Interview with Patti Astor

Patti & Crew FUN BBQ[2]

This month Roots Forward is proud to present an exclusive interview with hip hop icon Patti Astor. From her groundbreaking work with the Fun Gallery, to her appearance on the legendary movie “Wild Style”, Patti has played a pivotal role in the history of hip hop. Patti took some time out of her busy schedule recently to share special memories, anecdotes and her wealth of knowledge with Roots Forward. Suffice it to say, with such a rich history and involvement in the scene Patti had stories for days. The hardest part was narrowing the focus for the sake of this interview. I spent countless hours on the phone with Patti, both collecting information and sharing many laughs as she fondly reminisced about days past and the current state of art. I am grateful to have had this opportunity and am pleased to present this interview for your reading enjoyment. Enjoy!(Jason)

As a young woman what initially drew you to NYC? 
I first went to NYC at age 18 in the fall of 1968, to attend Barnard College, the Womens’ College of Columbia U. which was right across the street in upper Manhattan.  As a dancer and an actress I was ready for the bright lights of the Big City.  However, as a “Love Child” I was more interested in what was on at the Fillmore East than Broadway.  I ended up dropping out of school and spending 2 ½ years in the anti-war movement.

What was the catalyst for starting the Fun Gallery in 1981 with Bill Stelling?
I always say the day I started the FUN was the day I met Fab 5 Freddy.  I had returned to NYC in 1975 and had already been through the CBGB”s Punk Rock Band Scene with Talking Heads, the Ramones and Blondie and then the underground film scene with Amos Poe and Jim Jarmusch centered around the Mudd Club.  I was a “Downtown Celebutante” by that time, having starred in a dozen beyond low-budget epics.  Fab had come down to bring Hip Hop to the rest of the world and we instantly became, well, shall we say, best friends.  Once Fred said Patti “A” was ‘Down by Law’ I had the B-Girl E-Ticket.
Talk about the club culture at the time. What are some of the clubs that stand out from that period?  
By 1981 we had moved north from the Mudd Club to the bigger more sophisticated spots like Danceteria and Peppermint Lounge.  These clubs had video screens all over the place where we could show our films and continued the “Drink Tickets” and “Door” which had started at the Mudd.  One night I ran into Dondi, Futura 2000 and Zephyr trying to get in.  Once I swept them up and we sailed through the door, greeted by a stack of drink tickets, they were sold on the downtown lifestyle.

I understand Futura offered you a canvas at one time and you asked him to do a mural instead. Comment.
By this time Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and Jean Michel had joined the mix and everyone was trading ideas, styles and a gift of artwork was to show appreciation.  My first official art event occurred when Futura offered to give me a painting. I was still on East Third Street and suggested he do a mural in the apartment instead. I had learned enough hanging out with the “Writers” to know in the graffiti world a mural was more prized and special than something that could be bought or sold.  Futura was thrilled with the idea so we decided he would start in the morning and in the afternoon we would have an “Art Opening and Barbecue.” I invited everyone and he got started.
Kenny Scharf had by this time baptized himself as “Van Chrome” and was “customizing” just about everything he could get his hands on, his favorite items being appliances. He had a real thing for vacuum cleaners. “Customizing” consisted of a wild paint job and the gluing on of tiny plastic dinosaurs, cowboys, rocket ships, etc. Kenny came over that morning and did my blender, toaster and clock while Futura painted.  I made vats of potato salad, stoked up the ribs and we all puffed primo spliffs.
The afternoon came and the party was a major success! Of course Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Fab Five, Kiely Jenkins and Futura were all in attendance. Someone glanced out of the front window overlooking the street and an amazed “Oh, Shit!!!”, drew us all to the spot. In front of our collective astounded eyes, Diego Cortez and major uptown dude Jeffrey Deitch, in his perfectly tailored Brooks Brothers suit, were getting out of a cab!!   We all cracked up. Soon I was handing ribs to the art buyer for Citibank!
Oh and the beginning of the FUN Gallery! It was all an accident!  One night Mudd Club acquaintance Bill Stelling announced he had fixed up his small textile studio down on East 11th St. as a gallery. Did I know any artists? Ha!  Did I?!  And to be honest, my apartment had become a major party spot and I was tired of cleaning up all the beer bottles.
It was ex-husband Steven Kramer who jumped at the chance to do the first show in August of 1981. He produced twenty colored pencil drawings priced at $50. each.  We were so broke that we cut the white card mats ourselves and then shrink-wrapped everything like record albums!  It was brilliant.  I made daiquiris in my Kenny Scharf “Jetsons” blender, we rocked the box and sold everything!  Bill and I decided we had a gallery.

What were some of the challenges you faced running the gallery?
Well of course we had no idea what we were doing, but since we didn’t care it worked out fine.  As a “Downtown Celebutante”, (remember?) I had no problem getting people to come out and the Art World was definitely ready for a breath of fresh air.  Before the Fun Gallery, the art world was made up of white wine, white walls and white people so we faced a lot of racism frankly but the energy was undeniable.  Six months later we would have hundreds of people filling the streets outside.

Is it true that the Europeans embraced the graffiti world when New York had moved on?
Actually the Europeans were the first to support the “Graffiti” artists, I suppose just as earlier black Jazz musicians from the US found it easier over there and did continue to sustain it after the “fad” passed somewhat.  They were smart, those guys have amazing collections.

From my understanding the gallery became more than just a place to view art.  It became a spot for the artists to share their thoughts, ideas and to simply hang out.  Discuss.
What was unique about the FUN was I made it clear that everyone was welcome from the littlest B-Boy clutching his Black Book to meet his idols, to the rich uptown collectors in their mink coats.  The FUN Gallery Crew of  Fab 5 Freddy, Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat , DONDI, LEE, Kenny Scharf, Futura and Zephyr hanging with Rock Steady Crew,  Clash, Afrika Bambaata, Leo Castelli, Paul Simon, Andy Warhol, Johnny Rotten, Julian Schnabel, Beastie Boys (as bratty teens), Matt Dillon and Madonna will never be equaled.

What kind of impact did the gallery have on the art community in New York at the time?
I think that my partner Bill Stelling and I are proudest of the fact that we opened the art world up to everyone.  We were never a “Graffiti Gallery”, we just gave one man shows to everyone as individuals, the first gallery to do that.

Were you aware at the time that you were doing something groundbreaking?
A lot of people ask that question but to be honest we were so busy living the moment there wasn’t time for much reflection.

Share a memorable story from your time at the gallery.
Here’s a good example:  When you had a really important show there was always a feeding frenzy. Dealers and collectors would want to be in “first” before the opening and the gallery would be filled with little knots of intrigue. For Kenny Scharf it was like the Fulton Fish Market – maybe it was the beach theme and the sand on the floor. Two hours before the opening it was pouring rain and inside the gallery I was juggling three groups of people, each trying to pretend to ignore the others.
Two Italian dealers from Naples were there trying to beat me down in prices. Rich socialite Elaine Dannheiser was there, trying to find out what everyone else was buying and Estelle Schwartz, original Art World Barracuda, was there with one of “her collectors.” Estelle advised “her collectors” to spend the big bucks. Today’s collector was a perfectly coiffed little lady, mink coat and Enna Jetticks pumps, complete with a top of the line Mercedes-Benz with chauffeur waiting outside – the usual. I was rushing from one to the other in the Art World Version of “Let’s Make A Deal.” The Door, No The Curtain, $10,000 in cash!
Suddenly there was a tremendous BOOM! and CRASH! against the door – the entire building shook! With my SDS background I was convinced someone had thrown a bomb at the front door – probably Tony Shafrazi, my Soho arch-rival!!! I rushed to the door and opened it to be confronted by a huge pile of soaking cement and steaming rubble. Looking up I saw that it was just another piece of the FUN giving up the ghost -the heavy rain had caused the entire roof of the outside entrance to crash down. Six hours later there would have been 100 people standing there.
The Italian Dealers’ reaction was “Come now Mees Astor, let’s make it $7000.” Elaine Dannheiser hadn’t moved. I was always convinced she could neither see nor hear but perhaps she felt the vibrations – let’s be kind and say she stood stunned. As for Estelle’s collector, she made a run for the door. Her EJ’s flashed over the ruins and she hit the back seat of the Mercedes in a record 8 seconds. Chauffeur James peeled off. Estelle turned to me with a scornful look on her face and said, “She’ll never be a real collector.”
We didn’t even have time to clean it up!  The hundreds of almost victims  crammed the gallery two hours later and, the champagne flowed.  Clamoring over the hulking piles of dripping concrete, they cried, “Patti you always have the BEST installations!”

When the gallery closed in 1985 what had changed? 
We were the first gallery in the East Village and four years later there were close to a hundred and they had all spent a fortune making them little Soho Galleries.  When the legendary St. Marks Cinema, scene of my cinematic triumphs, turned into the GAP, I knew it was time to go.

What do you miss most from that era?
Well of course my friends. It was very difficult to do the “Art In The Streets” show in 2011 at MOCA in Los Angeles and be reminded of how many of the FUN Gallery Crew are gone.  Rammellzee, Iz The Wiz, Keith Haring, Arch Connelly, Jean Michel Basquiat, A-One, Kiely Jenkins, Dondi White, Nicolas Mouffaregge ERO and now Steven Kramer. Still living are Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, LEE, Zephyr, Kenny Scharf and Jane Dickson (Charlie Ahearn’s wife). We all shared a great adventure.

I understand you have self published a book entitled “Fun Gallery The True Story”. What prompted you to share this story?
This book is the first real narrative of someone who was actually a part of the scene.  Many people have expressed a passionate interest with the days of the FUN, both those who were there and wish to revisit and many others who never had the chance.  With “FUN Gallery…The True Story” I take you there.  And also for my artists; I promised them I would always do my best for them, just because they are gone doesn’t mean I can forget about that.

How do you feel about modern day art?
Well there’s the “Corporate Art World”, with people like Larry Gagosian who bore me as much as they ever have, I have nothing to do with that.
Lately over the Internet I’ve been seeing a lot of great new graffiti art, to be honest with you.  It’s informed by the Old School tradition for the subject but the technique is outstanding.  On the other end there’s a big new focus on 70’s trains that’s quite interesting as well.

Is it fair to say you are a free spirit?
You can say anything you want.

Special thanks to Patti for sharing her wonderful insights and stories. Be sure to check out her self published book “Fun Gallery The True Story” – http://www.thefungallery.com/

**Interview photo: Patti & Crew FUN BBQ(L to R) –  Fab 5 Freddy,Kiely Jenkins,Peter Dougherty,Futura 2000, Patti Astor(Front)

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