At what date on the calendar, at what precise location, did counterculture become pop culture? And who do we mark down in the history books as the hero, or the villain, who masterminded the switch? There is an answer: “The Times Square Show.” In June of 1980, more than a hundred artists, under the auspice and directed by the vision of Colab (Collaborative Projects), took over a four-story building on Forty-first Street and Seventh Avenue and mounted a two-month exhibition. There were big names: Tom Otterness, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer, Kenny Scharf, Nan Goldin. But, already, this is a wrong turn; the notion of individual heroism, of the creative ego that strives for and achieves recognition—in other words, a modernist view of the artist—is an anachronistic way to view “The Times Square Show.”
The idea behind “The Times Square Show” was different: a collaborative, self-curated, self-generated group show that transcended trappings of class and cultures. As John Ahearn, a Colab initiator who spotted the location on a Times Square jaunt with Tom Otterness, told the East Village Eye, “Times Square is a crossroads. A lot of different kinds of people come through here. There is a broad spectrum, and we are trying to communicate with society at large.” Ahearn went on to tell the Eye, “There has always been a misdirected consciousness that art belongs to a certain class or intelligence. This show proves there are no classes in art, no differentiation.”
In that respect—a high/low cultural mashup that garnered big attention—the show was successful, drawing praise from the orthodoxy (Art in America, The New York Times, Artforum) for an artistic movement that had, until then, been relegated to the outskirts. It was four floors of divine chaos: bags of money in the toilets; rats, money, and guns wallpaper; strap-ons, sex dolls, graffiti; rags and garbage; and no white walls. That the art was for sale, that this was indeed some kind of gallery event, was itself in quotations. The show was intended to give testimony and evidence to a greater truth: the lunatics ran a better asylum.
Carlo McCormick—curating 2006’s “The Downtown Show” at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery—sets the scene: “1979 is the axis … Colab is coming together, Punk is exploding, the club scene is taking on a life of its own, and the alternative spaces are at their apogee.” Times Square, likewise, was in transition. The city was taking its first steps to clean up the red-light district of the nation. What’s at the crossroads of Forty-first and Seventh now? A marvelous triumvirate composed of Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesday’s, and Office Depot. At the precise location of “The Times Square Show” one today finds a forty-story skyscraper, glass and steel. And even the new Times Square—no hookers, no clubs, no Playland, no guerrilla art—is not long for this world. To wander Times Square in its present incarnation—giant models marketing duds to malls in China—you might not guess that it isn’t yet quite corporate/tourist friendly enough. But it isn’t: hence the redesign, which is already underway. The forty-five-million budget will tile the entire area in mauve stone, create additional venues for advertising, and generally make over and spruce up New York City. The redesign is sleek, modern, almost Scandinavian in its aesthetic, which isn’t too surprising, since the architecture firm working on the project is in fact Norwegian.
On exhibit at Hunter College until December 8, “The Times Square Show Revisited” displays a small selection of original works and, perhaps more importantly, offers a wealth of video and still archives. Events through November include a discussion on the influence of “The Times Square Show” with several of the original event architects—Charlie Ahearn, Diego Cortez, Jane Dickson, and Robin Winters—and screenings of short and feature films by Rudolph Burckhardt, Anthony Muntadas, Branda Miller, and Wes Craven.
The moving-image archive on daily exhibit includes a full walking tour of the 1980 installation (audio provided by Andrea Callard), and upwards of six hours of audio and film and video works and documentation. Despite challenging obstacles—presenting the material in a small space (with white walls, anathema to the Colab intent), reassembling original works (gallerists swooped in like vultures when the original show came down, and many of the pieces were installation works, and inseparable from the site)—the curation by Shawna Cooper and Karli Wurzelbacher affords viewers a full and contextualized experience. Thirty-two years later, the revisitation is something of a miracle, and if you missed the original incarnation, this may be as close as you’ll get to it. Perhaps only an academic institution could present this balanced a look—there may yet be a bigger retrospective—but the larger the museum, one imagines the more viewers will have to contend with the schmaltzy, prescribed visions of art, tragic egos, etc., mandated by corporate media. Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice hailed “The Times Square Show” as “the First Radical Art Show of the ’80s,” and Lucy Lippard, in her hesitating appraisal in Artforum, conceded, “the show did successfully appeal to a fairly varied audience—locals as well as disillusioned sophisticates, cynical radicals and chic seekers. This accomplishment can’t be underestimated.” Alas, the very qualities that made “The Times Square Show” vibrant and radical—the accessibility, the disregard for convention and conventional categorization—made the overall aesthetic woefully easy to co-opt, which, for that matter, was true of the entire arts explosion of the East Village and the New York collective arts movement of the late seventies and early eighties. Wrote Goldstein in the Voice: “There is a vague foreboding among the artists in the Times Square Show, a sense … that ‘we’re caught up in a big game plan’ … The trompe l’oiel approach to urban renewal might mean replacing the real thing with its representation, the real pornography with art about porn.” Jeffrey Deitch, in Art in America, teetered on the brink of giving big money explicit instructions: “Art must come to be marketed with the kind of imagination displayed by this exhibition’s organizers—not simply in order to reach the general public, but to cut through the glut of mediocre material and touch the art audience itself.”
While focusing on the heroes is a fundamentally wrong approach to a history of collective art, we have nonetheless collectively embarked on a brash course of canonizing the select, and bunkifying history to match. Keith Haring is a good example (in part because he wasn’t there to correct the record) of how artists are singled out and retrofit onto a time line. You’re likely to hear this: Keith Haring was a brilliant graffiti artist who detonated onto the arts scene. In fact, Haring (as he describes it in an archived audio interview at “The Times Square Show Revisited”) was responding to an increasingly sophisticated graffiti culture, and his stripped-down cartoon line was an iteration of an East Village trope. Even the iconography of the period was shared; it’s in Christy Rupp’s 1979 shows “Animals in the City” and “The Dog Show” that we see the origins of Haring’s barking dog. In 1980, Haring was twenty-two, and his participation in “The Times Square Show” was peripheral (as was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s, then known as SAMO, who was eighteen and offered the show what is believed to be his first painting on canvas). Haring’s major unveiling wouldn’t come until 1986, when Absolut Haring, an advertising campaign for the vodka, was exhibited at the Whitney Museum. By that time, the East Village scene—crashing, screaming, and shaking just a few years before—was settling into rigor mortis. The uptown galleries, realizing the revolution was underway, had moved their galleries to SoHo, mined the artists they thought they could transition to a market, or “merch,” infrastructure, and gone to war on the progenitors of the East Village.
With AIDS decimating the creative landscape, there was hardly a fight. The loss of a collectivized concept of art—at least as a mainstream process—is powerfully felt in the isolation of present-day artists, who for the most part are more willing to identify with previous generations than their own peers. It is a great victory for consumerism that even the most radical among us have chosen to filter ourselves through arts that have been authorized by corporate distribution. Christy Rupp’s 1979 “Real Estate Show,” which commandeered an abandoned building, set the stage for “The Times Square Show,” which commandeered the public perception of culture, which was in turn commandeered by material culture. While one might celebrate “The Times Square Show” as the pinnacle of postmodernism (meaning to say, a collective experience of modernism), one might also mourn the beginning of the end, an explanation of the future of arts that could be readily adopted by, for example, MTV, just three blocks uptown. It’s tempting to assert “The Times Square Show” was the Occupy movement on a smaller stage; even if there isn’t a direct line of descent, there is the indirect relation—from a collective theory of counterculture, to a collective theory of pop culture, back to a collective theory of counterculture. From Forty-second Street to Wall Street and beyond. Moreover, it is in the retaking, the rediscovery of cultural occupation, that change can make its most powerful argument.
To be an artist is to fail; it is to push to the limit of what is possible—psychologically, cognitively, visually, linguistically—and then to push beyond. That “The Times Square Show” has drifted slowly and inevitably into history—a history remembered at the margins, remembered in, for example, Alan Moore’s comprehensive chronicle Art Gangs, or “The Downtown Show” at NYU, or Colab’s retrospective at the Chelsea bookstore Printed Matter—is unsurprising. And it is unsurprising that I have failed here to give due credit, that I was too perplexed to mention much of anyone—how does one give credit to every one of more than a hundred artists? (My own mother is among them; Judy Rifka! as people said back then.) But there is one grand surprise, one great lesson of “The Times Square Show,” and it is this: What? What? You tell me. Come here. What do you have in your pocket? What do you have in your wallet?
John Reed is the author of four novels. He lives in New York.