Tom Otterness

My memory of the beginning of Colab is a funny thing. It is like being born into a family; you think everything starts when you get there. I thought I was there at the very beginning but now I find out from Coleen [Fitzgibbon] thirty years later that there was a lot of stuff I never knew about.

Things were desperate. Young artists were locked out of whatever was going on in the galleries. Everything that mattered was happening by word of mouth on the street. Mike Smith brought me to my first [Colab] meeting; he stopped going but I stayed with it.

In 1977 I had just come back from traveling around the world for a year through the Middle and Far East: Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Thailand. My understanding of the world completelfy changed. It shocked me once I finally understood how America was seen from the outside, how racist we are, how rich.

Coming back to the art world after that trip was tough. It's changed a bit now, you could say, or a lot. But at the time, I didn't like the art world. The Times Square Show was a way of getting out on the street to change that, to change the audience, to change the artists.

Working together as a group, as a gang, seemed in itself political. I think that one of the main attractions of Colab for me and for a lot of people was to expand the art world, to get out of galleries and get out of museums.  Our Cable TV shows were the first version of it and X Magazine was another.  We did anything we could to be in the real world and deal with real politics, real people. It felt important to move away from making art for the upper class, to organize ourselves, work collectively and to imagine a larger working-class audience while we made our work.

The lead-up to both the Real Estate Show and the Times Square Show were theme shows at Robin [Winters] and Coleen's downtown spaces. The Batman Show, Doctors and Dentists, the Manifesto Show, and Income and Wealth set the precedent for us. Stefan Eins had the 3 Mercer Street storefront where he would sell ten-dollar toy birds that flew. He gave me my first show in '77. After my trip I was working on the street building "sentences" with two-dimensional sign symbols.

As I remember it, when the Times Square Show got started, John [Ahearn] came to me with the idea in his head already. At that point we weren't sure exactly where it would be, and we went to look at different spaces. John had looked at other places but as soon as he showed me the 41st Street building it was kind of a lock for us.

Jane Sherry had worked around the corner as a topless dancer. By '79 she was working at Maggie Smith's Tin Pan Alley bar and that brought us up to 49th Street. Ulli [Rimkus] and Nan [Goldin] worked there later. So there were all these connections up there. Jane Dickson was already curating artist-projects for the LCD boards on Times Square. She and Charlie [Ahearn] did a three-card monte ad for TSS that ran the whole month. Later she brought in Keith [Haring] and Jenny [Holzer] in '81 or '82 to do boards up there.

The importance of the Times Square location I think goes back to the atmosphere on the street. I was doing 2D stuff on the street. Graffiti writers were out strong. To walk 42nd Street was to see pop culture at the level of three-dollar movies, blaxsploitation films, porno shops, hookers, gangs, and drugs. That was part of the subject matter of the TSS. And it allowed us to talk about the underbelly of culture.

So at that point John and I went to Coleen and began brainstorming about the idea for the show: how it could branch out, who we would call in for the initial meeting. Stefan [Eins] and Joe [Lewis] came from Fashion Moda, Mike Roddy came from White Columns, and Charlie brought in Fab 5 Freddy and his crew. There was the ABC No Rio gang with Becky [Howland], Bobby G, and Alan [Moore]. Andrea [Callard], Matthew [Geller], Cara [Perlman], Ulli [Rimkus], and Jane were all important organizers from inside Colab.

Different names were kicked around but John came up with the Times Square Show and it stuck.
Coleen was President of Colab then, and I was Vice President, so she, John, and I took the idea to a general Colab meeting. Everyone seemed excited. It passed by a big margin. The Beard's Fund came in with some money and that was it. We had the rent.

Coleen, John, Ulli, and I went to negotiate with the landlord. Coleen and Ulli took the lead, got him to agree and give us a free month's rent. The building had been a brothel with mattresses on the floor.   Our first job was to clear out the space. There was some money to do advertising so Coleen, Beth B, and Jackie [Ochs] made P.S.A.'s for TV and ads, one on 42nd Street with Alan Moore and street kids and another with Jack Smith.  Beth and Scott B got us coverage in the Voice.

I think we had a window where we could see the TSS space, maybe in April, and we did measurements. I was installing Sheetrock and doing construction for my day job at the time, so I drew up the floor plans in case we needed them. We must have had meetings before the building opened to talk about what might go where but probably a lot wasn't decided until we were in the space. It gave people a running start on doing installation work.

The first meeting at John's apartment talked about dividing the show into sections or themes. The ground-floor entrance was organized by Andrea and Mathew.  The Souvenir Shop was me and Cara.  John oversaw most of the second floor with Mary Lemley and Sophie VDT running the Fashion Room. Coleen and Ulli had the third floor and Mike Roddy brought in artists for the top floor. Jane Dickson and Jody Culkin curated work in the stairwells from the top to the bottom. Justen [Ladda] and Becky [Howland] had amazing installations in the basement and I did the outside signs that advertised the work inside. Keith [Haring] and Kenny [Scharf] came in off the street. Great energy, very young, still at SVA I think. Keith put up a wall of NY Post—style headlines, "Pope Killed by Hero Cop," just before the Pope's first visit to New York. Kenny melted small dinosaurs and Jetson toys over the AC unit and followed the ductwork through the show. Jane [Sherry] and Aline [Mayer] had a feminist room of porn collages. Peter Fend had a room of Afghani maps with a plan for redrawing political boundaries in the Middle East. David Hammons found Night Train wine bottles around the neighborhood, broke them up, and scattered them around the second floor and the stairwell. Candace Hill-Montgomery had an installation. Jamie Summers had a salt sink in the hall. There were Jane Dickson drawings all over the walls of the hallway. Jane also showed portraits on garbage bags and fans in the Souvenir Shop.

As for the Souvenir Shop, I liked the idea that it was like a museum where the real work was upstairs and then the souvenirs were downstairs. I certainly knew about Oldenburg and his Store. It is unavoidably there; but on the other hand, we were always bumbling into this stuff that we thought we were doing for the first time. We thought we were the first ones on the block with all this stuff. A lot of it is just ignorance, but I know I was aware of Oldenburg. I'm not sure how it shaped our project but it did have the feeling of it. You know, kind of grungy, lower-end…the ideas were there on the street.

If you wanted to put stuff in to the Souvenir Shop, you had to sit the shop. You could be the cashier for half a day or a day or whatever. You put your time in to keep records of everybody's sales and collect the money. The proceeds from sales went directly back to the artist . . . whatever profit there was. I remember Kiki [Smith] with her multiples. I think she probably outsold everybody. She was absolutely great. Did stuff like cut down 2 by 4s and painted cigarette packs on them. Becky had Love Canal Potatoes and hand-held plaster peaches. Jenny [Holzer] sold stacks of Truisms, Christy [Rupp] lined the shelves with plaster rats, Bobby G sold souvenir buttons. Cara sold clay sculptures of Golden Royal chickens. Keith [Haring] and Kenny [Scharf] had some great stuff in there. I remember a bunch of Business Week magazines with gay porn collaged inside. I'm pretty sure Keith made those.

Cara Perlman and I worked together on the Souvenir Shop. I was into that frame of mind from having done other multiples. In '78 I remember I first started making those cheap sculptures after seeing Rigoberto Torres's uncle, Raul. He had this big botanica shop in the Bronx. Also on the Lower East Side when we moved to Stanton Street, there were botanicas with voodoo sculptures and wax candles and all these strange things that I was into making sculptures of. Then later I saw Raul's and I thought, "Wow! This is what I want." It was a place full of molds and guys pouring and manufacturing, really making stuff. It was what you would see in a living room in the Bronx, next to a couch with a plastic cover there would be a painted leopard that cost sixty bucks or maybe it would be a little Jesus or a big Elvis. I thought, "That's what I wanna do," and that's when I first started making sculptures. So you know, it's that idea of trying to make a public sculpture that was dispersed, a big public sculpture that would be sold cheap and distributed. So it's got this big horizontal scale.

I was obsessed with what one might call outsider art. Cara and I once drove around the country all of one summer from one outsider artist's project to another. A lot came out of that for me.

TSS as public art is really that question about reaching an audience that doesn't walk into a museum. I think one of the big successes of the show was that people would walk in because they just didn't know what it was—and they weren't looking for art. A lot of people on 42nd Street were going to peep shows and porn movies, and they checked it [the TSS] out. You know, it was very hard at the time to get a racial mix in the art world, at all. So that was successful both for the people who were showing there and the people that came to view the show. And to be open twenty-four hours a day changed everything. It's one of the reasons that you didn't always know what happened, because you couldn't be there the whole time. Some felt compelled to hang around as much as possible. I don't know that I did, but that's just not my nature. I spent a bunch of time at the Souvenir Shop.

I think when people came to write about the TSS as an art show it was slanted toward the objects, but the events were big deals: Jack Smith performances, Nan Goldin's early slide shows, early Jim Jarmusch films, Scott and Beth B's films . . . the whole punk film scene. There was Bobby G's sandwich-board strip tease and Mary Lemley and Sophie VDT with the fashion scene. [Jean-Michel] Basquiat hung out there and did early abstract painting and Samo-writing on the walls.

Probably the most radical artwork in the whole show was when Basquiat wrote "Free Sex" across the entrance. Tragically one of the other artists wiped it out the same night. That was how things worked then. It's the downside of an artist-curated show.

For me one of the results of the TSS was meeting Brooke Alexander. He went through the whole show piece by piece. Coleen was with him, and he really looked at everything. He jumped on board and became one of Colab's main supporters.

At the time, there were plenty who had that chip on the shoulder, fuck you thing going on, and I think people understood it that way and it came through in the art. I think within the art-world context the TSS was against art about art. TSS was an event that could only happen through a large collective effort. It was amazing that so many of us from all over the city could manage to get together and pull this off. Definitely that drive to get out of the art world . . . to bring content back in and to bring in a kind of visual language that the average person could understand, read, and speak. It wasn't a language that was above everybody, because you didn't have to have a fine arts degree to get it.

As told to Shawna Cooper, August 16, 2011

Tom Otterness (b. 1952, Wichita, KS)
Tom Otterness attended the Art Students League, New York City, and participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program in 1973. He served as Vice President of Colab from 1980 to 1981. He exhibited at New York City venues throughout the 1980s including Artists Space, Brooke Alexander Gallery, the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, P.S. 1, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Additional information is available at

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