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Cynthia Sley and Uli Rimkus Behind the Bar at Tin Pan Alley c. 1981, Photograph by Keri Pickett. Courtesy Pickett Pictures LLC
For Women’s History Month, from our newsletter archives. This has been one of our most popular newsletters, especially recently since Tin Pan Alley is featured so conspicuously in the new Nan Goldin film All The Beauty And The Bloodshed. Originally published July 15, 2021.
Best known now as the inspiration for the fictional bar Hi Hat in the television serial The Deuce, Tin Pan Alley (1978-88), located on West 49 Street in Times Square, was also an artist hangout and exhibition place. Founded by Maggie Smith in 1978 in a neighborhood where the sex industry flourished, the bar took on a new identity in summer 1980 when COLAB’s historic Times Square Show opened in an abandoned massage parlor nearby.
While Tin Pan Alley was socially mixed in every sense of the word, Smith’s policy of only hiring women made it a particularly welcoming place for the downtown women artists who became part of the scene. It is an impressive list: bartenders included artists Cara Perlman, Jane Sherry, Nan Goldin and Ulli Rimkus (later the owner of the bar Max Fish). In the kitchen were artist Kiki Smith and musician Cynthia Sley (Bush Tetras). Among the regulars were artist Jane Dickson, artist/musician Pat Place, writer Cookie Mueller, musician Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), photographer Kari Pickett, and filmmakers Bette Gordon and Sara Driver.
The first to discover the bar was Jane Sherry, a downtown artist who worked as a topless dancer in Times Square. “I ended up working at Tin Pan after I organized a brief walkout at a topless bar. When all the women returned to work, I was threatened by management. It was 12:30 at night… I didn’t know who to call so I looked up Susan Brownmiller who was the only feminist I could think of…I told her my story & that I needed a job. She put me in touch with Maggie, explaining that she worked with & hired ex-sex industry workers. I was the first downtown artist who worked at Tin Pan. I brought Maggie downtown & my friends came uptown which is how they also ended up with jobs there.”
After the Times Square Show brought artists to the area, Tin Pan Alley began scheduling their own exhibitions and performances. Gallery 98 features here color Xerox flyers for some of these events, and portraits by Cara Perlman of the bar owner Maggie Smith and others who worked there. More of Perlman’s portraits painted at the bar can be seen in our online exhibition Cara Perlman: Finger-Paint Portraits, Tin Pan Alley, 1981-82.
Tin Pan Alley, Jane Sherry, Flyer, c. 1979-1980. Size: 8.5 x 14 Inches
Jane Sherry was already working at Tin Pan Alley at the time of the Times Square Show where she screened Topless, her film collaboration with Cara Perlman. The title of this drawing by Sherry, Give Venus de Melo Back Her Arms, makes for a pressing feminist statement. It embellishes a calendar of music performances at the bar, which includes among others, downtown favorites Joe Lewis and Ned Sublette.
Tin Pan Alley, Kiki Smith, Xerox Color Flyer, 1983. Size: 8.5 x 11 inches
Kiki Smith’s Tin Pan Alley party poster shows bees busy at work. Very few of these posters were made since color Xeroxes were quite costly in the 1980s.
Tin Pan Alley, Seton Smith, Exhibition Flyer, 1985. Size: 12 x 8.5 Inches
This poster for an installation by Seton Smith is intriguing. Did she actually paint the walls at Tin Pan Alley?
Cara Perlman, Maggie Smith, 1981; finger-paint on finger-paint paper, 16 x 20 inches.
Tin Pan Alley was originally conceived by its founder Maggie Smith as a place where locals and sex workers could relax and socialize amongst themselves. Although Smith sometimes referred to herself as a “social activist,” the bar was anything but straight-laced.
Cara Perlman, Nan Goldin, 1981; finger-paint on finger-paint paper, 16 x 20 inches.
Nan Goldin worked as a bartender at Tin Pan Alley and some of the images in her famed slide-show The Ballad of Sexual Dependency were shot here. Goldin also made the publicity stills for Bette Gordon’s film Variety shot in part at Tin Pan Alley.
Cara Perlman, Kiki Smith, finger-paint on finger-paint paper, 1981, 16 x 20 Inches.
Kiki Smith was the cook at Tin Pan Alley. Like Cara Perlman who created the portraits here, Smith was a member of the artist group COLAB that organized the Times Square Show. More about Perlman’s finger-paint portraits can be found in our earlier online exhibition.