y mom, a former historic preservationist, swears she can do what so many voyeurs wish they could: hear walls talk about all they’ve seen. She’s like a house-whisperer for old buildings, a medium of storied districts, a bridge between past and present of landmarked grounds.
My own mind is nowhere near as filled with historical research logged or information gathered, but my mom has taught me to walk through neighborhoods with an awareness of its many dimensions, its many pasts, and its varied depends-who’s-looking present.
Soho is a prime example of this kind of space with a storied past. What is now very much a shopping destination was at one time, during the 1970s and 80s especially, an artistic hub — a place where art, music, fashion and creativity in its many forms converged (if not clashed together like drum cymbals). But just because the neighborhood’s focus has shifted doesn’t mean its gaze is gone entirely. In addition to the Soho galleries that still exist, new art world stories are being made.
On May 6th, Gucci opened its first-ever presence in Soho at 63 Wooster. We partnered with Gucci to celebrate this opening and pay homage to the neighborhood’s artistic roots. To do so, I spoke with art activist Kimberly Drew and artist Sue de Beer about their own experiences South of Houston. De Beer showed her work in the area, while Drew did a residency there — both of them on different paths, linked by a Soho string. Meet these two women below. Maybe through their stories, you’ll be able to catch the whisper of another era.
Writer, Art Activist
Tell me about your involvement in the art world. How did you get started in it?
I studied art as an undergraduate, I currently work in the art world, and I work as an advocate for the arts. What that means is I have a keen interest in making the world of art — specifically visual and performing arts — more accessible to large audiences. I spend a lot of time thinking about how people feel really connected to music, or really connected to food; I’m trying to make the visual and performing arts barrier to entry a little bit lower than it’s been historically to help foster a similar connectivity.
My first introduction to the art world was during an internship at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which really provided my framework for how to engage with a general public, and my framework around how stories of art history, specifically, can be really restrictive. I studied art history in college, then spent the summer at the Studio Museum where I learned about artists who might never be in the curriculum that I was studying in school. Of course, there are schools with programs all over the world that exist to focus on specific genres of art, but it took me going to a really culturally-specific institution to realize there was a lot that I was missing.
What did you learn about public engagement?
I learned that people need an invitation to engage. This also happened simultaneously through my blogging efforts. I realized it’s one thing to say, “Here’s this really amazing artist,” and another thing to say, “Will you go see this work with me?”
In 2016, I did a residency at Recess, which, up until very recently, was housed in Soho, on Grand Street. The project was called “The Black Art Incubator” and I worked with Taylor Renee Aldridge, Jessica Bell Brown, and Jessica Lynne to make it happen. The idea was born during a drink date with Jessica Lynne. As we sat, we both expressed our frustrations about the art world. We thought, “There are so many creative ways we could bring people together. Why do people who work in galleries feel really separate from people who work in museums? Why do people who work in philanthropy feel really separate from these people who are working in other parts of the art world? What would happen if we brought all of these people together through a black cultural lens to have a more integrated dialogue about the way that different things happen and operate in the art world?” We broke our inquiries into four categories: thinking about finance, archiving, professional development, and criticism and developed workshops that would focus on each topic. Over the course of five weeks, we hosted about thirty free programs in the Soho community.
Given that Soho is so rooted in the art world’s history, what was it like to work in an art-centric space in Soho?
Because Recess is a public art organization, and “The Black Art Incubator” was open to the public Tuesday through Saturday, there was healthy mix of people who wanted to come to the space, or people who happened to just be walking through the neighborhood. I normally work primarily in digital spaces and in direct relationship to an archive rather than with the general public, so it was amazing to see what a holding space for this kind of thing looked like, especially in Soho. Soho is such a heartbeat in the way that New York operates.
When I think about Soho, specifically in the arts, and spaces that were super important, I think about Franklin Furnace, The Drawing Center, Sur Rodney (Sur)’s Gracie Mansion Gallery, and even over to spaces on the Lower East Side. These spaces were all critical hubs for art experimentation in the 70s and 80s. As lifelong student of art history, these spaces and the Soho lofts stick out to me as a radical sites that I hope to learn more and more about with every chance I get.
Whenever I think about the 80’s Soho art scene, I think about a real merging of art, music and fashion. Do you think we have that today in the same way?
I think there has always been a really clear wedding between art and fashion. Human beings have long used both art and fashion to communicate who they are. I don’t think that’s ever going to stop happening.
What’s interesting is that I couldn’t imagine an art world without fashion, or a fashion world without art. Even wearing something that’s super muted is a very particular aesthetic choice. My big hope and takeaway is that the way these things are historicized is done in a more vibrant way. I think there’s a lot more to be done in the way that history remembers fashion, or fashion is communicated. There’s a really strong arm around fashion journalism, but there isn’t the same kind of strong arm around fashion history, or how history is told through fashion — whereas art history is like, ironclad. I hope that marriage continues to happen so that stories are properly told, that things are interrogated, and that we continue to learn from how people have created things and how we’ve used those creations to tell who we are and where we are in a moment.
Since you did your residency in Soho, what areas feel super nostalgic to you?
41 Grand Street, which is where Recess used to be located. Going to The Drawing Center always feels significant and it’s in the same area. When I think of Soho, I really think about the intersection of Grand and Wooster. Deitch Projects is right there. Housing Works falls into my own Soho outline as a really important space, too, since it’s an organization that is as much about art as it is serving New York’s homeless community. Some of the great poets have performed there, there are so many book events there; it’s such a birthing place for culture. Of course, this is a contemporary read, but when I think of this triangulation between Housing Works, Angelika Film Center (at the very tip of Soho) and the Drawing Center, it reminds me why I love living in New York City, and part of why I remain committed to the creative community here.
What are your personal hopes for the future of the art world?
I think we’re in a moment of particular demand on our attention and literacy, so I hope that people really take a slower look at what’s going on in this particular cultural moment and think about the ways in which we can support it. It’s not just being a huge donor and buying a piece of work, it’s going to openings, it’s engaging with your friends who are thinking about creative outlets. Investigate the areas of art that peak your interest — and don’t stop just because you’ve hit a dead end in your research. My hope is that as citizens of our respective communities, we take time to remain curious.
Can you tell me about the moment or series of events that put you on the path to becoming an artist?
I had decided to become an artist when I was quite young. I was still in high school. I think a key moment for me was being expelled from high school [laughs]. Before that I was on a kind of academic trajectory, and no one in my family had ever become an artist or done anything creative. I think the idea of becoming an artist was confusing to them. My family also didn’t have a lot of connection to contemporary art or the contemporary art world. So as a young person, when I was expelled from school, because people’s expectations of me changed, I suddenly had this radical freedom.
I started looking at art. I was curious about it — it was unfamiliar to me, and I found it to be really challenging. I was living in a small town in Massachusetts, and I would take a bus into Boston to visit museums. I took some art classes and fell in love with it.
I also was looking to music for information about art (which doesn’t really make any sense). I was into the Velvet Underground at the time, so I discovered Andy Warhol through Lou Reed. Because of his music, I had this idea that New York was a place where artists lived. His music made me think, “I should be in New York.” So I applied to art schools there, got in, and moved. It was a lucky set of poorly-made decisions.
What was your first day in New York like — or your first day of art school, your first realization of, “I am actually in New York…for art school?” Did it live up to your expectations?
I didn’t really have realistic expectations. I didn’t quite know what or who artists were. I was going off this self-taught, feeling-in-the-dark drive that brought me here in the first place. But I do remember, in the first week, just feeling like New York was the place I really belonged, and art school felt really natural. It felt like home.
I had always felt like I didn’t really make sense in my small town — I was a bit different — so it was nice to be in a place that was so big and so much. There’s so much going on this city, so many different kinds of people; it felt electrifying, and it opened my mind and broadened my thinking.
Can you recall one instance when you were like, “Oh, this is an artist”?
There were so many. I was interested in Johanna Fateman, who was self-publishing ‘zines about contemporary art. I was friends with Dennis Cooper and he introduced me to West Coast artists and the scene out there.
A few exhibitions really made an impression on me as a young artist. One of them was this Nari Ward show at Deitch Projects [Happy Smilers] — it was a big installation piece with fire hoses and a fire escape in the middle, and he had painted the walls yellow, which I thought was a crazy color to choose. It felt shocking to me. The whole installation was immersive and beautiful.
1993 was the first time I saw the Whitney Biennial. It was my first encounter with a broad array of contemporary artists, and it became a touchstone that I compared other exhibitions to. I remember much later, comparing the ‘91 Biennial catalog to the ’93 Biennial catalog, and realizing that a dramatic shift had just happened in the art world right when I arrived in New York. Many artists of color were included, a lot of female artists were included in the show. To me it was a baseline, what was “normal.” It continues to be what feels “normal” to me.
The early 90s in New York was a brilliant time to begin to participate in the art world because of the energy at that time. Later, I think the art world boomeranged back and narrowed down again, and that was an awful shock to me: like the only male “group” shows, or only female “‘group” shows. But the art world goes in waves.
What part of the wave do you feel like the art world is in now?
Well, I think this is an exciting moment. Things seem to be opening back up. There’s all kinds of energy going on right now that I really love, that I haven’t felt in years. It makes my heart beat faster.
When the art world swung back into its conservative mode, all of these voices went missing. It was so depressing. So boring.
How do you think social media effects the art world today?
I like how social media changes who the gatekeepers are for content and ideas. It’s added an additional venue, or an additional access point that has nothing to do with the market or capital. Social media is about an image or an idea, like Kimberly Drew talking about power, history, and representation through what she posts. I also like to follow Liz Renstrom, who is one of the few female photo editors of Vice.
Your work was shown in galleries in Soho in the 90s — what was that whole experience like?
Oh. The art world was much smaller back then — or it felt that way as a young person in the space. Some of my friends who later became artists or gallery directors worked in the fashion boutiques in Soho to pay their rent.
There was this row between Grand Street and Wooster where there were some fantastic galleries and some great shows happening. I had some work with Stefano Basilico for a while. He had a small gallery space next to Friedrich Petzel. I did a show with Jeffrey Deitch at Deitch Projects.
I was briefly represented by Jack Tilton Gallery. I remember he had just taken on the artist Xu Bing, who did a show for Jack [A Case Study of Transference] that involved live pigs…
You must have so many great stories from this time…
So many. I remember I had a woman helping me sew these stuffed animals for my installation for the 2004 Whitney Biennial. She had a studio on Canal Street on the fifth floor of the building (places were accessible then that aren’t today because of New York City real estate), and we produced work there.
We didn’t realize how big the animals were until they were actually stuffed. We couldn’t get them into the elevator because they wouldn’t fit. I tried to squeeze them in the stairwell and they barely moved. The animals were two or three feet taller than me. It was like a five-story birth canal with this circular staircase, and there were three of those animals to get downstairs.
You couldn’t have a studio space on Canal Street today unless you owned it, but at the time, it all seemed very reasonable and very funny to be squeezing this giant purple lion thing five floors down.
You’ve been showing your work for 20 years now. What projects are you currently most excited about?
I’m getting ready for my show that opens on June 21st at Marianne Boesky Gallery. It’s my werewolf film, The White Wolf, that I’ve been working on for two-and-a-half years. I asked Yuka Honda, from the band Cibo Matto, to star in it because I’ve always been a fan of hers. She’s just magnetic on camera.
I’ve also been thinking about the past recently, so I asked Marianne if we could show the first body of work I produced when I was a young artist in my twenties, which are these horror photographs I made between 1998 and 2000. So the werewolf film is the major installation, and then in a project room, we’re going to show these horror photos. I’m excited about it. I think the works will be in beautiful dialogue together. [Horror, as a genre] has a specific type of beauty. It has a sort of gracefulness to it. My work has always asked about the way that people are, or what people love, or what they fantasize about. It plays around with form and changes it, and pulls it apart, and puts it back together again in the wrong way. It asks a lot of questions about the nature of people.
Photos by Edith Young; Styled by Amelia Diamond; Makeup by Teddy Wilson; Hair by Sergio Estrada and Regard Tang.