Photographer and Writer
Full text of the interview with Allen Frame
I’m asking you, Allen, to comment on your memories of a particular East Village artists’ scene that was happening in and around The Bar (on 2nd Avenue and 4th Street) and at Bill Rice’s studio. I’d like you to talk about what you were doing, who you were then, what you remember about that community, how you saw that community then and now. Last but not least I’d like you to talk about the forces that you think drove that community–the forces that encouraged it, built it, helped it to grow, and the forces that worked against it, to undermine or destroy it. I guess the big underlying question is what does an artists’ community do for the artist? In that the community influences the artist, their artwork can then influence their culture. We’re going to talk about those influences at this particular place, the East Village, in this time, the 70’s – 90’s.
I moved to New York in 1977, to a furnished apartment at 30th and 5th Avenue that I found through friends. It was really inexpensive. I came here from Mississippi where I had been doing photography while living with my parents for a few years. This was after college in Boston. I was looking for a community of artists. I came to New York because this was the place where I knew the most people from Boston. A lot of those people were artists. I think what was particularly meaningful to me was becoming friends with a gay circle of artists around ’79-’80. This was really the first time in my life that there were that many gay men in my midst who were all creative types.
The sort of leader of that group of people was the artist Ken Tisa, who lived in SoHo. He had a big loft and people used to go there and hang out a lot. He was on the pulse and we would go to things with him. I remember that I had moved to the West Village and I was living on Perry Street in a 5th floor walk-up with a friend. That was when the New York gay scene was centered in the West Village and there was this particular look that had to do with the reaction to Stonewall. We began to call it ‘cloning’. It was this hyper-masculine thing. In reaction to ‘cloning,’ a lot of people I knew wanted to be alternative in some way. That alternative was then found in the East Village in what people were doing in the places like Club 57 on St. Marks Place—such as the shows that Ann Magnuson and Kenny Scharf were hosting.
The Bar was a local gathering place in the East Village. There were a lot of creative people there. It was low-key, with a pool table. It felt very local. I was coming from the West Side, as other people were, and it was more of a hangout and a place of conversation, for me, than a pick-up place. It had some sexual energy, but it was really less that than a community place to get together. Of course, Bill Rice was a stalwart of that place. Almost all of my friends went there, so I could always count on running into somebody I knew.
Then I eventually moved to E. 3rd St. between 1st and 2nd Avenues. I moved there, I think in ‘82 or ’83. So then The Bar was around the corner. As I was getting into the culture of the East Village, at the same time I was getting into experimental theater and tapping into that theater history that went back to LaMama in the 60s. I was meeting and working with people like Agosto Machado and John Heys who had been around from that time, could tell tales and still act out some of the attitudes.
I actually met Bill Rice at a rehearsal for Gary Indiana’s play The Roman Polanski Story. I think it was 1980. John Heys played Roman Polanski. Taylor Mead was in it, as well as Cookie Mueller who played Sharon Tate. Jack Smith was at the first rehearsal that I went to, and this was my first encounter with him. He was unique and amazing. His line delivery was distinctive. It’s easy to imitate, really slow and drawn out. I only overlapped in one rehearsal with him because he dropped out and was replaced by Taylor. Bill Rice was also in the cast and that was my first meeting with Bill Rice. When I went to The Bar, I would see Bill Rice, and we would always talk.
That relationship was important to me because he was older. I had another older gay mentor from New York, Ronnie Girard. At that time I lived in Brooklyn in his rooming house in the late ‘70s. All of his folklore about coming to New York in the ‘40s and living through the ‘50s here, all that was so interesting to me. With Bill, he didn’t go back that far; but it was just more about hearing his perspective, his kind of pace, his droll wit. You know he would walk so slowly up 2nd Avenue. He always had this kind of dry, acerbic, witty commentary on things.
I remember once he was complaining about the bar scene and saying there weren’t any good bars anymore. I said, “What is the last good bar that you remember in New York?” And he said, “Well Max’s ruined everything; but before that, there was another bar in the alphabet, during the mid-60s, before Max’s, very mixed racially, straight and gay, the quintessential bohemian bar where anything and everything went on.” I was dying that I’d never been there. It was interesting to think about that bar as a kind of utopia for Bill. What he meant by ‘Max’s ruining everything’ was in reference to the aura there of celebrities, the Warhol scene, hype, etc.
What I think happened in the East Village in the ‘80s in the art scene was that the level of pretentiousness in the New York art world escalated to a very distorted degree, fueled by drugs and hype. There was this big uptown/downtown thing, where collectors would drive up to Fun Gallery in their limousines, from Italy or wherever, buy out a show and have that kind of impact on people–and all around there was plenty of coke and heroin. As a result, a distortion occurred in people’s expectations of what a lifestyle of an artist would be, what an exhibition career would mean. You can read about that in the biography of David Wojnarowicz, who suffered from that.
Francie: Was that the book written by Cindy Carr?
Allen: Yes. It’s great. David’s experience was a good example of an artist whose career happened in that decade and who had to endure a junkie dealer and collectors and all the distortion that came with it. I mean, this crass attitude towards buying and selling art. As much as we are facing greater income disparity today, I think that was when you could really begin to feel it. This was the Reagan era in New York, when the old Bohemia was having its last gasp of the 20th century and coming up against this rapacious greed for art and hype. That attitude impacted the young artists of the East Village at the time. I found it very harsh, even though, in other ways, everything was new and interesting and exciting. That trend overlapped with the beginning of the AIDS pandemic. For me the ‘80s was a horror show, basically. But I also had memorable experiences.
So, going back to theater. Bill identified merely as a painter and I love the work that he did. It was a little retro, being figurative and atmospheric and homoerotic. Well, homoerotic was not retro, but the particular kind of figurative, realistic work that he made was out of sync with what people were doing. On the other hand, his acting and participation in the experimental film and theater world were very of the moment, and he became an iconic figure.
We were in two Gary Indiana plays together. He also started presenting things in his garden and I directed one of them. With Kirsten Bates I directed this adaptation of monologues written by David Wojnarowicz called Sounds in the Distance. I performed in that too. Nan Goldin was in it. Bill Rice was in it. There is a video of it. My friend, Butch Walker was in it. Frank Franca was the lighting designer. We did it in Bill’s garden behind his street-level apartment on E. 3rd St. The location could only seat about fifteen people. I can’t remember how may performances we did. They are great monologues. We did three versions of that: The first was in Bill’s garden; then in Berlin in the loft of a German painter named Tilman; and then in Brooklyn at BACA Downtown, an important venue in the 80’s for experimental dance and theater.
Something was interesting to me at Bill’s memorial. I met Bill, I think, in 1980, in that rehearsal for Gary Indiana’s play. Because Bill felt like such a fixture of The Bar, I assumed that everybody else had known him for years and had met him earlier. But at the memorial it felt like everybody met him at the same time. There was only one speaker who referenced something before 1980. I think that was Ed Burns who mentioned something earlier, but it wasn’t even that much earlier. So I’m thinking, ‘If he’s talking about a bar in the alphabet in the ‘60s and he was living down here since then, what was he doing? I mean if he was painting, where are all those paintings? Why did he “emerge” so late?’
His NY Times obituary mentions some of the artists that he worked with, including me. An older sculptor I taught with at Pratt named Gillian Jagger saw it. I ran into her, and she said, “Bill Rice! You knew Bill Rice? Oh my God, what happened to him? I haven’t seen him since 1961.” I was thinking, ‘Finally! Somebody who knew him way back then!’ She said, “We were roommates on the Upper West side in the ‘50s. We sometimes made work together, but I had to get away from him or otherwise I would’ve died. We were drinking so much and we were just going down, down, down and I had to escape. And once I left, I never saw him again.” I thought, ‘So twenty years before everybody met him, somebody is escaping him because he’s drinking too much?’ She told me that they were living hand to mouth, they were starving artists, etc. She had a job. She’d get paid and she’d go to the grocery store and bring home food and then they could eat. Of course, you know that by the time the ‘80s rolled around he had that work with Ulla Dydo—indexing and researching for her book on Gertrude Stein.
Francie: I think he figured out a way to manage.
Allen: I remember in that period the experience of an underground scene–performers like Ethel Eichelberger whose main venue was a friend’s loft and everybody would go to those performances.
Francie: Were those filmed at all?
Allen: I don’t know what exists from that period. Penny Arcade started doing her character monologues. One of my favorite ones was the English trans personality, Margo Howard Howard. Talk about Bohemian! She was the mad eccentric of all time whose boyfriend was a well-known Harlem drug dealer. Actually at one of Penny’s more recent shows, she did this long riff on moving to New York for the first time in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s and living with two gay guys who were drug dealers in the far Alphabet. This was a New York that’s unknown today–this was a no man’s land.
I said I was going to come back to the Warhol legacy. Recently I caught up with a documentary on Candy Darling called Beautiful Darling by James Rasin. I have been thinking about this and how Warhol moved on from his original circle of marginal personalities to mainstream celebrities and jet setters.
I think that when I came into theatre and worked with some of those people, who were the veterans of John Vaccaro productions and LaMama, there was this bitterness about having been exploited by Warhol. That scene hadn’t died, but it had definitely waned. People’s experiences in those scenes included a lot of drugs, which heightened the whole thing. To come down from that was a bitter reckoning for a lot of people.
Now nobody talks about New York attitude. Back then diva-ness and attitude were rife in that community, along with some of the bitterness and disillusionment. I found that downtown theater scene a pretty spiky terrain to work in. When I went to London for two years and worked in theater, its greater stability was a relief. Again I was working the fringe, but there wasn’t all of the grandiosity to deal with.
So many things came to a dead end by the late ‘80s. The fin de siècle was 1990, not 2000. I guess I would go back to the ‘60s and say that the ‘60s unleashed a lot of utopian expectations. Then there was a crash in the 70’s. In New York in the ‘80s, the creative scene (the downtown theater scene especially, and the art scene too) came up against this hard-core materialism that began to manifest itself then. That decade for me was violent and devastating. I think of Bill Rice going through all that and surviving it and still continuing to do productions so often with Jim Neu. They maintained. Their work was consistent and brilliant up until their deaths. They were steady in this turbulent time.
Francie: Someone else spoke about how Bill sneered at the ambitions of some, their drive for success. So maybe he wasn’t as affected by it. Maybe he wasn’t as stricken by this shift that you are talking about?
Allen: But he came so close to it so many times. For instance, he was very close to Gary Indiana who was the East Village art critic for a while in that period. When Bill had that show at Patrick Fox Gallery, René Ricard wrote about it. Renée was totally emblematic of all those contradictions and clashes: He was coming from the Warhol era–but then he was writing for Artforum and connected to all the money in the art world and the collectors and yet not having any money himself as a poet and critic. The extremes that he was channeling! Who wrote about Bill but René, in the most important review Bill had in that time.
Everything was so mixed together. Keith Hering curated shows with a 100 artists several times in the East Village, before he started making his signature graffiti work. He was driven by ambition, an aspect of him that is contradicted by the street artist persona that he had. He had worked for Tony Shafrazi. I always got the feeling that he wanted to be a Warhol himself. Although he had to work in Danceteria as a bar back and pick up bottles, he expected to be famous.
I curated a show in 1980 called The Childhood Show. (I think it was before I met Bill or Bill would’ve been in that show). It was at this hair salon in Tribeca called Jungle Red Studios, owned by Francine McGovern, who was a friend of my Boston friends. It was a walk-up, on the fifth floor, a huge loft show with 15 artists. People only came to the opening, which was a total scene. Alana Heiss from PS 1 was there. Nan Goldin’s work was in it and Bob Gober’s.
I wanted to do that show with Keith because he was so active curating. I asked him whether he wanted to do it with me. He already had so much attitude, typical of the period. He said, “Well, my friends know that I go to Odessa every day around 1 o’clock. You can find me there…” I was so insulted by that. I went to Odessa and it was closed that day. I just thought, ‘Fuck you. I’ll do this by myself’ and I didn’t put him in the show. I put his roommate, Kenny Scharf, in instead. Keith came to the show anyway and said it was a really good show. He was just trying to keep the peace. He was so ambitious and wanted to be connected to everything. That was the period. People were throwing attitude around, even at that level. That’s one thing that I really appreciated about Bill. He did not do that. He could have done that. He was so wise and interesting. He had the wit to do that, but he never did that, ever. He could be snarky, as you said, about things and people’s ambitions, but he wasn’t mean.
Francie: He was very generous.
Allen: Yeah, letting us do that production in his garden, invading his space every night, his willingness to work with so many people he didn’t know or didn’t know that much about.
Francie: He didn’t exclude people. He was open.
Allen: Some of those Warhol people like Taylor Mead, also, I found to be very open and easy to work with. I always got along with Penny Arcade. She, of course, had to deal with a lot of bruising diva-ness from different people.
Francie: Basically what I think you’re saying is this: Fueled by the money, drugs and the mixing of wealth and poverty in this world of creative people and collectors and whatnot, people got ideas about themselves, and it had an effect on their attitudes and how they treated one another. Some were more affected than others. Some people were hurt terribly by it. And then there was of course the AIDS epidemic, which was another killing force.
How about you? How did you survive all of this? You’re out there and you’re still creating.
Allen: I had my 1st photo show in the gallery that these two artists ran, Jane and Jeff Hudson. It was in their loft space in Soho for only two shows. Then they went back to Boston to teach at the Boston Museum School. David Armstrong had the first show and I had the second. Nan Goldin had introduced me to them. It was up for several months, so I did some programming there by bringing in other artists to do things. I was showing black and white documentary work from Mississippi that I had done in the mid 70’s. My experience from that show was an ‘Is that all there is?’ kind of feeling. Also, after that show that I had curated, I was just not that encouraged by the whole visual arts scene. So when I started working on Gary’s play, the community of actors and playwrights and theater people felt more human and more interesting to me. (Although that community overlapped with the visual arts in that Bill Rice was a painter, Gary Indiana was an art critic.) Without saying that I was leaving photography behind, I went into theater for a few years and I wound up living in London from ’85 to ’87, directing and writing a play there with Bertie Marshall. I also wrote about experimental theater in London for two years for a Japanese magazine.
When I came back, it was really hard to pick up from where I had left off, because the New York theater community was decimated by AIDS. Also, real estate had gone up and space was expensive, and it was much harder to just whip something up and present it. I did a couple of things in theatre when I came back, but gradually I went back to photography. It was in an important group show in 1989 that pulled me back into the visual arts. It was the show that Nan Goldin curated for Artists’ Space, called Witnesses: Against Their Vanishing. It was the first big show in New York of art about AIDS or commenting on AIDS. It got lot of attention after the catalogue essay written by David Wojnarowicz became controversial. The media storm made me feel like my voice as a visual artist mattered.
Francie: But you had persevered, even though you were discouraged. You still had your foot in the door.
Allen: When I was a student of photography in the ‘70s, nobody could imagine that anybody was going to make any money from their fine art photography. A few galleries had been created in the ‘70s to show photography and the prices of the photographs were so low. You might think you could have a book in photography and you might get some recognition but you would never make that much money from it. You might wind up teaching. Of course, you could work commercially. As a fine art photographer, there never seemed to be high-stakes. In the ‘80s when I was doing theater, it seemed like nobody cared about whether I was going to make another photograph or not. I thought, ‘It really doesn’t matter and there is no money attached to this. So I’m just going to do what I want to do.’ I think a lot of people like me from that era were caught shortsighted about photography, since it changed and evolved so quickly after the 80’s. When the photo market boomed in the ‘90s, a lot of people of my generation weren’t ready for that. It took a long time to adapt. Also, my feelings about the market were always ambivalent.
Francie: It can be a monster really, a killing monster.
Allen: I just saw three good documentary films about artists’ lives–Beautiful Darling, this new one about Nina Simone, What Happened Miss Simone, and the film called Amy about Amy Winehouse. Nina Simone and Amy Winehouse both couldn’t say no to their managers or their public. They were worked to death. They were exhausted and weren’t in charge in a way that they could’ve been and should’ve been. People made them feel like they had to be on this treadmill of concerts and performing and releases. They didn’t have to be on it, but when you start getting successful, everybody gets invested very quickly. Others have a stake in it. They’re all pushing to get more.
Francie: There’s money to be made. They’re dependent on you. Actually Robert Brown, an art dealer in Washington DC, recently gave me an image of the artist in the situation that you are talking about. It’s an upside down triangle and the artist is at the bottom. There is one artist and on top of him/her there is the weight of this whole inverted mountain of people depending on, sometimes exploiting and feeding off that artist. That’s the image that comes to my mind.
So you had this show?
Allen: People came and saw it. I guess what struck me was that reactions to the visual arts are so different from theater. The bottom line in theater, of course, is applause. I feel like people are more generous in their comments, because they’re moved. Maybe a lot of theater is more accessible, more direct, raw or immediate. With visual art, it’s unusual if you get more than a word from most people about the show that you had. People are really lazy about articulating their responses, because they have to know what their response is and they often don’t actually work it through in their mind specifically enough to give you a response. So they just say cliché things that aren’t interesting. They’re not helpful or useful or encouraging. There is so much art being made and there’s so little criticism to go around. Most people don’t get written about that fully. So the feedback is different.
Francie: There isn’t any.
Alllen: At least in theater or film you’re working with a group of people so there’s some sort of exchange and contact. I like that about theater.
Francie: Well that brings me back to the point of this community. There is something about a community of creative people and the excitement that comes out of that. Just being together is incredibly powerful and rewarding, in and of itself, whether or not you ever show your work. Just having a conversation with another artist is powerful and has a powerful effect. So I think that this community at that time did bring voices to the fore that otherwise would never have been heard, because of the shared enthusiasm. If you’re just making art alone, if you’re doing what I do, you’re alone in the studio; then you are shown in a gallery, you are there for the opening and everybody says it’s great and that’s it. Basically you’re in a void 99.9% of the time. To sustain that practice is difficult without an artists’ community?
Allen: The way I cope with that problem, since the early 90’s, is with teaching. Because there is this instant community and you’re talking and talking about the work. That has kept me engaged with the visual arts. (Although lately I’ve been writing again. I’ve been working on a play, following theater avidly. I see a lot of theater, so I feel like I live in both worlds.)
Francie: But you’re really in one world. You’re in the world of the arts. You’re engaged. You’re in a conversation with it. You’re feeding it and being fed by it. Whether or not they are professionals or students, they still fuel something in us as artists. It’s wonderful. So that’s how you survived, one of the ways more recently. And you’ve broadened your palate, your media. It’s so important. You bring a perspective to this that’s really important. I’m so glad you’re writing a play. It’s a big deal.
Allen: I was just thinking about living on that block of E. 3rd St. We had the Hells Angels, their headquarters and their presence constantly. Sheyla Baykal lived across the street from me. She was a den mother of these East Village artists and theater people, a former model, and photographer. Quentin Crisp also moved onto that block. Paul Thek was on that block. The novelist Michael Cunningham lived on the block, but I didn’t know him. There was also this really interesting fashion designer from Mallorca, Miguel Adrover. I remember Sheyla having a roof party, which was a very low-key thing. Jack Smith was there, John Heys, Paul Thek, Peter Hujar, Quentin Crisp. It was not, ‘Oh, all the legends are here!’ It was very understated. I barely knew who Paul Thek was. I knew him from Peter Hujar’s photographs as the lover of Peter Hujar, but I didn’t realize at the time what a great artist he was. I so regret not getting to know him. Sheyla did this project where she photographed the residents on the block. She rented a storefront studio. She took a great picture of me that I have. I don’t know what’s happened to all those portraits.
Francie: Didn’t Penny Arcade take her archives? If anyone has it, she does. I’ve a picture that Sheyla took of Peter in drag. It’s so tender.
Allen: To think what it was like! It was so local. You’d go down the street, walk up Second Avenue and you’d run into somebody. It might be Augusto Machado or it might be Mark Tambella or might be Bill Rice. You might see Quentin Crisp going by with his blue hair. He ate at one particular diner. It was low rise buildings, local, easy-going, unpretentious, inexpensive.
Francie: Somehow it was a magnet for people, I don’t know how that happened. Steven Harvey, an artist and gallerist who was part of that community, said the East Village has been a magnet for artists for decades. Before us there was the Tenth Street group. Of course now you have to be wealthy to move in here, but not then. At that time it was a fringe area.
Anything else you want add Allen?
Allen: I’ll talk about one last thing, about some of the people that I met at The Bar who were really important in my life. Darrel Ellis, did you know him? Darrel Ellis was an African-American artist who had grown up in the South Bronx. I met him when he was 22. He was living with José Raphael Arango on 4th Street. Jose was an actor from Colombia. They had been lovers and were now just roommates. Darrel had had a studio with James Wentzy at PS 1. He was given an honorary participation in the Whitney Independent Study program, so he had a studio there. We met at the Bar and became close friends. He was in Nan’s Witnesses show with his interpretations in painting of the photographs Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar had taken of him. He did an extended series of self-portraits based on other people’s photos of him. He died of AIDS in 1992, and MOMA included him posthumously in its New Photography series that year. I curated a retrospective of his work at Art in General in ’96 and still house his estate and advise his family about it. He was an incredible artist who was one of the young artists that was hanging out at The Bar in that era.
Another one was Frank Franca with whom I was in a relationship with for 14 years and am now still close friends. We met at The Bar. I was talking to Gary Indiana and Frank accidentally spilled his beer in my lap. We started talking and then we were together for a long time. He became a photographer and now is also a teacher at ICP and Pratt and has a huge following of students who adore him. So The Bar was really significant as the meeting place.
I never met Robert Mapplethorpe, but I saw him there. I would run into Peter Hujar at The Bar. There was a young artist named Dan Mahoney who came from Boston. He’d gone to the Museum School briefly. He died of AIDS in the late ‘80s.
Dieter Hall, a Swiss painter from Zürich (and who now lives in Zürich again, but lived in New York for many years), was part of that community. His boyfriend for years was Terry Robinson, an actor. Oh there were so many people from that era. Yet it was such a low-key, casual place. It’s so funny– I met this guy, Lenny, who’s a Broadway dancer. He hung out there during the same time period as I did, but we never met until this year when I went to his apartment with the actor Brian Kelly to see Lenny’s collection of Edward Brezinsky paintings from the 80’s (another Bar habitué.) After talking to him a while, he said, “I remember you now. I remember your coming into The Bar. I remember how you’d stand there and lean against the wall and cruise.” I wondered, ‘Is he really remembering me or is he confusing me with someone else?’ It was so funny to hear that.
Then of course, a lot of people would leave The Bar and walk up to that park on 2nd Avenue and 16th St. to cruise. Several of Bill’s paintings are set there, I think.
Recently I went to Steven Harvey’s gallery to see Matt Phillips’s show with my close friend Pedro Slim from Mexico City, who is my age and also a photographer. While we were there, I remembered Steven represents Bill Rice’s work so I asked him to show Pedro Bill’s paintings, and Pedro fell in love with them. He bought one of my favorites, Don’t Walk. It was so gratifying to see someone I’m close to discover Bill’s work and have the same reaction that I do to it. I had that experience also with Martin Wong’s show at the Bronx Museum recently, another great painter from the same period in the East Village. I sent Pedro up to see that, and he loved that work, too. In both cases, their bodies of work are not just enduring but expanding in their beauty, meaning, and significance.