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Oh What FUN! Excerpts From Gallerist Patti Astor's New Memoir

Patti Astor moved to New York from Ohio in the late '60s with the intention of attending Barnard. Instead, she dropped out, became active in the anti-war movement and went on to be crowned the Queen of Downtown. Today, she is best known as the star of Charlie Ahearn's Wild Style, a seminal film in which Astor played a reporter who introduces uptown hip-hop culture to the downtown art world. Life imitated art when Astor founded FUN Gallery with art dealer Bill Stelling in 1981. FUN Gallery, located on East 10th Street in the East Village, was a place where neighborhood kids, downtown artists, b-boys, rock, film and rap stars mixed with museum directors, art historians and uptown collectors at wild openings featuring artists like Futura, Fab 5 Freddy, Lee Quiñones, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Now living in Los Angeles, Astor has written a memoir that retains the unmistakable Astor voice, both coquettish and cutting, and captures that very heady moment in downtown New York history. Here we've excerpted a portion of her self-published tome, FUN Gallery...The True Story, available for purchase at thefungallery.com. -- David Hershkovits

Fun Before Fun
My first official art event took place when Futura offered to give me a painting. I was living on East 3rd St., and suggested he do a mural in the apartment instead. 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.

Of course, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Fab 5, 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!! Delicately picking their way through the heaped up garbage cans, Diego and Jeffrey were heading to the door. We all cracked up. Soon I was handing ribs to the art buyer for Citibank!

The Fun Begins
Oh, and the beginning of the FUN Gallery! It was all an accident! Our gallery was going to be an artists' gallery as opposed to the moneyed enclaves to the south in SoHo, so I decided that each artist could give their own name to our as yet un-named space. Kenny came up with the "FUN Gallery" and it was so stupid we let it stick. One thing was for sure... the art world would never be the same.

Our first hint of the big time came during Fab's [Fred "Fab 5 Freddy" Brathwaite] show. I was sitting alone in the gallery one afternoon when this gigantic limo pulled up out front and in strolled this suave European type with a beautiful babe on each arm. His name was Bruno Bischofberger and he looked just like the James Bond villain "Goldfinger." I found out later from artist Arch Connelly that he was "the second biggest collector in the world after Count Panza."

Bruno pulled out all these index cards and began to interrogate me: Who did I think were the best graffiti artists? What did I think of Basquiat? What were my plans?

Keith-Signs-for-FriendsPattiAstor.jpgSlut For Art
As you may imagine, with all of these parties and handsome young men around, my love life, in the last moments before the AIDS plague descended, was spectacular. The tag that Tseng Kwong Chi put on my black-lit mini-dress, "Slut For Art," was probably well deserved. I had affairs with Fred, Futura and Jean-Michel. In the end, it was Kiely Jenkins with whom I would fall in love and spend the next four years.

It was fitting that our final show of FUN's first year was with the most revered graffiti artist of all, Lee Quiñones. Right before Lee's show Rene Ricard announced his intention to do his next Artforum article on the FUN Gallery and Lee's work. In the piece, entitled "The Pledge Of Allegiance," Ricard used a quote from one of my favorite movies, Morocco, with Marlene Dietrich: "There's a foreign legion of women too. But we have no uniforms -- no flags -- and no medals when we are brave." Soon after this, Miss Dietrich sets out into the Sahara in her high heels after her man, Legionnaire Gary Cooper. I would have done exactly the same thing.

The Battle of the Pumpkins
Saturday was the big hang-out day before going out to the night's round of openings and parties. [On one Saturday night in October] I got pumpkins and knives for everyone and a suitable mix of homeboys and famous artists got started. Then Julian Schnabel pulled up in his big shiny Bentley convertible. With his cashmere overcoat, big cigar and air of droit de seigneur as he entered the gallery, Julian came in and took a snotty look around and then remarked to everyone what a travesty it was that I was being so sacrilegious as to have this frivolous activity going on in the inner sanctum of the gallery.

This remark was greeted by a pointed silence because pumpkin-carving had become a grand prix event. As soon as Julian realized no one cared what he thought, he whipped off his coat, commandeered the biggest pumpkin for himself and set to work.

Jean-Michel showed up a little later on. In his brilliant rise to success, he had made a bundle and by this time dressed in expensive dark designer suits and always had an entourage of at least one main toady with him, at that moment Stephen Torton, with whom he shared his drug (at that time, coke) habit. They styled around in an early '50s dark Chevy coupe.

Jean ended up stealing Julian's pumpkin that night and set off an art world furor! Julian was outraged because he had been planning to have it bronzed. (He was serious.) The pumpkin remained elusive over the next two days as a "pumpkin celebre" -- it roamed from Odeon to Leo Castelli Gallery to Area.

Sticker-from-Wild-StylePattiAstor.jpgBasquiat, The Difficult, With Guest Appearance By Paul Simon
In anticipation of Jean's "back to bohemia" debut at the FUN, Jean and his minions loaded all the artwork in and he began an around-the-clock vigil fueled by huge lines of coke and giant spliffs of premium Hawaiian weed. Still dressed in his Armani suit, he wandered around the gallery barefoot with a paintbrush and a jar of black acrylic paint doing touch-ups until dawn.

The opening was the usual mayhem, enlivened by the presence of rock star Paul Simon. I was embarrassed to find out he was being followed around the gallery by the local homeboys humming "parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme." I grabbed their scrawny little arms and told them to cool it. One great painting in the show caught Paul Simon's interest. We were all ready to sell him "St. Joe Louis Surrounded By Snakes" for the thrilling price of $8,000 when Rene Ricard burst out in a hysterical screaming fit that Jean had promised him that painting! If we sold it, we would be traitors after everything he (Rene!) had done (for us!) and he would throw himself out in the street (right away!) and be run over by a car (!!!) which, he proceeded to demonstrate, followed by a deafening screech of brakes from outside. This kind of put a damper on that particular transaction and Paul Simon left without buying anything.

Jean was seeing the young singer Madonna at the time and they spent most of the night huddled in corners having a hissing vituperative fight. At one point Bill Stelling and I were trapped in the tiny closet we grandly called "our back room." We had retreated there to do a couple lines of coke and get away from the mob. JM and Madonna were leaning against the door arguing and we heard the whole thing. She had given a huge party in Jean-Michel's loft while he was out of town, telling everyone it was hers and letting them drink all his booze. He was furious. Madonna was well known on the scene as a total slut. Madonna's claim to fame, besides her hit song "Holiday," was the blow-jobs she would give in the men's bathroom. Still, I guess it paid off for her.

Photo 1: Futura and Astor in front of Futura's "Fresh" mural at their "Art Opening and Barbecue," 1981 © Anita Rosenberg

Photo 2: Keith Haring signs autographs for his fans in 1983

Photo 3: Sticker from the infamous "Wild Style" Japan tour in 1983, photo by Martha Cooper

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