By Marc H. Miller
Young artists who arrived in New York in the 1970s confronted a depressing reality. The city teetered on bankruptcy; housing was either too expensive or too decrepit and dangerous; and the art world they hoped to conquer was in fact small, elitist, and already flooded with artists from the previous generation. Rather than succumbing to bleak prospects, artists seized the moment, reacting to the times with new forms of socially-engaged art, and creating new venues designed to expand and broaden art audiences. Distinctions between fine art and popular art were challenged; artists embraced new formats like performance and street art; and politics, sexuality, and multiculturalism moved to the foreground.
At the center of this change was Collaborative Projects Inc. (COLAB), a loosely organized group founded in 1978 to enable artists to take advantage of newly available government grants. COLAB’s ever-changing nexus of thirty to sixty artists included many who later achieved individual fame, but the group’s real contribution was the philosophy of creative engagement it advanced through collective, do-it-yourself actions: mounting exhibitions like the Manifesto Show (1979), the Real Estate Show (1980) and the Times Square Show (1980); and starting art spaces like Fashion Moda in the South Bronx (1978–93), ABC No Rio in the Lower East Side (1980–present), and the sequence of pop-up A More Stores (early 1980s). As a lens through which to understand a changing art world, COLAB is similar to an earlier artist group, Fluxus.
Gallery 98 tells the COLAB story by means of ephemera (posters, flyers, and promotional material), photographic portraits of COLAB members, and a few art multiples that illustrate the group’s populist aesthetics and political concerns. The objects were selected because they document COLAB’s history, but because they were created by significant artists, most items also have aesthetic appeal. Collecting COLAB tackles a big subject but it is in fact just a small sampling of major pieces of ephemera and art by some of the group’s best-known artists that provides an introduction to the fuller Gallery 98 inventory, which includes a large selection of works by many more artists connected with COLAB.
EXHIBITION HIGHLIGHTS: An invitation to the closing party for John Ahearn’s South Bronx Hall of Fame at Fashion Moda (1979); a sheet of Truisms in English and Spanish distributed by Jenny Holzer at her Fashion Moda show (1979); a silkscreen poster by Charlie Ahearn and Jane Dickson for the Times Square Show; flyers by Coleen Fitzgibbon and Robin Winters for the Real Estate Show; a complete set of Tom Otterness’ Zodiac Love plaster sculptures (1982-87) originally sold in COLAB stores featuring artist-made, low-priced multiples; the silkscreened poster for “ABC No Rio Island of Negative Utopia” by Kiki Smith (1983); and Tom Warren’s portfolio of COLAB artist portraits taken at the itinerant photo studios he set up at ABC No Rio and Fashion Moda.