Downtown in the ’70s: When Andy Warhol and I disagreed about graffiti art

A visitor looks at the painting

They say that if you can remember the ’60s and ’70s, you weren’t there — the inference being that so many people took so many different kinds of dope that they have no recollection of their experiences.

I never did dope, never drank, didn’t even smoke, yet I’ll be damned if I can remember the name of the street corner where Andy Warhol asked me to meet him. It was on the Lower East Side somewhere, just as we were beginning to call it Alphabet City.

He wanted me to see some street art. Keith Haring’s “radiant baby” on a playground wall was becoming big, and Andy smelled money in what was to become “graffiti art.” Both Keith and Andy were from Pennsylvania, both sexual cosmopolites, and both had the eye of the outcast.

Andy asked me to take a look at a piece signed by “Samo.” Now, here is the part I remember, because it was so funny. I thought it said “Sambo,” and that Andy asked me to look at it because I was black. (There was a children’s book called “Little Black Sambo” which was considered so racist it was taken out of school systems and libraries.) But back to the “art” he was asking me about. I told Andy, “It’s just a bunch of words and cartoons. How can you call that art? Poetry maybe, but not art.”

I turned on my heels and walked away in a huff.

I found out later it had nothing to do with race. Andy knew I had a best friend who was an art critic. Andy wanted his opinion on a trend: Would graffiti become graffiti art, and become valuable?

Sometime later, a theater building that my husband Tony and I owned — the Off Center Theater — had a large second floor that we used for rehearsals and rented out at night for parties and weddings. One event planner asked if they could open an after-hours club there. It wouldn’t open until after midnight, and we would be finished rehearsing by then. Sounded good to us, so we said OK.

They had one proviso.

“Oh? What is that?” we asked.

“We get to decorate it the way we want, and the decorations have to stay up.”

It was OK with us — the money was so good we would have said OK to images painted in blood.

After all, Soutine used blood mixed in with his paint … how bad could this be?

The name of the club was Voodoo.

Clubbing was all the rage at that time. Young people from perfectly good homes would quit expensive private schools and hang out in nightclubs 24/7. Then, when the legit clubs closed at 4 am, they would go to after-hour clubs and party until breakfast.

We gave them permission to paint the walls as long as they promised to restore the place when they left.

The next thing we know, there was a team of painters, led by this dopey-looking kid with braids and nose rings, who would come in at night and paint these really scary-looking voodoo images all over the walls. They would light up under a black light.

When we rehearsed in the daytime, actors would often just stare at the walls with their jaws agape, as if they were taking a catnap.

Meanwhile, a friend who owned a paint company had an accountant with a son who was an artist. Since I was in the arts, my friend asked if I could be helpful in finding him a gallery. Well, I declined, because the son was a high-school-dropout, punk-art-type kid who would probably never amount to anything.

Andy Warhol had given his studio on North Moore Street to the kid, who painted on walls for free — the same kid whose work he’d shown me years before. He wasn’t Samo anymore; he had some newfangled name. I clucked my teeth and thought Andy was not only being played for a sucker, but worse yet, the kid paid him in worthless scribble-like paintings.

This, it turns out, was the very beginning of graffiti art. Let’s be clear. It wasn’t a matter of “tagging,” it was creating issue-oriented art in public spaces because you had something to say and wanted to get seen, but couldn’t get in a gallery, and it had a lot of fun and anarchy to it, and soon was called “street art.”

It wasn’t until the stars aligned at a party at Andy’s North Moore Street place that I realized what a big dummy I had been.

The convergence came a tad late, however. The people who rented our theater space for the after-hours club went out of business; they split and did not paint over those scary voodoo images. We were really ticked off that we had to paint over them ourselves, and it took many, many coats to cover them up so that we would look normal. We went back to renting the space for weddings and birthdays.

Street art became more and more in vogue as New Yorkers became more and more intrigued with the idea of free-thinking. Social issues were being demystified in the visual arts.

Basquiat père — yes, that’s right, his son was Jean-Michel — reported that his son no longer needed my help in finding a gallery — in fact, galleries were chasing him.

Ahhhh, what had I done?

Jean-Michel Basquiat, his dopey-looking kid with braids and nose rings, was there at the party, and everyone in the art scene was fawning all over him. So, this was the kid that Andy thought was so terrific.

Among the works in his studio on North Moore Street was a portrait of his mother. It was a regular, conventional painting with no graffiti and no words. It was so strong an image — an emotional image — that you could feel the intelligence and kindness of this woman oozing out of the canvas and into your heart.

Recently, another Basquiat painting, “Untitled,” was sold at auction for $110.5 million. That’s $10 million more than Andy’s “Silver Car Crash/Double Disaster,” which sold in 2013, and it is the first work made after 1980 to sell for over $100 million.

So while Tony and I were gritting our teeth and whining with our paint rollers deep in eggshell white to look “normal” so that we could rehearse Odets without distractions, we may have been covering up the next Guernica.

Maybe it is not that I don’t remember the street corner; maybe I have blocked it out to protect myself. Wouldn’t you?

Photo by Reuters/Benoit

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