55 MERCER STREET

Raccoon Lodge, 59 Warren Street, New York City

In 1972 the State University of New York hired a new group of faculty members for the art department of the college at Fredonia. Among them was the printmaker David Small, who would later win the Caldecott Award for illustration and write the graphic novel “Stitches”. Another was Jesse G. (Jay) Wright Jr., a young curator hired as director of the Michael C. Rockefeller Arts Center Gallery. I was hired to teach design.

At that time the Fredonia art department participated in a New York State Council on the Arts program in which a select group of students travelled each year to New York City to meet with artists and musicians in their studios. Visits with Philip Glass, Lynda Benglis and Michelle Stuart among many others were extraordinarily valuable experiences, and Harvey Quaytman’s explanation of why he was a painter is a story best told in a bar over drinks. Regrettably, this type of exposure was limited to a small number of students.

As new director of the Rockefeller Gallery, Jay Wright decided to bolster the New York studio visit program with one of his own. The plan was to bring New York City to Fredonia. He began with “Wreck”, a theme show that brought the work of well-known artists to the Rockefeller Arts Center. With the success of that show he focussed attention on his primary area of interest, contemporary art made by women. He felt that women’s art was being ignored or relegated to a second tier, and he saw his new position as a chance to focus attention on some of the artists whose work he felt was being overlooked.

Along with Joan Vita Miller I went with Jay on several trips to New York City to meet women artists, see their shows, talk with them about their work and gather enough information to produce a show representative of the ideas going on in women’s art at the time. A number of these artists were associated with the 55 Mercer Street Gallery and the newly opened A.I.R. Gallery on Wooster Street, and following Jay’s leads we would go from the galleries to the studios, where we’d get suggestions from the artists regarding other artists who were also doing interesting work.

After months of planning the result was the 1972 exhibition “Ten Artists (Who Also Happen to be Women)” at the Kenan Arts Center in Lockport, New York.  Among the artists in that show were Kazuko Miyamoto, Alice Adams, Daria Dorosh, Brenda Miller, Mary Heilmann and Rachel bas Cohain. Although some made traditional art, many had staked out new territory using materials such as string (Kazuko), sisel (Brenda Miller) and water (bas Cohain), materials which in turn created their own aesthetic. The new materials also created new forms of curatorial responsibility --- one of my jobs during the Lockport show was to keep Rachel bas Cohain’s mechanized plexiglass water-filled tornado sculptures in running order after she went back to New York City. The Rockefeller Gallery at Fredonia hosted a second version of the show in 1973, and in 1974, when Joan Vita Miller became director of the art gallery at CW Post College in Greenvale, Long Island, New York, she followed with a third exhibition, “New York Eleven”, which featured the work of another group of contemporary women artists. 

The art was impressive, but so was the sublimation of egos that occurred as the artworks were chosen and installed during these shows. For an artist like Kazuko, who was one of the assistants who executed Sol Lewitt’s elaborate wall drawings for museum shows, this was routine stuff. And it wasn’t that unusual for members of the artist-run galleries where responsibility covered not only making the art, but opening and closing the gallery, selecting work, hanging the shows, tending the reception desk, answering the mail, paying the bills, cleaning the bathroom if there was one, and sweeping the floor --- no mean trick at the 55 Mercer Street Gallery where the cement remnants of 19th century textile machine bases protruded through the floorboards. And there was something else the co-op gallery artists did that artists in privately owned galleries didn’t do, they themselves decided who exhibited in their galleries. On occasion they chose artists who were not members.

EPILOGUE

Following the Mercer Street show the duck sculptures were shown at the Rockefeller Arts Center Gallery in Fredonia. In those days Fredonia was a town less known for it’s college than for being the brunt of a joke by the Marx brothers. The center of town was a few blocks long with a park divided into two sections, the Republican side and the Democratic side.  Bars too were informally divided between townies and college kids. The latter gravitated toward either BJ’s or Old Timer Charlie’s.

BJ’s was a cavern with flat black walls and loud rock music --- think of CBGB’s with more booze and no talent. On bad nights Jay Calhoun, the self-described “utility infielder”, would clear the place at closing time by flipping on a glaring bank of overhead florescent lights while blaring the Moody Blues’  “Go Now” over the speaker system. Across the street, Old Timer Charlie’s had a different ambiance. It was run by Gary “Bugsy” Morano, a young actor with an acute business sense. Although Charlie’s catered to the college crowd its music was more eclectic, and to give a sense of just how much of a blue-collar town Fredonia was at the time, Charlie’s was considered to have class because it had a pool table.

In 1975 I quit the job at Fredonia and moved to New York City. One morning while walking on Church street a car pulled along side and the driver stuck his head out the window. It was Gary Morano. He too had moved to New York, opened a bar on Warren Street, and was inviting friends in for a drink. The bar was called the Raccoon Lodge, and it was a big step up from Old Timer Charlie’s.

Things had changed for me as well since leaving Fredonia. I was painting now, and the duck sculptures were taking up valuable studio space. The ducks weren’t going to be exhibited again, but I got an idea about how they could make a final appearance. With a truck full of ducks and a camera in hand I headed south toward the Hudson River. The plan was to release the ducks on the evening tide, taking pictures of the avian flotilla as it drifted out into New York harbor, slowly becoming Staten Island’s problem.  But there was a hitch in the timing --- sunset was still a couple of hours away. Since I was in the neighborhood I stopped at the Raccoon Lodge. Over a beer I told Gary Morano about my plan. He listened with interest, then went outside to look in the truck.  A few minutes later he came back inside. “Can I have the ducks?”  he said, “They might look good over the bar.”

That was in the summer of 1980. The photo below was taken at the Raccoon Lodge on September 14, 2011.  Gary Morano died in a motorcycle accident in 2000, but his act of art patronage lives on.

© text and installation photographs copyright Wayne Miller

Raccoon Lodge photographs used permission of the Raccoon Lodge.

In 1974 I was one of six outside artists chosen to show at the 55 Mercer Street Gallery. It came as a surprise because at the time I was working with non-art materials such as decoy ducks, animal traps, an electric fire, wire mesh, chains, pulleys, xeroxed faces and chocolate chip cookies in formal sculptural relationships, not the type of art you’d associate with New York. In retrospect the selection made sense because many of the artists who juried the work were involved with non-art materials themselves. The concept of non-art (and by inference non-serious) materials may seem odd by postmodern standards, but in 1971, when I’d returned from military service to complete a master’s degree at Syracuse University, two well-known visiting artists both declined to critique my work on the grounds that it wasn’t serious art. The imagery was a repetition of cartoon-like skies, clouds and aircraft spray-painted on illustration board. Having minor second thoughts one told me later, ”I thought to myself, the work is a joke but the guy keeps making the stuff.” That is a good example of the critical water artists swam in in those days, particularly artists using string, sisal, or water as material.

The experience of working on theses exhibitions opened several doors for me.There were new friendships, and a chance to exhibit in New York for the first time. And there was the opportunity to work with the critic Lawrence Alloway, who wrote a catalog introduction and reviews of the shows. It was also basic training for the type of work I would do a decade later as a director of the Louis K. Meisel Gallery.

From 1971 when I worked as a student volunteer helping to document Yoko Ono’s exhibition “This is Not Here” at the Everson Museum of Art to the last show I installed before leaving New York, IRWIN’s “Second Bombing” at the Bess Cutler Gallery,

I had the opportunity to work on 105 projects with other artists ranging from painting and sculpture installations to television productions and performance works. Working in situations where audience response and participation is a part of the aesthetic has had a significant influence on the artworks shown on this website.

Wayne Miller, mixed media sculpture, invitational group exhibition, 55 Mercer Street Gallery, New York,1973

Gary Morano 

For information about the Raccoon Lodge go to the Links page.

For information about the 55 Mercer Street gallery go to the Links page.

Wayne Miller, mixed media sculpture, invitational group exhibition, 55 Mercer Street Gallery, New York, 1973