Patti Astor, Fun Gallery Co-Founder, Dies at 74 - The World News

Patti Astor, Fun Gallery Co-Founder, Dies at 74

Patti Astor, the downtown Manhattan “It” girl, indie film star and co-founder of Fun Gallery, the scruffy East Village storefront space that in the early 1980s nurtured young graffiti artists like Futura2000, Zephyr, Lee Quinones, Lady Pink and Fab 5 Freddy, as well as showcasing artists like Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat, died on April 9 at her home in Hermosa Beach, Calif. She was 74.

Her death was confirmed by Richard Roth, a friend. No cause was given.

With her platinum hair, raspy voice and glamorous ’50s-style dresses, Ms. Astor was a formidable presence among the music, film and art makers who gathered at the Mudd Club in TriBeCa. In the summer of 1981, one of her nightclub buddies, Bill Stelling, told her that he had rented a small storefront on East 11th Street with the thought of turning it into a gallery. Did she know any artists?

“Yeah,” she said, “I know a few.”

The place was just eight by 25 feet, and the idea was to make a gallery by artists, for artists. They had no money and no art experience, but they had a lot of creative friends.

The first show there was an exhibition of pencil drawings by Steven Kramer, Ms. Astor’s husband at the time; all 20 of the pieces sold, at $50 each, which seemed like a promising beginning. Mr. Scharf, who had already turned all of the appliances at Ms. Astor’s home into his signature outer-space critters, was offered the next show. He was also given the opportunity to name the place for its duration.

“My stuff was fun, so fun seemed like a good name,” Mr. Scharf said in a phone interview.

Fred Brathwaite, otherwise known as Fab 5 Freddy, was show No. 3, and his plan was to name the place the Serious Gallery. But by then Ms. Astor had bought stationery stamped “Fun” and had run out of money. Also, as she often said, “the name was so stupid it stuck.”

By 1982, Mr. Stelling and Ms. Astor had moved the gallery to 254 East 10th Street, a derelict, unheated double-wide storefront with a backyard. They patched it up — although the roof continued to leak and Mr. Stelling once fell through the floor — and began rolling out shows by artists like Mr. Quinones, who was already known for his street murals and subway-car art — he had famously covered 10 cars with his colorful work — and for his manifesto, “Graffiti is art, and if art is a crime, please God, forgive me.”

Fun Gallery openings were mobbed, more like block parties than the white-wine affairs of a traditional white-cube gallery, as uptown dealers and collectors mixed with D.J.s and aspiring teenage graffiti artists, brandishing their sketchbooks.

“Patti became the first lady of graffiti art,” said Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the art-world photographer and documentary filmmaker. “She was there before anybody, and most importantly she understood the cultural aspect of this work at a time when the art world was very white-male dominated.”

Fun Gallery was the East Village’s first art outpost, and within a year or so of its opening, other homegrown galleries had begun popping up in empty storefronts. Gracie Mansion, who had been running a gallery out of her bathroom, moved into a space down the block from Fun. When in 1983 Grace Glueck of The New York Times came to survey the scene, the gallerists called one another as she left. “She’s headed your way,” they would report, as Ms. Mansion recalled.

“A wild and funky configuration prevails,” Ms. Glueck wrote, noting Fun Gallery’s bona fides as the oldest gallery in the neighborhood and its reputation for specializing in “famous scribblers,” as she put it, meaning the graffiti artists. She also noted that the area was still so dodgy the word “dealer” had a double meaning.

“Our artists are coming from a different, ghetto culture,” Ms. Astor told Ms. Glueck, contrasting her artists with the 57th Street gallery crowd, “and they are also influenced by politics; they comment more on society. Their work has a new kind of beauty.”

Within two years, however, the beauty was leaking out of the East Village. As their stars rose, many artists defected to SoHo galleries. Fun couldn’t compete. Mr. Stelling said they were always behind in their rent and couldn’t afford to participate in what was turning into a global market; shipping costs to European art fairs were beyond their means. And then their friends began to get sick.

In March 1985, the Lebanese artist Nicolas Moufarrege, who made meticulous embroidered works of surrealistic and cartoon-inspired images, was hospitalized with AIDS-related pneumonia while he was working on his solo show for Fun. The show opened without him, and he died before it ended.

The gallery closed soon after, and someone tagged the boarded-up windows with the words “No Mo Fun.” It was over.

Patricia Titchener was born on March 17, 1950, in Cincinnati, the oldest of four children. Her father, James Titchener, was a psychoanalyst; her mother, Antoinette (Baca) Titchener, was a pediatrician.

Patricia attended Barnard College in New York City, where she joined Students for a Democratic Society before dropping out to devote herself full time to the antiwar movement.

She studied at the Lee Strasberg Theater & Film Institute, but only briefly, because method acting irritated her. Dreaming of stardom, she christened herself Patti Astor, inspired, she wrote in a self-published memoir, “Fun Gallery: The True Story” (2013), by Astor Place in the East Village and the euphony of the title of an imagined street act, Patti Astor and Her Champagne Follies.

She was living in a tenement on East 10th Street when her friend Eric Mitchell answered an ad the filmmaker Amos Poe had placed in The Village Voice seeking actors for a Jean-Luc Godard-like film. Ms. Astor tagged along, and Mr. Poe cast the pair in his 1976 film “Unmade Beds,” along with Debbie Harry of Blondie and the artist Duncan Hannah.

“I felt like I’d arrived,” Ms. Astor wrote, and she dyed her hair platinum blond to reflect the starlet she felt she was becoming. When Mr. Mitchell’s film “Underground U.S.A.,” a takeoff of “Sunset Boulevard” starring Ms. Astor, opened at the St. Marks Cinema in 1980, it further burnished her downtown notoriety.

“She was like a movie star from the ’50s,” said Mr. Brathwaite, who recalled asking for her autograph when he first met her, at a party.

She also appeared, at her insistence, in “Wild Style” (1983), a film by Charlie Ahearn and Mr. Brathwaite about young graffiti artists, in which she played a clueless journalist reporting on the scene. It was reviewed tepidly when it was released — “‘Wild Style’ lacks a lot of the style of the people in it, but it never neutralizes their vitality,” Vincent Canby wrote in The Times — but in the years since its release, it has come to be regarded as a cult classic.

Ms. Astor’s brief marriage to Mr. Kramer ended in divorce. She leaves no immediate survivors.

After Fun Gallery closed, Ms. Astor moved to Hermosa Beach, into a trailer-park surf community, and wrote a few screenplays with her friend Anita Rosenberg. “Assault of the Killer Bimbos” (1988), for which they wrote the story, which Ms. Rosenberg directed and in which Ms. Astor appeared, was a favorite at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987. In recent decades she worked as a consultant and curator and go-to historian for the street art she had helped promote, and on a movie about her life.

“If I was going to open Fun today,” she told New York magazine in 1985, “I’d call it the Money Gallery.”

Mike Ives contributed reporting.

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