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"Art Lovers New York" Artist and Publisher Nancy Smith Talks To Noah Becker About Her Life In The New York Art Scene

Nancy Smith and Simon Cerigo in 1989 with their two kids Kate and Theo outside the Lower East Storefront which they had originally sublet from Richard Hambleton at the then notorious 5 Rivington St. just a few doors up from the Bowery, 

By NOAH BECKER March, 2019

Noah Becker: Hi Nancy, I've been following your Blog "Art Lovers New York" for many years - are you a New Yorker?

Nancy Smith: Yes, I am most def a New Yorker. I like success, but I also love the hard-scrabble hustle, from the street up. I am a rough & tumble immigrant story. I was born to English-speaking, 1st-generation, secular Jewish immigrants, in Montreal. My paternal grandfather had been an illiterate blacksmith, back in the frozen hinterlands of the Russian Pale, hence the last name. I came of age at the tail end of the Leonard Cohen glory days, and it was - yes, absolutely - that poetic. I split for New York pretty much right away, when in the late 70s French language rights turned brittle and fascist, depressingly affecting what my generation could or could not do, based more on our DNA, than anything else.

Becker: When did you get here and where from?

Smith: I landed in downtown NYC in the fall of 1982, chasing a ‘maybe’ couch at a ‘maybe’ boyfriend’s. I had maybe $2,000 in my pocket. At that time downtown Manhattan was hardcore, a war zone says it nicely. But at least it wasn’t just two groups fighting, here everybody - was fighting. I loved it. Your gut instincts were going determine this outcome, just walking up Houston St. from 6th Ave to Broadway was a gauntlet of hustlers, violence-prone homeless and worse, forget ABC land, and The Bowery.

Nancy in her studio in Montreal, 1981-82, just before she left for NYC

Becker: That must change a person?

Smith: Yes, a couple of turns around the block and your whole way of walking and talking had changed overnight. Put it this way: if you could walk into a laundromat on Mott St. in Chinatown, and get the dryer that was rightfully yours, before the crack-head fielding that big high-heeled platform shoe grabbed it, and come out intact - you were a newly minted, bonafide New Yorker.

Becker: What was the first thing you did when you arrived here in New York City?

Smith: The first thing I did upon arriving, was ‘march’ uptown, and plunk down all of my $2,000 in cash - on a limited edition of 10, DAVID SALLE white chalk on black paper, ‘Trash’ print. cha-ching: New Yorker. I think I realized at least 10 times that - within a year. The art market was super hyper at the time, things happened almost over night.

Catching that wave ? ...street smarts are everything /New Yorker.

Nancy in Montreal, in 1974, attending the MFA program

Becker: Can you relate a few other landmarks along the path to your becoming a New Yorker, specializing in the art world?

Smith: Apart from meeting Jean-Michel Basquiat on the corner of Elizabeth and Prince, just running to the Bodega? Apart from Keith Haring drawing me a huge chalk ‘angel’ on the side of a discarded refrigerator carton for returning his sketchbook? Apart from being with my hubby, Simon Cerigo, a natural-born ‘flaneur’, hardcore music fan; early East Village gallerist; collector & artist; and fellow (Greek) Canadian from Montreal? We both had to sign the checks to seal the deal - to buy a Walter Robinson from Metro Pictures, and we bought a porto-early... Mariko Mori, her now super famous ‘Love Hotel’, a large format photograph - from Colin de Land’s American Fine Arts - that was ours.

 Simon Cerigo, Dan Asher and Nancy Smith, Tribeca, NYC 1982

Becker: What else did you collect at the time?

Smith: We were also the first to buy 3 or 4 amazingly beautiful early Vanessa Beecroft paintings - the eerie, almost Amish-like women portraits, from her first solo show at Jeffrey Deitch. Perhaps our Biggest coup. For $10,000, we bought the early and turned out, largest ‘Lightning’ painting by Jack Goldstein, also from Metro Pictures, now ironically in a museum in Toronto. Although I now do recall that yes, Goldstein was also a Canadian, also from Montreal - with roots similar to mine.

Nancy Smith with baby Kate in front of her Jack Goldstein painting, Within months of buying it her and husband Simon Cerigo were loaning to a museum in Connecticut

Becker: What was the deal in those days?

Smith: The deal is, this was the 80s, and this was how we feed our kids. When a painting went up a good amount in value, maybe 6 times the initial purchase price, we had to sell. We didn’t even unpack them, we kept them pristine in their original packing /with their original provence labels, ready for the turn-around. We also bought a lot of Dan Asher’s work, which helped us coast, in down times. Simon was also an audiophile, trading in high-end, and I mean very high-end, ‘tube’ amplifiers, speakers, turn tables, etc. Unlike the art, the audio equipment was out, and we used it. I remember a young mailman one day, exclaiming in shock when I opened the scuzzy storefront door on Rivington, just up from the Bowery, that we had enough audio equipment to buy the block, let alone the scuzzy run-down building we were living in, and he had no clue about all the ‘fine art’ parcels stacked against the walls!!

Nancy in the trailer for Ondi Timoner's "We Live in Public", about Josh Harris' legendary art happening in lower manhattan.

Becker: Apart from the astute art buying, name some other major times you realized you were a bonafide New Yorker.

Smith: The Richard Hambleton - East Village Store-front Shake-down !!

In 1987, we sublet a broken-down, old dirty, gritty storefront on the L.E.S., at 5 Rivington St., 2 doors up from the then violent, bummed-out Bowery - we were renting from Richard Hambleton aka The Shadowman, and also Canadian by the way.

It was painted solid black inside, from floor-to-ceiling, and I thought that was pretty New York, but that was nothing compared to how it went from there. We painted it white, and settled in with our two very young kids, and then a few months later, surprise: we discovered that though we had been paying the rent to Richard, I want to say $400 - $600 tops per month he had not been giving the money to the landlord.

Artist Richard Hambleton aka "Shadowman"

Becker: Oh dear...

Smith: Long story short, we ended up in landlord tenant court and didn't pay rent at all - for 8 years, turns out the place didn't have a ‘C of O’. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where we prevailed. Finally the landlord caved, Lower East Side real estate values had begun to skyrocket, thanks in part to all the artist activity, so on top of us having lived there rent-free for almost a decade we were paid $80,000 to leave. A lot of money in those days.

Becker: Survival of the fittest.

A Taylor McKimens portrait of Nancy Smith, painted in 2017

Smith: We were a certain kind of frontier, street savvy/ survival-mode New Yorker family/ cha-ching. Thank you - in your weird, twisted-out way, Richard. Which is not to say we didn't sweat it, they turned-off our gas, we cooked on a hotplate. It did cross out minds that we could being ‘offed by’ the landlord any day, which was a common practice a few streets over in Little Italy. Not to forget a couple of ‘roommates’ missing cases in Tribeca.

Becker: Tell me more war stories.

Smith: The Walter Robinson - Artnet Shake-down!! A real classic.

In 2002 I started working for Walter Robinson at artnet, ‘working’ for free, bye the way, submitting photos mostly of the underground, downtown art scene, which he would then edit, group and post every few months - in my own column, under my own name - which he titled, ‘Art Lovers New York’ - a tag I have never since been able to shake, it stuck like gum.

Though I wasn't paid per se, (nobody at Artnet got paid except Walter, & the web techies), I did manage to side-hustle off my activity and high profile there, and pretty well. Charging galleries, (CANADA, ATM, & Foxy, etc) for posting opening photos and trading online p.r. for art work with individual artists, etc. I even had little paid ad ‘tiles’ at the top of each post, generated by myself.

A charcoal drawing 38 x 50 inches by Nancy Smith.

Becker: So what was the "rub"?

The problem was, my site was a blast, and everybody else there at Artnet got jealous. Worse, when Walter went traveling to the then nascent art fairs, Art Basel in Miami had just started up, people realized he didn't know that much, because he couldn't talk about all the new stars he had published but that I had shone a light on as he hadn't ‘sourced’ them - I had. I did all the footwork, and I called the coolest art. I wasn’t just the go-fetch, standard issue ‘lowly’ dog paparazzi, I was the . . auteur !!

Long story short, 2 days before Christmas of 2004, with 2 kids to feed at home, Walter fired me. He told me, meet me at some gallery in Chelsea, and I thought, maybe he was taking me out for lunch for doing such a great job ? Not.

Without much ado, he got right to it.

He said, “we didn't know you’d be so successful, so you're fired.”

Classic New York, or what?

Luckily, the digital ‘self-publishing’ world was quickly evolving, to the point where, a few scant months later, April 2005, I could just start up my own website, F that.

Becker: Well that was candid. So you’ve been publishing Art Lovers New York for a while now. It covers so many shows. Why did you get involved in art publishing ?

Smith: I thought I was going to be paid.

Becker: When and how did you get your first photo published ?

Smith: Colin De Land had died, and I had the last public photos. It was early 2002, I’d been taking art world photos for over 20 years by now, and still everybody just pretty much ignored me. That all changed when Simon told Walter I had the goods on Colin. Walter, who was then head-honcho at Artnet finally said his first, more than 4 words to me, actually uttering a complete sentence: “Bring those last photos of Colin and 10 more, and meet me at the old Spanish coffee shop, Lafayette and Grand.”

He took one look, and exclaimed: “These are gold.”

Walter Robinson published my very first photos.

Colin de Land at the beach, ca. 1980. Photographer unknown. Colin de Land collection, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Becker: What was the first assignment?

Smith: My first assignment was Tracey Emin, for a Charlie Finch review, which was quite outrageous, by the way. After that I was left to my own devices, Walter titled my report ‘Art Lovers New York - Photos by Nancy Smith’, and I never looked back. It was really an exciting time. ‘Art Lovers’ ran from fall 2002 to winter 2004, until I got fired.

Becker: You write about artist Alfredo Martinez at different times, how did you meet him?

Smith: I meet Alfredo back in 1997 or 1998. Everybody was at this crazy Moriko Mori opening at Jeffrey Deitch, it was crowded, chockfull of collectors, writers, artists, and the usual drunks. Alfredo was a young street turk, very ambitious to break into the mainstream, and he was chasing Simon around, because Simon had the rock solid rep of knowing everybody / and he could hook you up. Simon didn't want anything to do with Alfredo, because Simon already had enough going on, and unless you were you going to smoke him up, or take him out to a 5 star dinner afterward, you weren't really in the running at such a fertile event, and he kept passing Alfredo off on me, “go talk to her” - famous last words.

Artist Alfredo Martinez when Nancy Smith first started hanging around with him, March 25, 1999, photo by Nancy Smith

Becker: Is there an article you’ve written that you are most proud of ?

Smith: Joe Bradley’s ‘Kurgan Waves’, his first solo show at Canada. (2006).

a close second:

I was the only journalist/photographer (general media or art world), at the big ‘Gee’s Bend’ quilt survey show at the Whitney, back in the fall of 2002. When Walter posted some of my photos of these venerable old, time-worn southern quilters on my ‘Art Lovers’ report, along-side the gritty underground, downtown scene’s newest young rebels, including Alfredo’s ‘Fake Basquiat’ trial and the accompanying Josh Harris' ‘protest’ crew, it really helped kick-start the Gee’s Bend ole African-American women - these quilters are well-deserved, still snow-balling success.

People in the art world used to call my love of quilts, a ‘hobby’ back in the day - but not anymore.

Becker: Do you feel like NYC is gentrified and no longer interesting as a scene for artists?

Nope.

Becker: You write about We Live in Public founder Josh Harris quite often. How did you meet him?

Smith: It was Alfredo who brought me to Josh, sometime in 1998. Alfredo was already joined-at-the-hip with Josh, doing stuff for the art parties, and playing with the big guns. Josh was drowning in money, and wanted to know more about quilts, in particular he wanted someone to buy him a really special old quilt for somebody’s rock n’roll wedding, who he wanted to impress. Josh got into quilts right away, both as a ‘spiritual artifact’ (his words), and as a ‘sampler’; a binary primer, a source of ‘pattern’, for the digital future; a signifier, an archive, and yet wholly functional DIY, imbued with colonial history / in other words, a historical frontier communication media, with living relevance.

This was my first really great ‘art’ gig. He paid me well, he loved my stories, and even the antique quilt vendor gave me a small, but gorgeous Beacon blanket ‘Baby Blocks’ quilt as a commission on their end.

It was so win win. I can’t emphasize that enough.

It was so ahead-of-the-curve.

And that’s pretty much how it stood, until many months later . . when I saw some scruffy artist types painting the inside of an old warehouse building on lower Broadway, and asked if they needed an extra hand. $10/hr painting walls - I was on.

Josh Harris was a dotcom millionaire who became famous for crafting a Big Brother-style artistic experiment. 

Becker: Then something interesting happened?

Smith: Yes, Next morning, lo and behold, in walks Josh Harris!!

With great surprise, he asks me - what am I doing painting walls, in the home of his newest project ? And then straight away, takes me on a tour of what was to evolve into ‘Quiet’ - the twisted-out step-mother, or is that, the wild step-child, of ‘WE LIVE IN PUBLIC.’

He was always asking me what I thought as we toured, next thing I know, I was his newest right-hand person and art world ‘liaison’, making $10,000 a week.

Much to the chagrin of longtime Pseudo employees, like party production master artist David Leslie, et al. That’s how things worked at Pseudo, real fast. and furious. you had to catch the ball, and run with it. When you lost Josh’s attention, you were out.

Becker: What was it like working with Josh in those days?

Smith: If you had talent, skills, ideas, Josh was a god. a pseudo-god. Plus Josh wanted - rebels. Outlaws, outsiders, unknowns, characters, nobody who could hook into the mainstream.

Pseudo was a paid play land - for the hard-core dreamers. The downtown denizens never had it so good. The NYPD, NYFD, FBI and even FEMA all thought we were a ‘suicide’ cult on the brink of blowing ourselves up on the eve of Year 2000, and we were all running to the bank.

Becker: What do you have planned for the next year or so?

Smith: I don’t ever ‘plan’ in advance, with regard to ‘Art Lovers’, though sometimes I will follow ‘trends’ as they play out. I try to be not just right on the mark, but way ahead of it. It’s what comes up tops, at any given moment.

As an artist, I do have my eye on the prize all the time, and that is getting me, Simon Cerigo, and Dan Asher, my early pals, some really, seriously overdue, well-deserved art world recognition.

That includes my art world photo archives, going back over 3 decades now, and which bye the way, have never been exhibited. And my ongoing drawings, watercolors, and, but of course: my beloved, hand-stitched, ‘creative’ quilt repairs. WM

  

Noah Becker

Noah Becker shows his paintings internationally. A visual artist, saxophonist and the publisher and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine, Becker has also written freelance articles for many other major magazines. Becker's writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Garage, Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. He has also written texts for major artist monographs published by Rizzoli and Hatje Cantz. Becker directed the New York art documentary New York is Now (2010) viewable on Youtube. 

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