film.

Film was very happening.  Film for me, even from the 70s on, was a huge thing.  I was really interested in it. I had other friends who were filmmakers. We were making super-eight films. There was easy access to tools too. For instance, at NYU Stan Brakhage would be teaching and I could go in and audit his classes--just listen to him talk, listen to him show films. We’d go to see Jack Smith show his films at the Millennium. I remember a hilarious experience on Thanksgiving going to see Jack Smith do a show at OP Screen. (This was a place at Broadway and 13th Street where a lot of films were screened, like the so-called No Wave Cinema films - the works of James Nares and Eric Mitchell or Beth B and Scott B).  On Thanksgiving Day evening, we went to see Jack Smith and he had a turkey carcass on the table and fabrics over the lights. Everyone came in without paying. Were all sitting around thinking, ‘Oh, isn’t this nice?’ Then Jack says to two people like Edit DeAk and Evan, “Will you please collect the money?” Everyone was put on the spot. It was the most brilliant self-conscious moment, excruciating for the audience. You had to give your excuses to the people who were collecting the money if you didn’t want to pay, in public. The whole evening moved at a snail’s pace. Those kinds of ‘theater of poverty’ performances were everywhere , like Julia Dares’ Bicentual Valentine. It was a great synthetic spirit. You had Barbara Ess doing her Just Another Asshole project, where she asked everyone to contribute work. She was asking many artists to contribute sound bits for a record or visual bits for a newspaper or a book. All this was happening. It was incredibly fertile. Because of the lack of economy in New York, it was still possible to live here cheaply. So people were able to survive more easily.

Francie: The neighborhood actually was on the fringe. It was not a neighborhood that anyone would move into. So that did create a low rent kind of environment.

Steven: Absolutely. You know the street where my gallery is now - Forsyth Street, below Houston and near Stanton Street was just a dangerous block, a drug supermarket. This park, Sara Roosevelt Park, outside the gallery was an ultimately sketchy area, with prostitution and crack. It was during the crack cocaine period.  It was not a hospitable climate, which turned out to be extremely hospitable--the reverse effect.   By not being attractive to the bourgeois, it made a great atmosphere for artists. Whereas now it’s a place for young people to come and get drunk. It’s mostly for restaurants or galleries or that kind of thing.

Francie: Also, in some ways this community was a community of people that felt like they didn’t fit in the so called ‘normal’ world. Certainly there was a large gay community and they were still struggling with acceptance.  I know I was affected profoundly by feminism. To be a woman and an artist who had had any kind of voice in the world was a new kind of experience.

Steven:  Also it was just smaller. One of the interesting things that I always notice is that in the music scene (circa 1978-79 when I used to play in a band) there were only fifteen to twenty bands. There were only maybe 200 to 300 people involved in all the bands. The audience at any given event was this same 300 people basically. So the conversation was very close. When we had this band called Youthinasia, Pat Place was in the Contortions. The three of us were visual artists and musicians. Pat Place was friends with our bass player, Frank Schröder. She said, “Frank, you guys should play out.” She got us to play at 66 East 4th Street, our first gig, with the Contortions, Theoretical Girls--an amazing bill, an awesome bill. We come on and my guitar fell apart on stage. It was hilarious—a classic first gig and we almost self-destructed. That sense of it being a very small micro community is I think what gave it a peculiar strength. Now it’s the internet.  It’s international. This was a tiny little village of people with a community of interests, sexually, aesthetically, philosophically.

Francie: Well then what would you say happened, because obviously it’s changed.

Steven: Well, real estate. Real estate changes everything. For the dozen years we’ve had Bloomberg as mayor (the endless mayorship!) and now all of New York is property. Everything! If you have a lot in Bedford Styvesant its worth a certain amount of money for its future potential as a development. This is the antithesis of what we had. In 1976, when my son was born, I lived on 5th Street across from the police precinct in a walk-up tenement apartment where we didn’t have a phone. I remember when his mother, my first wife, had to go the hospital. We had to go downstairs to use Marylou’s phone to call the hospital to say we were coming. Our rent was probably $125 a month, right? That permission that this economic situation gave to people was revoked.  Also the culture accelerates. This thing that we were just talking about like Just Another Asshole, forty artists giving little contributions, it expands exponentially. Then we get to the internet moment now where there are millions of people who are interested in things.  It’s just different.  It changes.  It evolves.

Francie:  But still, looking back, our community had such a large group of talented individuals. Every poor community isn’t a magnet for artists.

Steven:  It was New York City! I believe this is the epicenter of where you go to be an artist. That’s the other cofactor. This would not have happened in Des Moines necessarily; or if it did happen, we would’ve have known about it. We did happen to know all these very ambitious people who are artists who came here and worked very, very hard in their various disciplines and many of them have achieved all kinds of degrees of success subsequently.

Francie: And it started in the East Village on 2nd Avenue.  It’s part of the story.

Steven: There was a show at the Met called The Pictures Generation. It showed the artists who were in a show at Artists Space circa 1980, a show called Pictures. It included a whole group of artists who then went on to become successful later, who were part of this neighborhood. I grew up in this neighborhood partially, with my father who lived on Cooper Square. Through him I met artists from an earlier generation. The photographer Robert Frank lived on 4th Avenue with his wife, Mary Frank. Aristodemis Kaldis was around who was a close friend of Willem and Elaine de Kooning’s. Lois Dodd the painter lived on 2nd Street for many years.  Then there is the painter, Bob Thompson who is included in our current show. If you look on the back of his paintings, there are inscriptions, “187 Clinton St.” He and Red Grooms and Claus Oldenburg had an institution around the corner from here on Clinton Street, called the Museum of Living Art. The visual artistic culture of this area, this neighborhood goes back before our peers.

The more widely you consider this neighborhood in terms of its cultural history, the more interesting it becomes.  For example, I seldom hear Jeff Weiss’s work discussed and I always think that he’s an interesting artist. He had an incredible venue in the East Village that was very much part of the aesthetic.  So you could include people like that in your interviews. Of course, one person we haven’t talked about is David Wojnarowicz, who was very much part of the Bill Rice and Richard Morrison’s world along with Peter Hujar. In 1989 I helped Richard in making a film called Bust with David Wojnarowicz, when he was ill. It was for this show in1991 called Social Sculpture, at a commercial gallery on Broadway and Houston Street, the Vrej Baghoomian Gallery. The exhibition included Yoko Ono, David Hammons and David Wojarnarowicz (in Richard’s film piece). In the movie David sits framed head and shoulders, like a portrait bust in front of the camera, and talks about what it’s like to be a person with AIDS and talks about his anger really. There is a strobe light going off slowly as he talks. He made a powerful impression with his personal gravitas and being in touch with his anger.  He said “Sometimes I feel like going on the roof and shooting people you know.” I hear that!  Anyway he’s somebody that I remember. Of course there are others too.

Another artist who died, who made a huge impression on me was our friend Larry Mitchell, one of Bill’s closest friends. Larry was a writer, who wrote about the neighborhood. Several of his books are roman a clefs, based on real people in this neighborhood and their affairs and friendships. He was a wonderful writer --very smart, sexy, writing a novel of daily life among the demimonde that we’re discussing. He gets it down very well. In fact it would be wonderful to publish sections from his Terminal Bar or one of the other books in a catalogue format for any exhibition that’s organized about this period, because he really got it.

Francie: I’m asking Betty Borne the director of the Bloolips to do a reading from some of his books.

Steven:  The Bloolips is a whole other thing. There was a high drag component to the neighborhood. I saw that extend into the later period. In the 90s I produced a band with a friend of mine, Ethan. We played and I would just do the tracks. He and a couple of friends would actually perform them. We were playing at the Pyramid Club.  It was a drag bar, the Pyramid.  It was the inheritor of that sort of thing. It just kept going, that drag culture in the Lower East Side.  It starts there with people like Betty Borne, of course, and there is an overlapping. It’s a long-term thing—Pyramid Club and Wigstock.

Francie:  I think you’re saying that there is this continuum. Things were happening before we came and they continued to evolve afterwards.

Steven: There have been exhibitions about downtown: ‘Here’s a hipster slice of downtown’ at a certain point.  In point of fact it’s a much broader, more interesting picture than that. The Abstract Expressionists were centered on 10th St betweeen 3rd and 4th. That was their locus for the galleries in the 50s. There was Robert Frank and everyone like that. I was walking down the street the other day with somebody from out of town. He saw McSorley’s Bar on 7th Street, which is a tourist landmark. I was telling him about how they used to have this guy named Bob Bowles who was their resident sculptor. In McSorely’s backyard he used to have large welded metal sculptures set up. There were so many people like that--so many people in this neighborhood in this culture. In this gallery we show artists such as Lester Johnson who had a studio on the Bowery in 1961-62, and Bob Thompson.  They have a history in this neighborhood that predates the period that we’re talking about and I think that, ‘Yes it’s an incredible cultural continuum.  And I’m sure that it continues in way that we don’t even know.

Francie: So what you’re saying is that art has been happening here for a long time and it continues to happen and it is something about the geography?

Steven: And the culture mix. We did a show called 10 Tenements at SHFAP by an painter named Gandy Brodie. He died in 1975 at the age of 50. He grew up in the Lower East Side in the 30s, a very poor Jewish kid. One of the motifs in his painting is a very abstracted tenement façade. If you read the descriptions of the people who were living here in the 30’s, 40s and 50s in real poverty, they come out determined with ambition, like, ‘I’m getting out. I’m going to succeed.’  This is ambition with the creative capital that they’re working with. The neighborhood has had a certain cultural imprimatur on people since before the period were talking about, going back to the 20s--a very powerful producer of artists.