“We were a gang of young artists who had nothing to lose, and as a result we had the power to accomplish anything that we could think of.” This the gadabout artist and writer Walter Robinson declares in his introduction to a new book that charts the shambolic story of Colab, the New York artist group that operated from the late 1970s into the mid-’80s and included, among its dozens of young members, Tom Otterness, Becky Howland, Kiki Smith, and Robin Winters.
As grand as Robinson’s claim sounds, this beautifully compiled volume, A Book About Colab (and Related Activities), edited by Max Schumann and published by Printed Matter to accompany a show on the group it organized in 2011, actually goes a long way toward bearing it out.
Over the course of just a handful of years, Colab artists staged unusual shows all over town, created a theater for new films, published countless zines and magazines, produced a public-access television show (the wonderfully named Potato Wolf), illegally took over at least one abandoned municipal building, won another one from the city government, organized art-inflected vacations, put together sales of inexpensive editions (the A. More Store, which is being reprised at Printed Matter for the next few weeks), and engaged in all other sorts of shenanigans. That is a pretty good showing for an organization that was, as the critic Carlo McCormick once put it to me, “basically a scam to get federal funding.”
Colab was more a loose confederation than a coherent collective or movement. Though most of the artists shared some core attributes—a distaste for the visually spare conceptual art that preceded them, an antagonistic attitude toward power, a focus on do-it-yourself productions, and a desire to cast a light on the decaying inner city—they embraced a wide range of styles. John Ahearn did life casts with his newfound friend Rigoberto Torres, a young Puerto Rican man who met him at the Fashion Moda alternative space in the South Bronx. Peter Fend proposed grand solutions to global crises, using maps and satellite imagery. Jenny Holzer crafted foreboding text pieces. Given that wild diversity, A Book About Colab takes the sensible approach of eschewing a linear, narrative history in favor of boatloads of documentation and oral histories.
Sometimes memories contradict one other. Depending on who is doing the recalling, for instance, the total number of artists affiliated with Colab varies from around 25 to 50, a discrepancy in part attributable to the fact that people drifted in and out of the group, with not one artist remaining through its entire run. (Many recall that Colab meetings, where funding decisions were made, were rather unpleasant.)
Jam-packed group shows with deadpan themes were a hallmark of Colab, and 1979 saw “The Batman Show” (works involving that superhero), “Doctors & Dentists” (staged in a faux waiting room), and “The Manifesto Show” (manifestos), which led up to what is perhaps Colab’s most famous effort, “The Times Square Show,” a gargantuan undertaking in a building owned by the wealthy Durst family that once housed a massage parlor.
Around 70 artists installed work all over the space, musicians performed, films were screened, and, as the filmmaker Coleen Fitzgibbon, a core Colab member, says in the book, “it was attended by tourists, Times Sq local business, the sex-show trade, hustlers and even the art world.” David Hammons was not a member, but he heard about the affair, showed up, smashed some Night Train bottles, and proceeded to spread the glass shards over the floor and onto a staircase. “When we objected to the glass carpet he’d just laid for us to work in,” Jane Dickson, another Colab artist, says, “David swept the broken glass to one side of each step, giving us a little shrug and a smile as if to say, ‘Deal with it, kids.’ ”
Jeffrey Deitch, then a young critic, enthused about the show in a review. “Art must come to be marketed with the kind of imagination displayed by this exhibition’s organizers,” he wrote, articulating with eerie accuracy the action-packed, event-based gallery he would create as a dealer in the mid-1990s.
One of the things that makes the book so engrossing, and occasionally moving, is that it offers glimpses at the lives that future stars like Otterness, Holzer, and Smith were leading in their early years. It devotes substantial space to the flyers the fledgling artists designed, advertising exhibitions and meetings, and the agendas they wrote out to take care of business. There are also reproductions of budgets for exhibitions and a rather charming map, drawn by Robinson, to a summer beach house the group rented in 1982—the Colab Cabana—that includes rules for visitors. “We’re grown-ups, we’re responsible people, and we can police ourselves,” the text concludes. “Right?”
The book conveys the feeling of a group of energetic artists having a pretty great time, more concerned about experimentation than conventional notions of aesthetic quality, to say nothing of documenting their actions for history. The book mentions a few projects quickly in passing that deserve closer examination, like the mysterious Offices of Fend, Fitzgibbon, Holzer, Nadin, Prince & Winters, which advertised “practical esthetic services adaptable to client situation” and would seem to be a clear forebear of the many incorporated art projects that follow over the next 30 years.
Were there any Colab masterpieces? I think so, but in the form of freewheeling ideas rather than discrete artworks. One was “The Real Estate Show,” which the gang installed at the end of 1979 in an empty city building at 123 Delancey Street that they broke into. City officials shuttered the show, but in the ensuing negotiations Colab ended up winning a nearby building that has been home to the ABC No Rio space ever since. (The arrival on the scene of Joseph Beuys, who was riding a wave of media publicity for his show at the Guggenheim, helped their cause, Colab-er Ann Messner says in the book.)
Colab energies would fizzle out in the mid-1980s as artists went their various ways, some pursuing careers in the newly moneyed art world. But during its relatively short life, the group forged models for organization, action, and ethics that feel particularly relevant today, as real-estate prices are climbing in New York, making it harder for artists to get by.”It was a perfect utopia of small gestures,” Robinson writes, “the kind of thing that good artists everywhere do every day.” Colab’s lessons are crystal clear, but they are not easy to execute: stick together, make big plans, fight hard, and enjoy it all while it lasts.