May 2010

Interview with Marc H. Miller | Artist, Writer, & Curator

 

In 1968 Marc H. Miller moved to New York from California and spent the next two decades perched above the Bowery on the top floor of an artist occupied loft building.  As a conceptual artist and columnist for the seminal underground newspaper, The East Village Eye, Marc immersed himself in the vie de boheme of the flourishing downtown art and music scene. 

A little over a year ago, Marc set up the web project 98 Bowery, a work in progress that shares a unique perspective of a lifestyle, that for over 20 years, drove a spike straight through the heart of New York’s counterculture.   The stories on the site are told through a curated selection of archival photographs, ephemera, audio recordings and original artwork that enthusiastically capture the rebellious and playful spirit of one of the most respected and influential creative periods in New York’s history.

Recently, Marc added an online version of ABC No Rio Dinero:  The Story of a Lower East Side Art Gallery, a 200-page book that “provides a contemporaneous, grass-roots account of artists, groups, and ideas at the onset of the art boom of the 1980s.”

The book, originally published in 1985, focuses on the first 5 years of the LES gallery and interactive community-based space, as well as the broader collective art scene that were pioneered by groups like COLAB and Fashion/Moda.

 

 

RINY: When and why did you first come to the Bowery?

MM: I moved to New York in 1968 to get a graduate degree in art history at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts.  The Institute was located in the Doris Duke mansion” at 78th St and Fifth Avenue and most of the students who went there lived uptown.  It was a formal, old fashion place dominated by aged German professors and quaint rituals like Friday afternoon teas.  I was a “hippie” from California; definitely more “downtown” by inclination and finances.  My first apartment was in a run-down tenement building on Thompson Street in the Village that cost $64 a month.  It was a tiny, cramped studio where visitors from California who were accustomed to much more spacious interiors, were always knocking things over.  When my girl-friend from California, Carla Dee Ellis, moved to New York, we definitely had to find larger quarters.  Fate was kind.  An artist friend had just leased the top floor loft at 98 Bowery, but when delays in legalizing the space kept preventing him from moving in, he lost patience and returned to the west coast.  The Bowery was New York’s skid row dominated by alcoholics and homeless men sleeping on the street.  It was an intimidating place and because of that the rent was cheap: 2000 sq. ft for $175.  Carla was a painter and the space was the attraction. But we soon discovered that the loft would also be our entry into a community of artists and bohemians who lived almost invisibly on the upper floors of the Bowery’s commercial buildings.  Carla returned to California in a few years but I stayed at 98 Bowery for the next twenty.  My life as an artist, curator and writer would be intertwined with people from the building and the neighborhood.

RINY: What was the downtown scene like at this point?

MM: When I first came to New York in 1968, the art scene as it had developed in the 1960s was peaking and ready to go through a major transition.  The baby boomers and the counter-culture were knocking at the door, breaking down distinctions between high and low art, and demanding their time in the spotlight.  Downtown was a big party with artists, musicians, writers, dancers, performers and scenesters all intermixed.  98 Bowery was mostly young visual artists who had just come to New York.  Next door at 96 Bowery there were jazz musicians and a young actress who performed in “Hair’ and “Jesus Christ Superstar.”  I knew art historians and critics through the Institute.  When Carla began modeling, our circle expanded to include fashion photographers. There was little distinction between business networking and social networking.  Galleries had just started relocating to Soho.  Openings took place on Saturdays.  You could always learn the location of downtown parties at the bar on the corner of Broome and West Broadway.  

 

  

  

The looming giant of the scene was Andy Warhol.  But there was also the Fluxus group that staged large outdoor avant-garde festivals each year and initiated a constant stream of extreme art, music and performance events.  The art world was small and seemed accessible but in truth it was very tight and closed.  Only a few galleries like OK Harris were truly open to young artists.  What I witnessed over the years was the development of an alternative art scene: young artists banding together doing their own thing and establishing their own venues and outlets.  Many of these artists were part of the artist group “Colab.” By the 1990s this new generation had taken over. 

 

  

  

 

RINY:  You recently set up the website 98bowery.com.  What enticed you to re-visit your work and the Bowery scene after all these years?

MM:  Life moves on.  In 1989 I got married, left the Bowery for Park Slope and had two kids.   Then a couple of years ago, I was in the process of moving again and confronted all the boxes from the 20 years I lived on the Bowery.  The website literally came to me all at once. I knew exactly what I wanted to put on it and how it should be structured.  The next day I registered the domain name 98bowery.com.  It got going a few months later when I met a young web designer, Haoyan of America.

 

  

MM: The impulse for the site is partly rooted in my competitive spirit and desire to tell the story of these years from my perspective.  Mostly though, I’m motivated by a love for the things on the site.  I really enjoy revisiting the images and stories.   I had a pretty good run from 1969 to 1989.  As an artist and curator I was close to the scene and knew some very talented people.  There’s a lot on the site.  It resurrects forgotten talents like Mike Malloy whose ant killing machine got me started as an artist.  I get to share memories about well-known people like poet laureate Billy Collins, who often visited 98 Bowery in the early 1970s. It also allows me to put my own art back out there.  I’ve found that conceptual art often works better online then as wall pieces.  There’s a large audience on the web for the projective drawing pieces where people drew genitalia, pictures of Jesus, and “Unforgettable Moments” (a collaboration with Bettie Ringma).  

 

Poetry by Billy Collins

  

  

MM:  I still get a big kick from the “paparazzi self-portraits” that I did with Bettie Ringma and Curt Hoppe.  What started as a game of getting snapshots with celebrities developed into elaborate multi-media productions with Curt making large photo-realist paintings after the photos and Paul Tschinkel videotaping the celebrities autographing the paintings.  I laugh every time I see the tape “Bettie meets Congresswoman Bella Abzug.”  Bella was an outspoken, no bullshit, New York politician. She was flattered by our attention but saw right away that there was humor there.  The tape is very tight.  Bettie got her women celebrity; and Curt got to act out a bit.  Paul caught all the action, keeping the camera going and zooming in on details just like he did taping rock concerts. 

 

  

  

 

 

 

RINY: You’ve also been putting up online versions of some of the publications and catalogues you produced back in the late 1970s and 80s...

MM:  The first publication that I put online was the catalogue for the Punk Art Show at the Washington Project for the Arts in DC that Bettie and I organized for Alice Denney in 1978.  That show and a related one-night, multi-media, performance event at the School of Visual Arts in New York that took place a few months later had real impact at the time. They were the first shows that brought together the many visual artists who were part of the scene at CBGB during the period when the club was at its creative height.  The catalogue contains interviews and preserves a moment that affected much that happened in art over the following decade. Almost all these artists still have an art world presence: some in galleries and museums; some in commercial art fields.  I think a thousand catalogues were originally printed.  Now nearly that many people are viewing the online version every week. 

 

  

  

RINY: Recently you posted an online version of ABC No Rio Dinero: The Story of a Lower East Side Art Gallery that you co-edited with Alan Moore back in 1985.  For those of us who don’t know ABC No Rio, can you explain what it is and tell us a little bit about the book?

 

MM:  Alan Moore use to live at 98 Bowery and was one of the founders of Collaborative Projects Inc, an innovation group of artist known as “Colab.”  Alan was one of the contributors to the Colab publication X Magazine which was part of the Punk Art show in Washington DC.  He was also one of the leaders of the “Real Estate Show,” an aggressive, political exhibition that took place in an abandoned, city-owned building that artists broke into on New Year’s Eve 1980.  ABC No Rio was the unplanned progeny of the Real Estate show.  In order to quell the demonstrations that erupted after the police shut down the show, the city offered the artists temporary use of a nearby building and that building became ABC No Rio.  The book tells the story of the early years of the gallery as well as the broader story of the socially-committed art scene that it was a part of in the 1980s.  There are sections on Colab, the South Bronx gallery Fashion-Moda, Group Material and the Time Square Show.  Kiki Smith, Tom Otterness, and Tim Rollins are some of the featured artists.

Nobody thought that No Rio would survive, but amazingly it is still going today 30 years later without ever compromising its radical agenda.  The gallery is located at 156 Rivington Street and is about to begin the construction of a new facility having recently received $1.6 million in city funds and a totally unexplained anonymous donation of $1 million!  It’s sort of an ironic fairy tale: the little art space that could. 

 

  

  

  

  

RINY:  What music do you listen to? 

MM:  I always have music on and I listen to everything. I get excited about new things and then bored.  My taste is constantly changing.  Recently a friend has been taking me to a lot of New Music concerts at places like Le Poisson Rouge.  To be honest much of it is hard to take but every once in a while something is interesting.  A few months back I saw Charles Spearin’s “Happiness Project.”  He tape-recorded people talking about happiness and then composed music that imitated the cadence and pitch.  It’s a bit like will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” after Obama’s speech, but more extreme.

 

 

MM:  When I first arrived in New York in the late 1960s, I got to see Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore East, Sun Ra at Slugs, and the Stooges and MC5 at a theater in Staten Island.  In the early 1970s I spent a lot of time in Washington DC and was into Al Green and Barry White.  In the late 1970s I was at CBGB three or four times a week.  I bought singles by the Ramones, Richard Hell and Talking Heads at Bleecker Bob’s Record Store; and was a big fan of the groups connected to the art scene like Suicide and the Contortions.  In the 1980’s I taught at St. John’s University and had a desk next to a music professor who taught a course in movie soundtracks.  Suddenly that was all I was listening to.  I especially liked Italian soundtrack composers like Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota.  In the 90s I was frequently down south and listened to Country radio.  I love songs with good stories like LeAnn Womack’s “20 Years and Two Husbands Ago” and Toby Keith’s “Not as Good as I Once Was.”  Four Cd’s that I’m currently thinking about since I recently lost them when I left them in a rental car during a trip to Arizona are “The Best of Fela Kuti,” “Reggeaton Hits  1985,”  “Yo Yo Ma Brazil,” and the soundtrack “Run Lola Run.” I play a lot of African music like the soundtrack for “Tsotsi” and the compilation “Kwaito: South African Hip Hop.”  Recently I started using Hypem.com which gives you access to all sorts of music for free.  Anyone can check out exactly what I’ve been listening to here.

 

 

 

RINY:  Who are some of the artists who inspire you?

MM: I like art that not only reflects reality but can actually grab hold of it and mold it.  I love the way Andy Warhol started out as a star-struck kid and ultimately was able to bring all the stars to the Factory through his art, films and his magazine Interview.  Hugh Hefner did the same thing starting out as a cartoonist and then fulfilling his fantasies by creatively expressing them in Playboy.  I’m not necessarily a big fan of Shepard Fairey but I do admire the way his Obama portrait got interjected into the campaign. 

 

MM: More generally I admire illustrators who have a distinctive style and are able to channel their own life and passions through commercial assignments.  One of the best is David Stone Martin, who is best known as a pioneer of record cover design in the 1940s.  What really intrigues me about him is how his full career reads like a personal diary and a record of American culture from the 1930s to the 1970.  His art covers the Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal, World War II, leftist politics, bohemian New York, the McCarthy era, and suburban culture.  I’ve always been fascinated by his affair with the jazz great Mary Lou Williams whom he met at the nightclub Cafe Society in the 1940s.  She was the one who got him started designing record albums.  Their affair was short-lived but they stayed close their entire lives.  He did some amazing covers for her in the 1960s when she was zealously promoting jazz as a spiritual force.
(NOTE:  You can get images at ephemerapress.com

 

 

 

RINY:  What does New York really need now?

MM: New York already has everything.  You just have to know what you want.  Having witnessed some things over the years I can relay some words of wisdom.  I remember interviewing photographer Marcia Resnick for the Punk Art catalogue and she talked about two seemingly contradictory impulses that were then in play: the anarchistic and the fascistic.  Creativity needs both these impulses.  Anarchism breaks things down and shuffles up the way we think. Fascism prioritizes things and imposes order.  You need rules in order to break them and create new things.
 

 

For more on Marc and his projects visit 98Bowery.com