Recently, a video was posted on YouTube of Bill Barrell’s Colossal Fruit and Vegetable Show at the Essex Street Market in New York City back in 1969. He was asked to talk a little about that show and how it came about. This is what he had to say.
– It was back in 1965 when I had moved back to the US from Spain, where my son Joshua was born. I had lived in Spain for close to two years and moving to the Lower East Side of NYC was a cultural shock. In Spain, we had lived in the bucolic countryside in Ibiza. In our first apartment on 11th Street in NYC, we got robbed. So, I looked for a loft and found one on Rivington and Bowery – $100 a month for 2,500 square feet. But then, another came up for $90 a month with the same square footage. It was on Pitt Street, way over by the Williamsburg Bridge between Delancy and Rivington Streets. Ten dollars made a big difference in those days. I took it. The owner of the building ran a soda making business on the ground floor and you had to step over the drunks to get into the building.
We had lived there for a year or so when I had the idea of opening a gallery. I mentioned it to some friends and they all thought I was crazy. Why would anyone go to the lower east side to see art? I went ahead anyway. I called it the Pitt St Salon, printed my own announcements and did a big mailing. Grace Gluck of the New York Times happened to be doing an article at the time called, “Alternate Spaces”. She called me wanting to know what made me open a gallery way downtown. I told her I had a lot of work I had brought back from Spain but could not find a gallery interested in showing them. I think her article helped. We opened and to everyone’s surprise, the show drew a huge crowd.
Hudson Walker, who had bought some of my work in Provincetown came to the show and he bought three pieces. Later, I would take work up to his office on 45th Street. It was always at the end of the workday and he would drag out a bottle of bourbon and place it on the green felt pad that he used to pour diamonds onto. One time, actually the last time I saw him, he told me that I was the best painter since Marsden Hartley. He was a patron of Hartley’s, who had died a year or so before that and I was please to think I could replace his love for Hartley. Unfortunately, Huddy died the following year. The last time I took work to his office, he said, “I am not fond of any of these”, but quickly said, “you probably need money.” I always needed money. He gave me a check for $400. I still owe him a work.
Bob Wiegand had asked me at the opening how I had attracted such a crowd. I told him I thought downtown was ready for some changes. He loved what I had done and told me he was putting together a show called “10 Downtown”. He and the other nine artists put a lot of effort into it and it was a great success. All of these artists were located south of Houston near Broadway. This area was not known at the time as SoHo. I believe that when people saw what beautiful spaces artists lived in it triggered the move downtown.
So – I would shop at the Essex Street Market. One day, noticing some empty stalls, I thouht what a good idea it would be to rent one and do a show – bring the art right to the people! The idea sat there germinating. Finally, I thought why not mirror what was already there only on a gigantic scale, fruits and vegetables. So, I made huge tomatoes, bananas, eggplant, potoatoes, etc out of styrofoam. Even the scales and weights were foam. We printed up the announcements on shopping bags. Finally – the opening. It was grand. The little old shopping ladies were taken by surprise.
My younger brother Budge was taking a course on filmmaking at the time. He came and made a project out of it and managed to catch the essence of the whole thing, the curious regulars and my friends who had showed up. It shows Mimi Gross and Red Grooms deciding which bag of carrots to buy. Many of our family showed up. My Mum was caught on film buying an enormous eggplant, my sister Janet showing interest in the big string of garlic that Irene had made. Irene is caught on tape articulating about why we did the show. The moviemaker, Ken Jacobs came. We had shown his work at the Sun Gallery back in 1960. He made 3D slides of it catching some great moments. I have to thank Irene for all of her input and both my brother Budge and Ken Jacobs for documenting it. –