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How The Times Square Show Changed The New York Art World in 1980

  • The venue of the Times Square Show, 1980
December 30, 2018
A philosophy graduate interested in critical theory, politics and art. Alias of Jelena Martinović.

In the 1980s, the city of New York was burned-out, nearly bankrupt and destroyed. Before it became a tourist trap, the Times Square was dirty and dangerous, with the sex market and drug trade thriving in the area. This was the backdrop of a much-discussed landmark in the development of art in New York City – The Times Square Show. Organized by Collaborative Projects, Inc. in 1980 at what was once a massage parlor, it brought together over 100 artists who were trying to pull art out of the galleries and set out onto the street. An underbelly of New York City culture, Times Square seemed a perfect place for that.

With now-famous participants such as Jenny Holzer, Nan Goldin, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Kiki Smith, the roster of the exhibition reads like a who’s who of the art world. But back then, the majority of these artists were at the beginning of their careers; as a matter of fact, this was Basquiat’s first show as both the graffitist SAMO and a painter.

Tom Otterness at the Times Square Show., Charlie Ahearn poster over C Fitzgibbon and R Winters wallpaper, 1980.
Left: Tom Otterness at the Times Square Show. Photograph by Francine Keery. Courtesy of Colab, Inc / Right: The Times Square Show, Charlie Ahearn poster over C Fitzgibbon and R Winters wallpaper, 1980. Photograph by Francine Keery. Courtesy of Colab, Inc

The Times Square Show

A raucous and revolutionary DIY art exhibition held in an abandoned massage parlor on 41st Street and Seventh Avenue, The Times Square Show was organized by Collaborative Projects, Inc., an avant-garde artist collective operating since 1977 to present day. Distinguished by its politically engaged open membership and the raw energy of its members, the Colab organized this large open exhibition near the epicenter of New York’s entertainment and pornography district, producing it in collaboration with Bronx-based Fashion Moda.

With this playful experimentation that the Times Square Show was, artists sought to democratize art by bringing it to New York’s less desirable areas. The absolute crossroads and central to everyone, the Times Square gave artists and other younger people almost free reign to create and curate as they pleased. The Times Square Show was organized by John Ahearn, the famous sculptor and Colab initiator who spotted the location on a Times Square jaunt with the artist Tom Otterness. Showcasing the work of over 100 up and coming artists who came from various backgrounds, this exhibition reflected the intense giddy energy in New York at that moment. In addition to experimental painting and sculpture, it featured music, fashion, and an ambitious program of performance and video on view.

Times Square Show PSA

The Legacy

Many of the artists at the exhibition were not thinking in macro terms at the time, not being fully aware of this singular, seminal moment in New York art history and its long-term art historical significance. Collaborative, self-curated, and self-generated, this seminal group exhibition transcended trappings of class and cultures. Using the vehicle of creativity, it brought together people who would not necessarily come together under any other circumstance.

On the occasion of the show, the initiator John Ahearn told the East Village Eye:

Times Square is a crossroads. A lot of different kinds of people come through here. There is a broad spectrum, and we are trying to communicate with society at large.[…] There has always been a misdirected consciousness that art belongs to a certain class or intelligence. This show proves there are no classes in art, no differentiation.

The exhibition was the moment where things started to diverge. It was a culmination of the idea pursued by artists involved with Colab to put themselves, their work and their living and working practice on the boulevards. It also introduced the art world to a new generation of artists, many of whom had been soon mine by uptown galleries which had moved their galleries to SoHo and began to take over the art world during the 1980s. It also saw artists exploring the ideas around forming corporations and collective-type practices to make work and highlighted the DIY practices which are now pervasive. It jump-started a prolific decade of art-making in New York, and the United States at large.

times square show revisited 2012
Times Square Show Revisited in 2012 at The Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery/The Times Square Gallery

Revisiting The 1980 Times Square Show

In 2012, the Hunter College Art Galleries revived this landmark show, providing an in-depth look at it and highlighting its influence on the New York art scene and contemporary art at large. Titled Times Square Show Revisited, it brought together works by more than 40 artists which took part in the original exhibition, including Charlie Ahearn, Josh Baer, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer, Kenny Scharf, and Diane Torr.

The showcase reflected the spirit of the original exposition with a mix of extant sculpture, painting, and video—most of which has not been on public view since 1980, but it also featured rarely-seen photography, archival material, and ephemera documenting the crucial role of performance, fashion, and music at the Times Square Show. The audience had a chance to revisit and learn about the show which served as a forum for the exchange of ideas, a testing-ground for work in progress, and a catalyst for exploring new artistic directions.

Looking back at the Times Square ShowJosh Baer, the artist who was involved in the original show, stated for the Interview Magazine:

The main thing is to not be nostalgic. It was a down-and-dirty show, with down-and-dirty organization, and that was probably why it was good.

Featured images: The venue of the Times Square Show, 1980. Photograph by Francine Keery. Courtesy of Colab, Inc.