Patti Astor is the cool aunt you’ve always wanted. She lives in a trailer blocks away from the beach, she curses and makes irreverent jokes, she is always all dolled up, she’s made movies, she participated in the anti-war and anti-racism movements, she’s been to jail, and she once owned a legendary art gallery. That’s right: Patti was the woman behind the FUN Gallery, the early 1980s New York City art gallery that hosted artists like Jean Michelle Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring, Futura 2000, and so many more. She’s lived more lives than a clowder of cats.
She stands in the sliver of a bathroom at the West end of her trailer putting on makeup. She pulls out a tube of mascara and assumes the affect of a commercial actress. “Have you tried this new Dior Diorshow Iconic?” She asks. “It really works.” She speaks with a vague Valley Girl accent and has a no bullshit attitude. Rap music mixed with punk plays lightly in the background. She takes a seat at a small table across from her bed. She places an arm up, motioning like Vanna White. “So, this is trailer living!”
She refers to her petite Hermosa Beach trailer parklet as an “interesting surf camp” populated with men who come from well known surfing families. She’s living a dream life and, while Hermosa can be pricey, she managed to find her current situation after very serendipitous Craigslist cruising. She grabbed the spot and purchased the trailer using “some money from selling a few Futuras from the FUN Gallery.” She’s lived in her new home for a little over a year now and enjoys every minute of it.
“I love it. You can hear the surf at night! I always wanted to live in a beach town. It’s really quiet and I like that. I totally feel like Elizabeth Taylor in The Sandpiper, which is this sixties beach movie from her flower child phase. I feel like I’m living in that movie.
This life is still recent for Patti. She’s originally from Cincinnati and is at a unique age where she lived through so many catalyzing moments in American culture. “It’s interesting. One of the things that I love about my life is that I was born in 1950. It was that generation where you went through that perfect suburban childhood upbringing and then were seventeen in the Summer of Love. I lived through the whole civil rights thing, too. My parents were both doctors and we had a history of really strong women so I had that example. You always felt like you could do what you wanted to do.”
The city was quite culturally diverse given the time period and her parents were liberal, politically active intellectuals. She lived through the Vietnam War, the shootings of JFK and Doctor Martin Luther King, the race riots of Birmingham, and the rise of rock music coming from Elvis, The Rolling Stones, and Jimmy Hendrix. “We were all very open to the new frontier,” she says.
“I was supposed to go to college,” she adds. “But, we were the bad kids. We’d skip school and have parties! I didn’t want to go to college. I had that talk with my father and I told him that I didn’t want to go college and that I just wanted to drop acid and be a hippie. He blew up and said, ‘You were raised to be an intellectual and you have to go to college!!’ So, okay: I applied!”
Doing everything from dance to theatre and effortlessly getting good grades, Patti did not have any struggle getting into college. She applied and was accepted to Barnard and relocated to New York City. “That happened in the fall of 1968. I remember my dad drove me up there: picture any movie about the sixties protests–and it was exactly like that but even more so. People were marching and everything. My dad wanted to stay and get involved!”
She had gotten an excellent education in high school but didn’t like Barnard. She didn’t like the studying and rigidity of it and found herself drawn to the more rebellious world of protest. “I was immediately attracted to the anti-war movement. I think I was there for a month and a half and I got arrested for the first time!”
Patti dropped out of Barnard after a year of school and dedicated a few years to working against war and racism. After overcoming those issues (for the most part), she wandered the globe chasing creative pursuits like dancing gigs in California and traveling through Europe. “Then I decided it was time to move back to New York and become a movie star so I did,” she says with a laugh. “I was in the East Village and we were among the first people to move there because it was cheap. People said their goodbyes because they thought they would never see us again and/or we would be killed. Ha!”
She lived with friend Eric Mitchell and was a committed 1970s bohemian which she explains manifested itself in three waves. “I kind of divide the East Village time into three periods, music, film, then art. There was CBGBs with the punk rock bands. I met Amos Poe and Eric at CBGBs and we started making our movies. The whole punk rock thing was very do it yourself. Blondie and Talking Heads were the house bands at CBGBs at the time.”
“We started doing our film thing more and met a lot of people doing movies who were more educated in the whole formal art scene. I never had any aspirations for that but some of the guys did and were real social climbers. We started going to Soho art openings and my husband Steven Kramer and I were going there for the free drinks.”
“You’d see the Warhol people at those parties. They were the generation before us. You’d see Taylor Mead and Viva and Andy–and that’s how we met Rene Ricard. The film thing took off and I made fourteen movies in like two years. They’re very experimental and not all of them are feature length. We shot on Super 8 so it was manageable and really beautiful. Then what we would do is edit them on Super 8 and transfer them to video. At that point Mudd Club and Danceteria had started and that scene introduced video screens everywhere so our films got shown in the clubs. We also had our own theatre, The New Cinema.”
Patti eventually figured she should study acting so she went on to attend the Lee Strasberg School. She was an interesting addition for the institution. “Everyone hated us so much because we were punk rockers. They told us we could be janitors so we would leave! But…we did that! And we had keys to the building and we would just go up to the roof and have these huge pot parties. I used to wear these hot pink overalls and I’d be mopping.”
“I was very lucky to get to study there. I blew all my work study money on classes with Nicolas Ray, the film director who did Rebel Without A Cause. I got to study with him and Jim Jarmusch was his assistant. Jim broke through with Stranger Than Paradise and I was doing Underground USA, which is unfortunately unavailable. You can only show that movie in museums now because of all the bootleg music (Supremes, Velvet Underground) on the soundtrack.”
“There was this feeling of what’s next,” she says of this period. Things shifted when new faces came into the scene. These were people like Keith Haring and Ann Magnuson and eventually Kenny Scharf, Futura, Fab 5 Freddy, and more.
“I met Keith on the street. He had his DayGlo painted glasses he did himself and was taking pictures of people and asked if he could take mine. And that’s how I met him. Then art things happened, which was the third period. At this point, Julian Schnabel and David Salle were ruling the roost. That was art school based art that you have to go to school to pretend to understand. It was very elitist and kind of really boring.”
“Through Underground USA I met Fab 5 Freddy. At this point, no one Downtown had heard of graffiti and b-boying. One of the reasons why was because we walked everywhere: we didn’t take the subway. We didn’t see the trains. It sounds weird but that was why Uptown and Downtown never mixed. Underground USA was at St. Mark’s for six months and I was at this Downtown party that Fab came to. He made the connection through Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party which is how he met Blondie and they did that ‘Rapture‘ thing.”
“He made Keily Jenkins and Futura go see Underground with him (which Futura said he fell asleep during and I liked that because it was honest). Fab walked up to me at a party and said, ‘Patty Astor: you’re my favorite movie star.’ and he stuck out a paper cake plate and asked for my autograph. I was like, ‘Woah.'”
“I said, ‘You must be my new best friend.’ and that’s what he turned out to be.”
The scene continued with parties and the ushering in of new faces like Basquiat and Alan Vega. It was the Beyond Words show that changed everything. “That was the first formal Downtown-meets-Uptown thing–and then it blew up. The graffiti guys were then everywhere. The reason why the graffiti guys and punkers got along so well is because we were using the fabric of the city to do what you have to do. There was a real understanding of using the city. You also have to understand that New York at this point was like a bomb had gone off. There was ruble everywhere and there were no services and it was crummy.”
“As Fab says, if you want to have a culture, you need to invent your own. That’s what we both did.”
The group did shows together and hung out in various club circles. Collaborations sprouted up and Patty started to get much closer to Futura and Fab and more. Her relationship with Futura was a big spark for what would make FUN. She got him and friends like Zephyr into a club and, as a sign of respect, he offered her a painting.
“I was living on East 3rd Street, the Street Of The Stars,” she explains noting that the area was pretty questionable and but that everyone lived there because it was cheap. “I told Futura, ‘Why don’t you do a mural on my wall because that’s more special.’ And he did that. I knew Kenny at that time and thought he’d paint the other wall and we’ll do a barbecue in the afternoon. Kenny said he would join in, he Van Chrome-ing” then, which is putting DayGlo do-dads all over things. He did my toaster, blender and alarm clock while Futura painted and I made ribs and potato salad and it was a big success.”
“We were all completely stoned and Keith was there and Fab was there and I think Keith was looking out the front window and there were bums at the trashcans drinking Thunderbirds and Keith goes, ‘OH SHIT!’ We all rush over there and Jeffrey Deitch and Diego Cortez are both getting out of a cab in their little suits. And the bums cleared a path for them! That’s how I met Jeffrey. He was there from the beginning.”
She met Bill Stelling at this point and he had a place that he wanted to fix up and turn into a gallery. He asked her if she knew any artists and, sure enough, she did. They decided on being a gallery and showed 20 colored pencil drawings by her husband Steven Kramer (which were shrink wrapped like records because they had no money). They were priced at fifty dollars and they all sold in one day.
“That was a thousand dollars…I guess we have a gallery!”
“Kenny had just done all my appliances so I said he could be next. We wanted this to be the artists’ gallery and weren’t going to be like Soho. The artists could even name the gallery! Kenny wanted to call it FUN Gallery so I said fine. It just took off from there.”
Fab showed next and, although the gallery name was supposed to change with every show, they stuck with FUN Gallery because it was so stupid and they couldn’t afford to change the stationery every month. Fab was next and wanted to name his gallery Serious Gallery, which may have been a little too severe.
Everyone in her artistic circle showed at FUN to varying success. She even mentions a time where she had to beg people to buy the Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat works they were showing. However, the area surrounding FUN quickly morphed into something different: it officially became a destination. “Four other galleries opened along the lines of ours. There were people out in the streets at all times and people stayed to renovate the tenements to look like Soho, which was ridiculous. So, after four years, I decided to call it quits because the East Village totally changed at that time.”
With her scene having ended and wanting to do something new, Patty made a dramatic turn West: she moved to California to start making movies again. She did pretty well, too. “We did our masterpiece, Hollywood movie Assault Of The Killer Bimbos. It’s a classic! I want to show that this Summer. I need to start pitching that since its pretty good. Then, I got the idea for the book and did shitty jobs for twenty years while working on it.”
Patti even bugged Jeffrey to do a show about the FUN Gallery since that’s something he told her would happen during the gallery’s heyday. “Jeffrey would come to the FUN Gallery and I remember he said, ‘Patti, you know one day there will be a recreation of this in a museum.’ Decades later he said he really wanted to do one but he was getting more space so he couldn’t give a date. A new space? I was like, dude, you have four galleries! He already knew he was going to come out here [to MOCA], where FUN Gallery was recreated as a part of Art In The Streets.”
“And here we are!” she says, tossing her hands up. Patti has obviously seen and done a lot and–although much of her history is in New York–she finds Los Angeles to be refreshing. She also finds that some parts are drastically changing. For example, she used to live in Echo Park. She can’t find any similarities between Echo Park then and Echo Park now.
“It’s a different atmosphere. That neighborhood has totally changed. When I first moved there, you’d say buenos dias to everyone you saw. Now it’s just hipster assholes who are shits to you and they’re pigs and everything is really expensive. It’s the same thing all over again.”
Echo Park annoyances aside, she loves Los Angeles. She finds something comforting about it and, again, she loves the beach. “There is a more pioneering spirit here and an open atmosphere. I didn’t grow up in a city: it’s nice to have a car and have that kind of thing. Hermosa has been great for me, too. I get so much done. It has a really open sense to it.”
“What am I doing now? Promoting my book,” she explains, obviously alluding to her recently self-published FUN Gallery…The True Story. “There are only three hundred copies in the world so far! I made my first ‘bookstore’ sale to Marc Jacobs’ Bookmarc. I’m starting to get wholesale inquiries–and I haven’t even been able to promote it that much yet.”
“People said it would never work out. People said if you don’t have a book company, you won’t get a tour. I don’t know if you’ve seen any book contracts lately but you don’t get an advance or tour anyway. Through Facebook, I’ve met all these hip hop guys out in the world who love me. They’re adorable, they’re cute, they’re sweet–and they’re these big tough homeboys, too.”
“It’s really touching,” she says with a nod. “The love they have for the culture is incredible.”
“Ten years ago, if someone asked me what I thought of graffiti art, I would have said ‘Meh.’ But, now, these guys are coming into their own. These new artists are really rooted in the old school and their techniques are off the charts: these guys are good.”
“I could put on a terrific graffiti show now,” she says. “I plan to make that part of my tour tour. And meet all these fun people.”
For more on Patti and the FUN Gallery, check out her website. You can buy a copy of her book there, too. Her cat is also named Miss Stormy Astor.