Interview with José-Ricardo Presman: How did we get here?
José-Ricardo Presman is a founding member of the Amos Eno Gallery artist cooperative. It has been 45 years since the first exhibition at Amos Eno Gallery, so we wanted to ask José some questions to get insights into the early days and what it took to organize an alternative to the commercial gallery scene. Read on for tales of 70's Soho and the changing art scene in New York City.
Amos Eno Gallery: José, you were a founding member at Amos Eno Gallery and have been showing there since the 70’s. How did you come together with the other co-founders to form the gallery?
José Presman: Until the early 1970's Rutgers University and Douglass College in New Brunswick, NJ were all-male and all-female respectively. Both had art departments, although Rutgers University didn't yet offer a BFA program. Art students from both schools crossed town and attended what became co-ed classes for the first time. My classes at Douglass College were in the graduate program with British artist Peter Stroud during my undergraduate years at Rutgers.Philip Orenstein was (I believe) assistant teacher at Rutgers and Billie Picard-Pritchard was art professor at Rutgers. Both were co-founders along with art students Elizabeth Ayer, Eva Bouzard and myself. Along with Emily Hixon and 1 or 2 others, we met at Philip Orenstein's house to chip in $50 each until we found a raw space in SoHo. (Most spaces then were abandoned warehouses, as was our first space).
The founding members were all young, emerging artists (Billie Pritchard, my art professor for 3 years was the oldest at 46 years old). All others were in their 20's and 30's. Many artists emerged from the late 60's and early 70's from the NY/NJ area and there were only a handful of art galleries available downtown, and they were for the most part commercial. AIR and SOHO 20, two all-women co-op galleries were established months before us.
Uptown galleries were out of the question for exhibiting. Billie Pritchard, a French-American artist was my undergraduate thesis art professor (only BA's were available) and Philip Orenstein allowed me to sit in on his art classes, although I wasn't officially enrolled in them. These two artists I knew personally. All the other original members I met in later meetings and while clearing out the trashed, filthy basement space at 85 Mercer St, while we constructed the walls, swept and painted the floors, and painted the whole gallery (a space about 4-5 times larger than the space we now occupy). The rest of the 18 members exhibiting at our inaugural show were other art teachers, friends and art students such as Judith Ostrowitz, a fellow Pratt graduate student.
AEG: Being there at the beginning of the gallery and the Soho arts scene sounds inspiring. However, I notice you did not mention anyone named “Amos Eno.” Where did the name of the gallery come from?
JP: The Amos Eno in our gallery name refers to the 19th century real estate investor (there have been other Amos Enos in history). The story was that he was an investor or builder of our building. I'm pretty sure it's been designated a landmark building. (He also owned the lot where the Flatiron building stands.) By the way, several times during the early years people claiming to be named Amos Eno or their representatives showed up at the gallery and threatened to sue us for using their name without authorization. Nothing ever came of it...so far.
AEG: You mentioned Soho 20 and A.I.R.: was there any collaboration or camaraderie between the emerging artist galleries of the time since it was a smaller community then?
JP: Within about a year, we moved to 101 Wooster St, 2 doors north from AIR. AIR has always kept to themselves and there was little communication between us. SOHO 2 was a couple of blocks away, also with minimal contact between us. Brand new galleries had all kinds of logistical issues to be preoccupied with.
AEG: What were the first shows like?
The inaugural show was hung as a group show (19 members). The 2nd show (4 members) was considered as 4 separate solo shows since the gallery was so large (about 4-5 times the size of our present space). I had about half a dozen paintings, some as large as 10 feet across. There were scant few rules and curating didn't appear until we moved to 101 Wooster St. a couple of years later (as I remember). Shows in which the whole gallery was reserved for 1 artist started when we moved.
AEG: What were commercial galleries showing?
Commercial galleries were showing big names and recently established artists in midtown who could guarantee sales. SoHo commercial galleries also had to have some guaranteed sales to pay expenses, as rents were lower than midtown. OK Harris Gallery is an example of a space which could take a chance on unknown artists in combination with art that could guarantee some sales to collectors.
AEG: How would you compare the events of the late seventies and eighties to what is happening now? Obviously the late seventies and early eighties in the New York art scene have become romanticized now, the era of Patti Smith, punk, Keith Haring, Basquiat, etc. Did things seem less commercial then, did the art at Amos Eno echo the street art that was getting more notice at that point? When the gallery moved to new spaces was it because it was getting priced out of where it was or was it an aspiration to move to a more visible space?
JP: From the late 70's to the early 80's more artists were on the scene and more galleries had to sprout to accommodate them. As spaces became more sophisticated, commercial and "clean", there was a reaction by artists to retain the raw quality of their work. This gave rise to the lower East side gallery scene. AEG kept to a middle-ground approach - not punk and not slick.
Our second location on Wooster St was owned by a group who wanted to open businesses on the ground floor we occupied. (Originally the whole ground floor was rented by charter member Emily Hixon and her husband. She lived in the back half and the gallery took the front half with a full window view to the street. Our rent from them was a bargain).
It was not an option for us to buy the space ourselves. We ended up in a legal settlement with the owners which gave us the capital to move to an upstairs space on a floor occupied by other galleries back on Mercer St, a few doors South of West Houston St. There were also other galleries on our block, and blocks south of us. Our new space opened on Mercer St but the building also had an entrance on Broadway which was rarely used. When the lease ran out after a few years, we moved to a space right across Broadway, also close to West Houston St. By the late 80's there were still more artists eager to show and still not enough galleries. Money was flowing more freely at that time and AEG had so many qualified applications for membership that we kept some on a waiting list after reaching full capacity (imagine that!). The SoHo neighborhood was becoming more commercial very quickly with stores and shops at ground level. That's when we started to get priced out of the area when leases ran out.
AEG: Starting a gallery is such a big gesture and commitment. You were contributing to a growing scene but adding a unique configuration. Were there other galleries around at the time that you admired? Were there arts groups that inspired you? What did you emulate/change when creating your own venue? Did it feel like a leap of faith?
JP: Among the galleries around at that time, Sonnabend and OK Harris on West Broadway impressed the most. Sonnabend held consistently good shows of contemporary, well-known artists on the ground floor of a gallery building. These artists became the talk in art classes. Most of them were covered in popular art magazines of the time - Art in America, Artforum, Art and Artists - and we thought they would eventually end up in art history books. OK Harris was unique in that they exhibited artists in several rooms who had come in off the street and evaluated by Ivan Karp, sometimes on the spot. Ivan also recommended other galleries to the many artists he had to reject.
As one of the AEG members who had to put together a solo show every couple of years (sometimes sooner) and had a full time job (student loans and all that), I had little extra time to associate with other groups. At that time and through the 80's and early 90's we had many applications for membership. Monthly meetings took place in person at the gallery or in bars and cafes. If we had to evaluate an application, we had the artist lug some of their work to the gallery. meetings and evaluations were our own social event. Openings were more often crowded after we moved from our original basement location.
As I was still in my 20's for the first 5 years I had no precedent or experience in the art scene. Older members like Phil Orenstein (30's) and Billie Pritchard (40's) were more familiar with previous non-commercial galleries in NY a decade or more earlier, and with pop art and "happenings" that took place just a few years earlier and associated with Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. They had more of a concept in place to start with: a bohemian, rebellious, free-spirited one. It was a relief knowing that we didn't have to comply with the model of a "certain look" or disappointing sales. We each decided what to show out of our own esthetic sense with no guidance from a gallery owner or director, at least in the beginning. Early on we had solo shows by artists who raised objections from other members. These were based on judgments about quality and non-compliance regarding gallery cleanup after a show. In two instances we dismissed the culpable member. One time we met at a member's studio to discuss advice after rejecting a solo presentation.
Competition was not visible amongst ourselves or with artists belonging to other galleries. It was rare for someone to jump ship and join another space, but it did happen occasionally.
AEG: So moving forward to the next decade, can you tell us more about the 9/11 period? Not just 9/11 specifically, but how things changed at the end of the nineties. And this was the time period when the move to Brooklyn was considered right?
JP: There was a point at the end of the 1990's and beginning of the 2000's when rental space in Soho became unaffordable, as retail commercial space took over the area. One of the AEG members, Suellen Glashausser, had an acquaintance in Tribeca, who advised us that a space was unoccupied in the basement of her building. We moved there, thinking that the area would eventually develop into an art community. Our isolation in the area meant less visitors, but at least we could afford the space. Then 9/11 happened. One of our Board members at the time, Bill Peterson, barely escaped his office in one of the towers as he related at a subsequent members meeting in a neighborhood cafe. For several blocks around us on Thompson St, streets were closed to traffic for weeks. Police and military presence was everywhere eyeing cars and trucks and keeping a close watch on pedestrians, too.
The combination of the undesirable area, the devastation of surrounding streets south of us, the disinterest in attending cultural events after the initial shock, forced us to pack our things in boxes, gather half a dozen members, load up our cars and trucks, and sneak out in a matter of a couple of hours. I think the building owner is still looking for us.
For several months up until our move, married members Alice Federico, gallery President, and her husband Sal Federico, gallery Treasurer, had overseen the construction of a gallery space in Chelsea, an up-and-coming area for displaced downtown galleries. Sal and Alice were also gallery benefactors who made it financially possible to make the move. For about 5 years we were again among other commercial and non-profit galleries in our building and our block in Chelsea.
Regarding other members' shows, about 30 years ago, artist Molly filled the gallery with her version of a gun show. There were plastic guns you can buy in a gun store that she dressed up in frilly and glittery decorations. As they all pointed at the viewer from a ledge, they could not be more ironically suggestive as a combination male/female, rendering them impotent.
Philip Orenstein's early artwork from the 1970's contained massive 3D enclosures that were painted a solid, neutral color. They looked impenetrable with knobs protruding at regular intervals. They were large enough that you couldn't see beyond the vertical walls. It seemed that whatever was contained merited a hermetically sealed monstrosity. It turned out they were made of a lightweight material, but the viewer didn't know that at first impression.
One of my early shows consisted of reproductions of modern art works from art books, subjectively rated from 1 to 7 - 1 being the lowest rated and 7 being the highest rated. They were lined up side to side on the walls all around the gallery. There was only one 4, a Seurat, and only one 7, Duchamp's Large Glass. The rest merited a 1 to 3 rating. The other part of the show contained blocks of numbers where I subjectively rated digits from 1 to 9, also rated from 1 to 7.
In another one of my shows that stood out to me, I found one to one correspondence between the comedians and secondary players from the Jay Leno Show and The Late Show with David Letterman, and the characters in the medieval epic poem, La Chanson de Roland. Letterman corresponded with Roland and Leno corresponded with Oliver, the main characters. Photographs of a couple dozen actual contemporary figures dressed in medieval clothing were matched with each major character in the poem. A poem of my own accompanied each frame.
There was little influence between artist members. We have always retained a staunch independence of style and content. Once in a while if a member sensed that another member wasn't pushing him/herself enough, a little encouragement and advice was dished out, mostly behind closed doors.
AEG: Can you tell us about the move to Brooklyn and the trials and triumphs along the way?
JP: Stephen Crone, who took over as interim gallery director in the mid 2000's, was instrumental in finding us a space for us in DUMBO, our first Brooklyn location. We had searched several spots in Hell's Kitchen, but we decided it was too isolated. In DUMBO we were again located on a floor along with other galleries, including AIR across the hall. It was a rectangular space, much like the one we have now at 56 Bogart St. Openings and Saturdays were crowded again. It was here that the country slipped into a deep recession. Some of our members lost their jobs and had to drop out. Recruiting new members was nearly impossible. Our membership dropped to its lowest number (about 11) and our dues increased dramatically. We decided that we couldn't afford a full-time director, so Tony Cuneo, our Treasurer, suggested a two-day week for the director, with the exhibiting artist covering the remaining two days. We also cut gallery days and added Sundays to our schedule.
After 5 years the building owners wouldn't renew gallery leases. One by one galleries left, AIR relocated to another building in DUMBO, and we moved to The Loom in Bushwick, an indoor mall. At The Loom we thought the other stores and businesses would attract foot traffic into the gallery. We were located in the middle of the mall with 2 large corner windows facing the halls. But traffic remained light throughout our stay there.
AEG: Help us learn some lessons here. What would you say is the importance of artist-run spaces today?
JP: The reasons for the importance of joining an artist-run gallery now (2020) are the same reasons as they were when we made the decision to open in 1974. At Amos Eno Gallery we don't set boundaries according to the commercial value, style or gender of the artist. Based on the judgment of the members, quality counts the most. The artist is allowed the independence to display what they desire. The experience of camaraderie amongst the membership and the organization with our Director doesn't exist in quite the same way in other gallery situations.
Of course, commercial galleries are in the majority. Their stable of artists and collectors are necessary for financial viability, and women-only galleries are still necessary to achieve gender equality. There was an instance in which a former AEG member was urged to join a commercial gallery and was told by the Director to modify his paintings to make them more palatable to their collectors. Another artist from my graduate school days joined a commercial space and was asked for personal favors. This would never be acceptable in our group, but it was not unheard of in the past.
With many more artists out there than galleries to accommodate them, the combination of solo exhibits, juried shows and community outreach are mainly a specialty of artist-run spaces. By the way, the term artist-run usually includes a loyal Director that makes sure to systematize our day-to-day activities.
AEG: Yes, a loyal Director sure helps to keep things running smoothly. Thank you, José, for sharing your reflections on the gallery history. At 45 years of exhibitions, it is truly a New York institution!