‘QUEEN OF THE DOWNTOWN SCENE’: Interview with Patti Astor, former co-owner of FUN Gallery

Mar 3, 2014 9:14PM

From 1981-1985, FUN Gallery was a fixture on the downtown scene in New York City, which was home to legendary punk venues such as CBGBs and the Mudd Club. Patti Astor, who ran the gallery with Bill Stelling, says, “You have to picture how the East Village was then. It was like Dresden.”

In her recent book, FUN Gallery…The True Story, Astor recounts her time with artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Futura, Kenny Scharf, and Fab 5 Freddy, among others. In advance of our online-only sale, entitled, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Works from the Collection of Alexis Adler, featuring 41 works from 1979-80, we caught up with Astor to talk about her gallery, the early days of street art, and her memories of Basquiat.

What was the biggest myth about the East Village art scene?

Well, I think the greatest myth is that it was even better than it sounds! [laughs] One, we were all making everything up, and we felt like we could just do anything, and I think you just get these very special periods, like Paris in the ‘20s, New York in the ‘50s, and San Francisco with the whole Kerouac beatnik thing. And I think we were just really lucky, and this was one of those unique times. Once they’re gone, you’re never going to get that again.

FUN Gallery seems like it was 180 degrees from what other galleries were doing at the time. 

The FUN Gallery came out of punk rock. I’m a punk rocker. When I first moved to the East Village in 1975, ’76, we were all punk rockers. Something else people don’t recognize is how small the scene was when we first started. There was one club, it was CBGBs. I didn’t meet Fred [Brathwaite, aka Fab 5 Freddy] until end of ’80, beginning of ’81.

The East Village was so burned out, you didn’t really want to hang out in your apartment. We were in the streets. Also, it was such an exploding, pioneering scene so everybody was supportive of each other, really encouraging. Things were moving very quickly so you wanted to be near the heartbeat.

Collectivity seems like a big part of the gallery.

It came out of that DIY ethic. Okay, we don’t have any money, but that doesn’t matter. We still want to do this, so how can we do this, you know? That’s why the whole uptown hip-hop scenario/downtown punk rock synthesis started. There’s not that much difference between making a Super 8 jungle movie in Central Park and hooking up your sound system to the streetlamp so you can get free power. We really understood each other on that level.

The downtown / uptown divisions were so interesting to read about, since Manhattan has changed so much since then.

That’s why I felt like I had to do the book, to save that moment. I mean, so many people are gone. When I did Art in the Streets [at MOCA] and put together the Old School Room [in the reconstructed FUN Gallery], over half the guys were gone.

People say, ‘Why don’t you do the FUN Gallery again’? Well, I don’t think Keith [Haring] or Jean-Michel or Dondi [White] are going to walk through my door again.

This is what I love about seeing Alexis [Adler]’s collection, how she was able to keep it all together. You get that real feeling of what he was really like.

You know, Jean-Michel hit so quickly. He was just a kid! When I first met him on the stairs of the Mudd Club, and was teasing him on his weird hairdo, and flirting with him a little bit. I had no idea who he was. But I was doing the math here, and at ’78, I was 28––he was eighteen!

Did you ever second-guess yourself when you started the gallery?

 People ask me, ‘Did you know you were making history? You know what? We didn’t even have time to think about it. The roof collapsed right before Kenny Scharf’s opening. My partner Bill Stelling and I were just like, ‘Oh, okay, well, we don’t have time to clean that up right now, so we’re just going to have to leave it there.’ People thought it was a great installation. I mean, everything was going so quickly. People were very young, there was so much great energy.

Lee Quinones said, ‘We didn’t know we were making history, we were art history.”  That’s what makes this time so valuable. We were all so innocent. You see that innocent thing, but you also see the beginning motifs in these guys’ work. With Jean-Michel, you see ‘MILK’, you see the crown, the heart, Keith [Haring] started with the babies. You just see these develop through their lives.

Could you tell us more about the scene?

In the ‘70s, we went down to Soho for the free drinks, and to see if we could see any of the Warhol stars. But the openings and the artwork were so boring. It was white wine, white walls, and white people.

In the East Village there was the punk scene, and then the beyond low-budget No Wave films, that was sort of Mudd Club centered, and then there was the art explosion, and then the hip-hop guys came out.

The Beyond Words show, where Keith [Haring] got Futura and Fab 5 Freddy to curate at the Mudd Club––it was the first time that downtown met uptown. Afrika Bambaataa was the DJ.  That was the first time I saw Jean’s artwork. It was this really simple charcoal on newsprint paper drawing, Flats Fix. I just looked at that and said, ‘This guy is a genius.’ 

What were some issues facing Basquiat at the time?

His heroes were Sugar Ray Robinson, [John] Coltrane and [Charlie] Parker—he knew he was going to have to take that burden. He didn’t want to. Nobody would want to be “the first black artist” on that scale. Now there’s a whole generation of artists of color that are doing really well, and you know, Jean really paved the way for them. He took the hits for that. That was a psychic burden.

What’s a memory or moment with Jean-Michel you’ll always keep with you? 

I think a great memory was when Jean-Michel was installing his show at the FUN Gallery and walking around with a jar of acrylic paint and a brush, fixing up paintings at the last minute, at three in the morning. We’d all been up for, like, three days!

I’m going to get emotional here. I just remember him as a hero. I remember him always being fearless, with this sunny smile. He was somebody who always got my anti-establishment antics. I just remember him ready to change the world, and he did.  

Christie’s is selling Jean-Michel Basquiat’s in an online-only auction, running from March 3-17, 2014. (Click here for more details.) For more on this and other online-only auctions at Christie’s, see www.christies.com/onlineonly.

Patti Astor on the phone at FUN Gallery with Keith Haring signing autographs. Image courtesy of Martha Cooper.

(2) Patti Astor with Dondi White at his opening at FUN Gallery. Jean-Michel can be seen through the doorway. Image courtesy of Martha Cooper.

(3) FUN Gallery Invite for Jean-Michel Basquiat's show, Nov. '82, Color Xerox. Image courtesy of Patti Astor.