Justen Ladda. Installation view of square times, 1980. Courtesy of the artist.
I moved to Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side in July 1978, at a time when the neighborhood was very sparsely populated, and close to half the buildings were abandoned and in ruins. The Times Square Show was the first Colab-sponsored show I was part of.
At the time of the TSS, I was still a student at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and experimenting with the idea of one-point perspective painting in my work. I have always been interested in cave paintings. In square times, the piece I did for the TSS, the one-point perspective and cave painting ideas came together. Feminism was a much-discussed subject at the time. I had arrived in this country from West Germany and was mystified by the way women and men related in New York, quite differently from what I was used to from Europe. It appeared to me that sex was a dirty thing here and women and men natural enemies. I grew up believing that sex was one of the most beautiful things on earth, a way to communicate through feelings and beyond language. Wandering around Times Square at the time or just listening to conversations among men, I was shocked by how women were practically reduced to holes.
Those thoughts fed into my installation square times. The model for the piece was Teresa Cousar, a dear friend and dancer with the Urban Bush Women who modeled for me all through the 80s. I wanted the image of the woman in the piece to convey a sense of self-protection by making her draw that magic circle around herself to hold back the cave men. I covered the walls and ceiling with my black handprints and the floor with my white footprints.
As for the placement of the square times piece, I always liked basements, so I asked to have the basement for the installation. I didn't know that many people thought of dead bodies and creepy things when it came to New York City basements. That's why some never went down there to see the work. The TSS basement had a cave-like quality: It was damp, dark, really smelled like a cave, and was completely rat-infested.
I met a lot of wonderful people at that show, many who became dear friends. I probably met more artists of my generation there than in any other show. It was not just that we worked together to install but we also hung out together during the exhibition. I remember it as a very friendly, fun time. During the show the greatest variety of people came by: art people, random tourists, people who worked in the neighborhood, hookers and pimps, you name it. Times Square was a great location for that type of show. It made total sense for it to be there.
I remember the night Jack Smith, some truly insane guy whose name I have forgotten, and I pasted up posters for the show all over the Lower East Side. That was one great poster, designed by Jane Dickson, and big too! We ended up running out of wheat paste and went to Jack's house to mix up a concoction of flour and water that he claimed would work just as well. It came out very lumpy, and I remember Jack saying it looked like "teenage pizza vomit"!
Jack performed at the TSS. It was his first performance in a long time and word of it spread like wildfire. The performance space was not that big, maybe forty by thirty feet—if that. There was a huge crowd and many couldn't get in. It started much later than planned, because Jack had lost one of his shoes and refused to go on before he found it. Everybody was searching the place, it took forever before someone finally found it. There wasn't really much of a narrative in Jack's performances, it was more like watching him go about his life with him once in a while reading some text he had written. He left much of what went on to chance, which made his work so unusual. Many people found it boring, because it often seemed that nothing was happening.
For this performance, Jack had picked up two hookers in Times Square to be part of the show. He wore a caftan and turban. The "set" had a faux-oriental theme (as did all of his other sets that I saw), his version of A Thousand and One Nights. Jack had great taste in music and a fantastic record collection. That night he played a lot of old Hollywood movie soundtracks and stuff you'd imagine would be the background music in a harem. The two women were lounging around and seemed at ease even though they had obviously no idea what was happening. They had no script and I wonder what kind of instructions Jack had given them, if any. At some point he bent over to light a fistful of incense sticks and didn't realize that his turban had caught on fire. It was burning slowly with a small flame. Jack had no idea what was happening. No words were spoken. One of the hookers got up and went over to him and began hitting the turban to put out the fire. Jack seemed dumbfounded but didn't say anything. This was probably the most dynamic part of the show. As the performance went on, more and more people left and at the end there were maybe fifteen people watching. I loved every moment of it.
As told to Shawna Cooper, January 20, 2012
Justen Ladda (b. 1953, Buettgen, Germany)
Justen Ladda works in painting, sculpture, installation, photography, and public art. He has lived in New York City since moving there in 1978. Throughout the 1980s he exhibited work at New York City locations including ABC No Rio, Artists Space, Extra Place, P.S. 37, the Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, and Willard Gallery. From 1986 to 1991 he created a permanent public project at P.S. 7 in the Bronx, designing the color scheme of the interior and executing four mosaics and two sculptures, for which he won the 1992 Art Commission Award for Excellence in Design. Additional information is available at http://justenladda.com/.