Heritage

MAKING A.I.R.

Posted by: Roy Wilbur

The following is from “HERESIES: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics,” Volume 2, No. 3, 1979. It is by Barbara Zucker and is featured here courtesy of Joan Braderman, a founding member of HERESIES.  

It’s been a little over six years since A.I.R. opened on Wooster Street; seven years since it was first an idea. Policies have shifted, membership has changed, but A.I.R. is an institution: it has survived. Looking at it now from the outside (I left in 1974), it seems that we were incredibly naive. Thank God. Naivete is often the quality that gets people into inextricable situations. From there we struggle to cope and follow through.

Working together? It was much more like fighting together. The thing about consciousness-raising is that after you cry, you go home. You don’t have to turn up the next day to put sheetrock on the walls or spend tedious hours writing grant applications.  At A.I.R., our awareness grew as the place was built.

I remember Patsy Norvell and Laurie James knew about carpentry so we lined up and were taught to build walls and lay floors. Someone else learned basic electrical work and a few members worked on that. It was a good time, with all those bodies and minds building one loft. Imagine how wonderful it was to be able to share that amount of work with twenty people! And imagine how terrible-no decisions could ever be your own.

Given the number of hungry egos collectively assembled it’s amazing how much we accomplished. I think we were able to do it because the climate was right (it was the peak of the Women’s Movement J and because of an enormous need-the need to show. The thing that differentiated A.I.R. from other women’s collectives at that moment is that it was never intended to be a support group. It was a professional organization, and the point was quality, not quantity. Though not all of us would acknowledge standing behind the work of each of the twenty original members (can you name twenty living artists whose work you really like?). There was enough respect and commitment to enable us to work together. We wanted to demonstrate that there were at least twenty women artists producing innovative, professional work in 1971. Although this has been documented before, it bears reiterating: to blithely state then that there were so many good women artists working was met with many an arched eyebrow. If one were to say it now, it would be met with ridicule for its obviousness.

We reached the pinnacles of pettiness that boggle my mind even now. That first year, to provide that we all could show within the twelvemonth period, we built a dividing wall. This provided space for two simultaneous one-person shows. Somehow the front space was considered “better” than the back. Did we think we got better publicity if we could look out at the street? I don’t know, but it seemed magical, more visible. The artists paired together to show drew straws to determine who got which space. I remember Blythe Bohnen got the front and I got the back. I sulked for two days. Then, incredibly, Blythe sacrificed her space. She gave it to me! What a victory! I accepted, and basked in her donation. After all, I had started the whole thing, hadn’t I? Such was my ego, and such was my sad attempt to try to corner a little piece of the action. This was not an isolated incident; other people behaved crazily, too. When you’re starved, you certainly lose perspective. And we lost it all the time. The nit-picking over that wall extended to the number of inches forward or back it would be on the floor. I remember that Sue Williams and I went in to do battle one day, armed with a roll of masking tape. (We were going to mark down where that wall belonged before anyone else did, by God) I don’t know if the other women brought tape or not, but there we were, waging a totally idiotic war over the control of the wall! It was demolished after only one season, because it really cut up the space. Now, the only corollary I can find for this distorted behavior is that of most artists prior to a show. Classically, we fight with our mates, we don’t eat, or we eat too much. We cry and are moody, hate having sex; or can’t get enough. In other words, there is a tremendous amount of explosive, aberrant behavior in those months when the pressure is on to finish up-to get the work out there. I think now it hadn’t to do with our being women but with our being artists. In 1971-72, not many of us had much experience in bargaining or negotiation for what we wanted. So many of us had been ignored or cloistered that there hadn’t been anything to bargain for. Thus we were exceptionally raw, anxious and sometimes desperate.

Another aspect of A.I.R. was the way we grouped ourselves. We split into factions like members of a primitive tribe who change the positions of their doorways each week to show which member of the family they are arguing with.

It was Howardena Pindell who named us-“Jane Eyre,” she said. Then, “Air, A.I.R., Artists-In-Residence.” How wonderful! It was one of the few moments when we all agreed. We helped each other in the beginning. We had to, to help ourselves. Later, people withheld information. No one knew who was in town, what collector was seeing what work, what shows were in the offing; yet to do this, too, ultimately was asking too much of one another. We did succumb in many ways to the pressures of the art world and its competitiveness, while telling each other that we never would, that A.I.R. was the real alternative. Being generous was almost impossible.

I was impatient. I expended too much energy too fast and wanted recompense. I think this was true for Sue Williams (the other co-founder), too. Having started A.I.R., it was very difficult to relinquish our initial roles. We were” seen unavoidably as authority figures, and there was considerable hostility against us from various quarters. At meetings there were those of us with short fuses who screamed and stormed. Others, quieter and more devious, acted calmly, planned strategically and talked behind members’ backs. But this was all a question of style and not of our femaleness.

I used to think it was just women: men, or men and women could never, ever get into mean, ridiculous discussions like ours. Then I talked to friends who went to monthly meetings of their co-op buildings, and I attended faculty meetings at the schools where I began to teach. I realized that basically all groups are pretty much the same: some people are jockeying for power, others are along for the ride and others are simply obnoxious. But most tedious are those who are fanatically fair. Total democracy made it impossible to make any decisions about anything in less than three hours.

My feelings about A.I.R. now are bittersweet; it’s a lot like being able to let go of a child. If you’ve raised an offspring well, then he or she has a unique, internal rhythm; the child develops in his or her own way, and not according to the way you might have chosen. My hopes for A.I.R. were based on my control, on shaping my own idea. Rationally, I recognize quite clearly that that’s not the way things work. When I walk into the gallery these days to see a show, often no one there knows who I am, and even fewer people know I started it. I am selfish; I wish they all knew and would bow down and thank me. On the other hand, I am glad the gallery is autonomous, that it is its own baby now.

Lacking, perhaps, was an absence of largesse, an ability to be reflective. In my opinion, this shortsightedness prevented our using A.I.R. as a platform for something much larger -something on the scale, say, of The Institute for Art and Urban Resources. However, that is an organization essentially controlled by one individual. A.I.R. responsibility wasn’t freely allocated in any area. People were too often called to account and questioned about their decisions, major and minor. This lack of trust, and general paranoia, contributed most to the dilution of A.I.R.’s strengths. But again, this kind of behavior is a disease of the Western World and is not to be confused with our being women.

Because people were so loathe to delegate power and to realize that we were not the adversary (the real beast was the male art establishment).  We lost sight of the goal (to make our position equal) and instead fought with one another. Many people may not believe this, may think things are substantially different now. They’re not. As far as women showing more, yes, but one has only to teach in one of the many art institutions scattered across this country to see how successfully the status quo is maintained. Despite affirmative action, despite lobbying in Washington, despite new governmental rulings, the system remains frighteningly the same.

In trying to bring my thoughts about A.I.R. together, I find I had and have tremendous admiration for many members. I often felt it a privilege to be able to suddenly enter the lives of twenty women artists and to experience the impact of their personalities and their work. A.I.R. was a sorority of women who, under any other set of circumstances, would never have joined one. I have made friends through A.I.R. whom I hope I will always know. My contact with several members has fostered a vital dialogue about work that is invaluable. But the best part of a co-op gallery is that you show what you want when you want how you want-you don’t have to convince anyone of anything. If your work changes drastically, you don’t have to worry about whether your dealer will still want to show it; you are your dealer. And you don’t have to be polite. But you do have to pay, and meet, and sit, and ship and mail and do your own P.R.  So in the end, -it’s a tradeoff.

Finally, all of us were strengthened by pushing the gallery’s existence.  In giving it credibility, we were building a foundation from which to support ourselves as individuals. A.I.R. functioned as The Great Mother herself-both the carnivore and the protectress.

Barbara Zucker was born in Philadelphia. She received an undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and an MA from Hunter College in Sculpture. Zucker and Susan Williams were the co-founders of A.I.R. Gallery, the first women’s art gallery in the United States. With Dotty Attie and Mary Grigoriadis, two early members, they sought out the twenty artists who joined the A.I.R. collective and gallery. A.I.R. opened its doors in 1972 at 97 Wooster Street in New York City. Thirty-five years later, the gallery still thrives. Zucker has gone on to exhibit, teach, write and lecture.

Image: Past and present A.I.R. members, from left. First row: Howardena Pindell, Daria Dorosh, Maude Boltz, Rosemary Mayer; second row: Mary Grigoriadis, Agnes Denes, Louise Kramer, Loretta Dunkelman; third row: Patsy Norvell, Sari Dienes, Judith Bernstein, Dottie Attie; standing: Barbara Zucker, Laurace James, Anne Healy; on ladder: Nancy Spero, Pat Lasch.

 

 

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  • Daria Dorosh

    How wonderful to re-read Barbara’s excellent 1979 Heresies article on A.I.R. Gallery. It conveys the excitement of the years when women artists first struggled for a presence in the art world. I will always appreciate and admire Barbara and Susan’s brilliant insight in starting A.I.R. and creating a legacy that is still valid and alive.
    I have often been asked why that is, since I am the last remaining co-founding member who is still at A.I.R. Over time, I have come to believe several things. A.I.R. was an early DIY model, which became the main cultural strategy for innovation and survival in the digital age. Looking at the early goals of women artists from this point in time, I believe that our quest for equality in the art world could never succeed, – because it is the wrong model. It is a binary model based on “haves and have-nots”. It is an “either-or” system fighting for its life because it is out of date in a postmodern culture that is encroaching on it from all sides. The art market has lost its exclusionary, male “genius” narrative by which it used to sell art. Today, I believe that collaboration, small networks, ethics, self-evolution, learning, teaching, and invention is the new model. I see this occurring across the multiple fields that I participate in such as fashion, education, science, technology, and the environment. A.I.R. has always been my research space and that is why I value it to this day and why I think it is still a model that has the flexibility to evolve to survive.