Joe Lewis. The Great White Way, 1980. Glass, mirror, stain glass, black and white photograph, and paint, 7 ½ x 8 x 1 ½" (19.1 x 20.3 x 3.8 cm). Courtesy of the artist.
I got involved with Colab because it was a group of people that I happened to know. At that time, there were not a lot of opportunities for artists, and Colab was one of the few groups actively involved in trying to make things happen.
I was also involved with Fashion Moda, so there was a lot of overlap with Colab, at least in the sense of the artistic community. Ideologically Fashion Moda was quadra-lingual with a global philosophical perspective that talked about multiculturalism before it was part of the larger conversation in the art world. Fashion Moda operated on the premise that you did not have to be in Manhattan to make art, art was not necessarily painting or drawing but seeped into all things, science, technology, etc. And anyone could make art. I am not sure that was part of the primordial ooze of Colab, even though a lot of Colab artists were feigning not being trained. In Colab there were all these different ideas. It was not unified by one philosophy. The beauty of it was that you could ask different people what Colab was and they would tell you it was different things.
There were a number of artists that were showing at Fashion Moda at the time that were also at the Times Square Show. Willie Neel comes to mind, and his painted sticks. In retrospect, I don't see Fashion Moda as being sacrosanct from Colab. It was a time when there was a lot going on and people were trying to do new things in terms of building relationships and partnerships within the artistic community. Tim Rollins & KOS, Group Material, and a number of these kinds of groups emerged from this. Artists were trying to find ways to reach out to the public. I am not sure that the TSS had anything to do with Fashion Moda other than the fact that we were all living and working in the same time and area.
In the TSS, I organized an installation with other artists. Its foundation was a large glass piece that I found on site to which I added a photo by Jules Allen and a stained glass crane from Lenny Brown. It had mirrored arrows indicating "You are here" and pointing to various objects affixed to the glass. Working with the idea that the TSS was held in a former massage parlor, the Jules Allen photo was of a hulking guy looking at a young girl whose dress is being blown up Marilyn Monroe–style, but she was about six years old. The stained-glass crane was like the phoenix rising out of the ashes. The subject matter was personal to me because I knew some underage women who worked in the sex industry. I included glass elements to allude to the fragility of life. Much of the installation was left in the space, and so as a completed artwork is no longer extant.
The TSS really was the result of a lot of activity culminating in this self-congratulatory experience. In one sense it was very "courageous," which was a word used by Jeffrey Deitch in his Art in America review. I don't think I have ever read that word in an art review before or since the TSS. A lot of things happened around the country because of that exhibition, and I think it validated a lot of the more regional art indirectly, because it showed artists taking control of their own destiny.
In this way, the TSS had a tremendous effect on the post–art school, up-and-coming art scene nationally. Following the show, I toured the country lecturing about the TSS and Fashion Moda to show people they didn't need to have a gallery to make things happen. Subsequently, Fashion Moda also partnered with organizations including Atlanta Arts Coalition, 80 Langdon Street, Galleria de la Raza, San Francisco Art Institute, The Dance Loft, Pro-Arts. To these organizations we brought a different flare, since all those places tended to have a very specific ideological approach. For example, Fashion Moda showed paintings at 80 Langdon Street—they had never done that before—they were more installation-based. In a sense, what we were doing was inserting a more global perspective into these established communities.
The TSS exposed a moment that was really new, when artists were not relying on the secondary market or established gallery scene. Even the "alternative spaces" had an elitist air to them, even if they may have been for Latinos or African-Americans. In a sense they incorporated some of the worst characteristics of the Western Canon, even though they were all serving the specific concerns of their groups. They were hard to break into. In grassroots politics, we tend to eat our young, so to speak. The TSS talked about a new agenda.
To coin a phrase: It was the best of times and it was the worst of times . . . The level of energy was unbelievable. Everyone was so energetic and involved, pounding out the work. You can do that when you don't have a family or mortgage.
Of particular relevance for me are the changes that Fashion Moda effected for some of the artists it touched. I was just in France and met with Koor and Toxic, two graffiti writers who were probably in high school when they became involved in Fashion Moda shows. Koor now lives in Belgium and speaks at least three different languages. Toxic lives in Paris and just finished a major European commission. If you look at these guys and people like Crash or Lee Quinones, that for me is the legacy of Fashion Moda: these guys who came out of some of the toughest projects in America and have made it by becoming successful and articulate artists with a world view and families. You always say you want to reach out and touch somebody and make a difference, and there it was in front of me. I was almost weeping because the outcome was so wonderful. In the early 1980s, Koor sold a piece at Fashion Moda for maybe five hundred dollars, and then a couple years later his work is in museums. That to me is the real legacy of Fashion Moda and TSS, to systemically change the lives of people.
As told to Shawna Cooper, June 11, 2012
Joe Lewis (b. 1953, New York, NY)
Joe Lewis participated in the founding of Fashion Moda, an alternative arts space in New York City's South Bronx, serving as its director from 1978 to 1982. He graduated with a BA from Hamilton College, Clinton, NY, and an MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore. Lewis has served as Dean of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts at the University of California, Irvine, since 2009.