Sur Rodney (Sur) on Freaking Out the Art World

Ian Bourland profiles one of the leading gallerists of the East Village scene of the 1980s

Admittedly, my vision of the life of a critic is somewhat different from the reality. A child of the 1980s, I came of age romanticizing a glamorous, bygone industry now immortalized in films by Julian Schnabel and baby-boomer memoirs. In my mind, the job description entailed, like performance artist Ann Magnuson, never going above 14th Street; and, like critic Douglas Crimp, spending my nights dancing away the last days of disco. This was a nocturnal landscape where you rose at noon, banged out some words on a typewriter, maybe glimpsed the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat shambling up 2nd Avenue or chatted with actress Cookie Mueller at Phebe’s on the Bowery. That is: a New York-centric art world, with all the trappings of neo-bohemia intact, set in the glimmering ruins of the city itself, where you could get an apartment in the East Village for $300 per month, and get away with unselfconsciously channelling the 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud.

Gallery dealer Dean Savard tasting Sur Rodney (Sur) at a Gracie Mansion Gallery opening for Stephen Lack, 1983. Courtesy: Sur Rodney (Sur) and Gracie Mansion

My lived experience of contemporary art feels comparatively safer, governed by the efficiency of a serious cultural economy and the white-collar professionalism of my corner of it. And that’s probably a good thing: it’s easy to romanticize the past, to forget that racism was, even in New York galleries, explicit rather than sub rosa, that it was even more so than now a boys’ club and that, if you were part of the downtown underground of the 1980s, your life was almost certainly touched by HIV/AIDS.

But, for a time, the Lower East Side of Manhattan was also a place of creative synergy, of punk-inflected DIY chutzpah, of concentric scenes that would reshape not only the map of an increasingly overheated art market, but of popular culture more broadly. At the heart of this was a gallery called Gracie Mansion, the name of one of the gallery’s cofounders and, not coincidentally, of the New York mayor’s official residence. As then-critic Gary Indiana recalled: ‘Some of the gallerists in the new scene were arguably more interesting than the painters […] Gracie Mansion and her partner, Sur Rodney (Sur), stood out.’

Initially a series of one-off events – Mansion selling Buster Cleveland collages out of a parked limousine in SoHo, or staging photographs by Tim Greathouse (Sur’s roommate for a time) and paintings by Stephen Lack in her apartment bathroom, ‘Loo Division’ – by 1985, the gallery was a full-time concern, occupying several properties around Alphabet City and showing iconic figures like Marilyn Minter and Peter Hujar. For most of the decade, Mansion and Sur were partners in every sense, married for business purposes: she managed the artists and he was the creative director. But there were dissonances: in December 1985, the tabloid People magazine sought to capitalize on some of the East Village glow, describing the gentrification of an ‘art ghetto’ where ‘several nights a week, seedily chic hordes cluster on neighbourhood streets waiting to squish into gallery openings to socialize and maybe see some art.’ Mansion and Sur staged a tongue-in-cheek photoshoot for the occasion, portraying him as something of a valet, serving up martinis to his wife. It was meant ironically but touched on deeper fissures. As Sur recalled in our recent conversation: ‘That’s when all the artists found out that we were legally married […] It just made things seem very different.’1 For those not in the know, after all, why would a queer black artist marry a white art dealer – formerly Joanne Mayhew from Pittsburgh?

Andreas Sterzing, The Nuclear Family, 1983. Photograph © Andreas Sterzing 

And while Sur was always in on – and usually author of – the joke, German-born photographer Andreas Sterzing’s widely circulated portrait, The Nuclear Family (1983), reveals the contradictions that underscored the East Village boom. Mansion and Sur are assembled with the gallery’s polarizing neo-pop sensation Rodney Greenblat, channelling a Pee-wee Herman sartorial vibe, alongside his cartoonish canvases. Radiant lines abound and the frames in the scene have an animate quality: this is very much the fun-house postcard from a gallery that was, at once, thumbing its nose at its dour SoHo peers whilst also trying to get a piece of the action. Mansion, with her cropped hair and broad smile, looks like a punk-rock heroine, yet is also every bit the uptown dealer she would become. And there’s Sur, legs and hands crossed, glaring at the lens from behind heavy sunglasses, rendered mute by an ‘x’ of white tape over his mouth. ‘Can you believe this shit?’ he seems to be asking.

This, too, was classic Sur, abrading the polished surfaces of the downtown scene’s more mediagenic moments. For him, the picture was a reminder to his often-clueless contemporaries – lost in their own liberal illusions – that there were few artists of colour being shown in a neighbourhood still referred to as Loisaida by its Nuyorican residents, and where when African-American artist Joe Lewis dropped by a gallery unannounced in advance of a meeting about a prospective show there, it elicited the response: ‘You must be mistaken, we don’t show black art.’

For all that, the East Village was still a place of possibility, of relative creative and financial freedom, in which outer-borough and downtown residents would meet during openings at the FUN Gallery, to see grittier fare at ABC No Rio, or to party at anti-Studio 54 venue, the Mudd Club. Such contradictions were, in many ways, sui generis. Sur told me: ‘It was racist; it was politically challenging. There was a lot of concern about gentrification back then. I mean, all these things were happening simultaneously, but everyone was on their track to get what they wanted […] a lot of that follows through drugs, sex and money. Or lack of money.’

‘File 13’, call for submissions, 1978. Courtesy: Sur Rodney (Sur)

In another life, Sur might have been a curator of photography. Born in Quebec, he describes his father as Montreal’s equivalent of Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee.2 After a few years of art school, Sur was on track to study at Concordia University, but balked when told he would have to remain in Montreal for several more years. In 1976, aged 21, he moved to New York, where he worked casual jobs in kitchens and at a print studio. By the end of the decade he was hosting his own show interviewing artists on Manhattan Cable Television (screened at the Mudd Club starting in 1980) and spent 1978–79 curating exhibitions at The Viewing Room Galleries on Wooster Street in SoHo, which was owned by the brother of Fluxus artist Al Hansen. Sur had the run of the place, showing work with a punk, queer sensibility: Jimmy DeSana, Gerard Malanga, Marcia Resnick. Other shows comprised works literally taken from the trash cans of artists, ‘waste print accidentals’, as Sur put it in our conversation, which he would display singed and backlit in metal bins or mounted on the wall in plastic bags. The surrealist overtones provided Sur with his sobriquet: ‘I call myself an African surrealist […] I claim the right to be a surrealist without having to claim my origins, or my allegiance to Europe.’

It was in Ken Hansen’s gallery that Sur connected with Mansion. They were already peripherally in each other’s orbit, but a silent partner solidified the deal in 1982, promising to underwrite a storefront on 10th Street by buying enough art to pay the rent for one year, as long as the two collaborated. (Both also held other jobs outside the gallery.) A year later, the original storefront would be supplemented with another, then another in 1984 on Avenue A, with a renovation made possible by a small loan from Citibank arranged by Jeffrey Deitch. They had a good eye for young talent and for branding. Sur would collaborate with artists to calibrate the display space in rich monochromes of colour at odds with the white cubes of the day; installations were well photographed and the images were distributed far and wide. The Avenue A location had high ceilings and slanted, moveable walls. Sur remembers: ‘There were a lot of people from some of the other circles that I was working with. They’d tell me: “I don’t know why you’re working with Gracie Mansion and this artwork. It’s really silly and glitzy and Disney Land.” I said: “I’m working with Gracie because I like her as a person, she has a really good eye. I like the artists that she’s working with as people. I’m not totally turned on to the art.”’

And, for Sur, there were many other circles that did not intersect with the gallery, but nonetheless animated his life. First, it was the concurrent efflorescence of black and black gay poetry on the East Coast (the collective Other Countries, for instance). Later, it was the black visual art world that, in those days, had fewer connections with blue-chip galleries but thrived at venues such as Just Above Midtown and Kenkeleba House. There were other tectonic forces at work, too: the financial crash of Black Monday, on 19 October 1987, cemented an economic downturn that had already begun to ripple through the art world, taking neighbourhood gallery fixtures such as Piezo Electric and Civilian Warfare with it. But the alchemy had already shifted away from the irreverence of a few years prior towards the sterner roster represented by International With Monument and the straight, white neo-geo of Peter Halley and Meyer Vaisman.

‘File 13’, 1979, exhibition view. The Viewing Room Galleries (Soho), New York. Courtesy: Sur Rodney (Sur)

More importantly, as Sur insists, the initial wave of the East Village boom was driven by a ‘queer engine’. By 1985, within this community, HIV was becoming unavoidably real, and Sur was hit hard by the AIDS-related death that year of Nicolas Moufarrege, the painter and critic who wrote one of the first crucial reviews of Gracie Mansion. The human losses and the political stakes would only mount as the decade wore on. Sur left the gallery in 1988 (his marriage to Mansion was dissolved several years later) and dedicated himself to working with an African-American arts institution and with lesser-known practitioners whose legacy might be lost in the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. While he did not join in the direct-action work of the ACT UP collective, he become involved in the quieter activism of care, tending to those around him, shoring up and preserving artists’ archives, and signing on with Kenkeleba House. The people he met at the latter, he recalls, ‘just looked at me and said: “Welcome home.”’

In the intervening years, Sur has kept up his behind-the-scenes political labour. He served on the board of contemporary arts organization Visual AIDS, worked as a long-time studio manager for performance artist Lorraine O’Grady, and is a regular panellist on roundtables and at conferences, where his participation prevents vital pieces of the story from withering away. He reminds curators and historians that the high-gloss decade of the 1980s was a queer one, imbricated with the AIDS crisis; and he reminds those same AIDS activists that their community was also a black and brown one. Citing Lyle Ashton Harris and Marlon Riggs, Sur insists that there was no clear lane for him in the art landscape of the era. He remembers being ‘persona non grata in the black art world for being too flamboyant and too out about being gay […] I think I freaked out a lot of people in the black bourgeoisie because of their respectability politics.’

Sur is sanguine about the emergence of more nuanced understandings of gender and sexuality, better ways of talking about intersectional identities. But, in a year that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, he is quick to point out the slow, intergenerational work of progress. ‘You can be just a little bit more open, but it’s still problematic. The whole intersectionality thing is really a problem when you get into class, race, gender identity […] I mean, we’re still working our way through right?’

1 Unless noted, all quotations are from an interview with the author, June 2019.

2 From an interview with Theodore Kerr for the Archives of American Art, July 2016.

Main image: Gracie Mansion with Sur Rodney (Sur) with licorice stick in his mouth at an E.F. Higgins III opening at the ‘Loo Division’, 1982. Courtesy Sur Rodney (Sur) and Gracie Mansion

Ian Bourland is a critic and an art historian at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, USA. He is a contributing editor of frieze

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