The New York Times Magazine
September 1, 1996, Sunday
By Ellen Pall
The Do-It-Yourself Dealers
IT IS RAINING ON THE MORNING OF MAY 3, nasty, chilly showers that add a smell of damp to the scant charms of the shabby-genteel Gramercy Park Hotel. The third annual Gramercy International Contemporary Art Fair will officially open here at 6, and by noon Kenny Schachter is up to his ankles in art. Last night, alarmed by the tininess of his quarters -- the fair's organizers assigned him the bedroom half of a small, rather dingy suite -- he frantically tried to phone the 25 artists he had invited to show their work, asking them to scale back. No luck. Artists bearing half a dozen pieces each arrive in a regular parade. In no time the place looks like Groucho Marx's stateroom in ''A Night at the Opera.''
Tall and dark, with short, bristling hair, a wide face and small brown eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses, Schachter, 34, is a new kind of art dealer, an itinerant salesman making his way in a most unsteady market. Today he is badly in need of a shave. He had three hours of sleep last night, having been here until 2 A.M. helping Rachel Harrison, a longtime favorite artist, dismantle the bed and create an installation from its various elements. Draped with swaths of orange and tan cloth, it now leans perilously in several pieces against the walls, pinned in one place by two night tables, one stacked on top of the other. The hotel forbids the use of nails, forcing dealers and artists to ingenious shenanigans. Schachter, an artist himself, has perched a piece of his own on a towel rack in the bathroom; he has found the underside of the box spring to be a convenient place to Velcro a few small, joyfully childlike paintings -- of a bus, a car, a cherry -- by Brendan Cass. Now he props up a couple of pieces by Graham Gillmore, small paintings on Masonite, in an open dresser drawer. Nearby, Jonathan Horowitz, a self-effacing man with glasses, a mustache and long hair, is setting up a video piece on the room's television, a continuous loop of footage showing a lighted cigarette fixed to a wall at a right angle. As it burns, a cheesily seductive song called ''Je T'Aime'' plays over and over.
One floor down, Schachter's wife, the artist Ilona Malka, is installing her own work in the room of her dealer, the East Village art pioneer Gracie Mansion. Malka, a small pretty woman, is very pregnant and very tired. She is also not speaking to her husband, who didn't call last night and let her know where he was until 2 A.M.
''Tell her I'm miserable,'' Schachter begs of an acquaintance about to migrate downstairs. He isn't joking. Trim now, he grew up fat and endured an excruciating adolescence in suburban Long Island; occasionally, a bit of the wretched-ness from those early years surfaces. ''Plead with her to forgive me.''
The acquaintance departs. An artist named John LeKay, tall and rather forbidding, comes in with a huge carton and looks for a place to set it down. ''This is it?'' he asks Schachter. ''The space?'' LeKay finds a few square feet of carpet and opens the box. Inside is a fierce white head sculptured in paradichlorobenzine, a toxic, volatile substance used as a deodorizer in urinals.
A brisk young man in an assertively checked jacket and mustard-colored shirt appears at the door, lugs in some enigmatic equipment and kneels to install it under a table.
''Hey!'' says a voice emanating from the equipment.
''It speaks every five minutes,'' the artist, Jon Tower, explains to Schachter. ''It says 50 different things, sort of about art and openings and what it's like to be a computer.''
''That's so cool,'' Schachter says. ''I like it really loud.''
''If for some reason it stops talking, give me a call.''
Tower breezes out as Ricci Albenda, rail-thin and disheveled, with a dark, obsessive gaze, shambles in. Slung around his neck is a translucent shower curtain on which he has meticulously painted, in letters like a typewriter's, the coinage ''hopital.'' Going into the bathroom to install it, he finds LeKay sitting and reading on the closed toilet, one of the few horizontal surfaces available. Schachter goes in to help Albenda, then rushes back out as he hears the night tables in Harrison's installation toppling to the floor.
''Have I lost you, Kenny?'' Albenda calls out. He emerges from the bathroom, fingers blackened from touch-up painting. ''I can't wash my hands,'' he complains. ''There's a sculpture in the sink.''
The sculpture, a glass box encasing a doll in a sort of waxen nest, is the work of Brandon Ballengee. Lean, soft-spoken, tall enough for a slight stoop, with a yellow mohawk, a dog collar and a large safety pin through one ear lobe, Ballengee has now moved on to the closet, where he is hanging a clutch of ragged angels. At the same time, Tricia Keightley, cheerful and petite, is perched on the radiator using thumbtacks and fishing line to try to ''drunk proof'' the painting she is hanging. Experimentally, she punches it, a large canvas with a smoothly painted image that suggests an aortic uterus, or a uterine heart; it swings but does not fall. Across the room, Devon Dikeou hangs up five framed ''Artist's Coupons'' entitling the bearer to 20 percent or $299 off any size artwork by her.
Schachter begins to discuss prices with Ballengee. ''How much do you want for----.''
''Hey!'' squawks the computer under the table. ''You can buy me, but I won't do what you ask.''
THE FOUR-DAY GRAMERCY FAIR, WHERE 50 dealers attracted more than 6,000 visitors, represents the uppermost layer of a curious new art underworld. Just below the decorous crust of New York's gallery establishment lies a roiling scene created by a generation of artists and would-be art entrepreneurs shut out of traditional careers by the art market crash of 1990-91. During the 80's, when Reaganomics ruled, no precinct of New York's cultural scene was more flush than the art world. It rivaled real estate, the legal profession, even Wall Street itself for lavishness, not to mention arrogance, ostentation and greed. In some ways, the situation was unprecedented, for while artworks had been treated as commodities for centuries, never before had their values skyrocketed so steeply.
All that ended when the stock market collapse of 1987 finally caught up with the art trade and brought it to its knees. In the humbling aftermath, galleries folded, collectors de-accessioned, dealers sold their summer houses and SoHo succumbed to an invasion of home-furnishing stores. Young people coming into the New York art world just then -- and they were coming by the hundreds -- met a brick wall.
As often happens with such reversals, however, the detour this generation was forced to take proved to have attractions of its own. Exclusion gave these younger artists and dealers the freedom of working outside the system. Their collective energy shattered into countless home salons, semipublic galleries, roving curatorships, shoestring microgalleries, Web sites, publicaccess television shows and downscale, ad hoc exhibitions. If the New York art world of the 80's was about money, in the 90's, at least for these people, it has been about ingenuity and the spirit of do-it-yourself. Call it neo-dealing. After opening -- and closing -- a Wooster Street gallery called Arena a few years ago, Renee Riccardo opened a new Arena in her Brooklyn brownstone apartment. When Gina Fiore's SoHo gallery job ended in 1994, she started the Gina Fiore Salon of Fine Arts in her tiny Greenwich Village studio apartment.
With little or no capital at stake, do-it-yourselfers have found it easy to take risks, both esthetic and entrepreneurial. Unlike the landed gentry, they are unburdened by overhead, not a bad thing at a time when cyberspace is poised to alter profoundly the way art is displayed and distributed. Sometimes smaller is better: Cindy Kane's spring show of very small paintings -- which she made in her houseboat studio -- might have been lost in a cavernous, white SoHo cube; in Regine Oesch-Aiyer's compact Upper West Side apartment, they were nicely in scale.
And if the work that do-it-yourselfers promote is not always excellent -- and it is not -- at least they can make a claim to being more democratic than most established dealers, both in what they show and to whom they show it. Many of the new dealers have little affection for the rigid traditions observed by their predecessors: galleries open Tuesday through Saturday only, no evening hours, powerful dealer in the back while a minion out front stares down the hoi polloi. From the do-it-yourself point of view, these conventions simply scared off the public from buying art or from even entering a gallery.
With established collectors scarce, many do-it-yourselfers approach the task of creating collectors out of just plain folks with an almost missionary zeal. Julia Fishkin and Michelle DaSilva, who jointly curate Living Room, a salon in DaSilva's West Village apartment, occasionally bring artists and prospective buyers together for a home-cooked meal.
Throughout the do-it-yourself scene, prices are kept low, starting in the hundreds and only rarely topping $5,000. Joseph Amrhein, an artist who two years ago opened Pierogi 2000, a cutting-edge gallery in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, keeps three huge flatfile cabinets, the sort used by architects, full of small works by about 200 artists, most pieces selling for $200 or less. ''Regular people feel they can't participate in this art collecting world,'' Amrhein says. ''SoHo seems more like a museum -- you never think about actually buying something.''
Taken singly, few aspects of the current scene are unprecedented: many of the top dealers of the 80's started out by showing art in their living rooms; the early-80's East Village scene featured dozens of scruffy galleries in unlikely spots, and artists have been mounting shows of their own work since at least 1874, when the painters who came to be known as the Impressionists staged an exhibition in a photographer's studio. What is new, apart from the Internet, is the critical mass the scene has begun to achieve -- and not only in New York.
For years, Los Angeles has been thickly honeycombed with home-grown art salons. In London, a parallel flowering, cross-fertilized by the world of rock music, has already met with enough media attention and public enthusiasm to inspire a Carnaby Street-style renaissance of the British art market, which has begun to eclipse SoHo's. Damien Hirst, at 31 the reigning artist-prince of the London scene, got his start (and helped start the movement) by mounting his own shows while still in art school eight years ago. This spring, Hirst had a solo show at Larry Gagosian's sleek megagallery in SoHo. The pieces on view included two cows cut into a dozen slices and sheathed in as many imposing glass cases. The works were expensive -- the cows went for six figures -- but they were all sold before the show opened to the public.
Kenny Schachter, meanwhile, has made his rather scrappy name by repeatedly staging big, messy group shows of unrepresented artists in vacant SoHo spaces that he rents for just six or eight weeks. With shallow cash reserves and no institutional affiliation, he gets what he needs -- a temporary lease, a temporary phone, a discount on the printing of 5,000 invitations -- through a mixture of charm, shrewdness and badgering. (''I'm somewhat of an annoyance,'' he says, not without pride.) A lawyer by training, he also barters legal services for advertising, gallery space, Internet access; occasionally, he handles an uncontested divorce in return for artwork.
The child of a carpet salesman and a housewife, Schachter studied philosophy and political science at George Washington University before going on to the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York; his art education was almost entirely a matter of looking and reading. He is not necessarily the most erudite, polished or thoughtful of his peers. But he is smart, stubborn and enterprising, and he has shown himself to have a fine eye for new art: of the artists in his earliest shows, three -- Christian Schumann, Andrea Zittel and Janine Antoni -- have since been featured in Whitney Biennials, while some two dozen others now show with highly respected dealers.
Still, Schachter sells to only one established collector, A. G. Rosen, a vice president of a textile company who collected avidly through the 80's and is now dipping liberally into the emerging art of the 90's. For the most part, Schachter's sales energy goes into cultivating new collectors, affirming their intuitions and bolstering them with education until, he hopes, they feel confident enough to actually buy something.
SCHACHTER IS SITTING UNEASILY IN THE artfilled SoHo office of Stephen Tarter, a real-estate broker who has arranged many of the subleases for Schachter's trademark hit-and-run shows. The next one is a six-week group show that Schachter is calling ''The Death of the Death of Painting.'' He has already chosen the 17 artists and advertised the show (''Location to be announced'') in Flash Art magazine. Unfortunately, with the date fast approaching, he has yet to secure that location.
When Schachter began mounting his nomadic shows five years ago, SoHo was riddled with empty spaces and landlords willing to give him cheap rent for a couple of months. But the neighborhood's subsequent rise as a furniture mecca has left his ''Death'' show with only two possible sites. Now Tarter, a weekend sculptor himself, has more bad news: one of those sites, the space on Grand Street where the Black & Herron gallery is soon to close, is out. It is closing, yes, but not soon enough.
''So what do I do?'' Schachter asks.
The only hope is the ground floor and basement of 480 Broome Street, a former carpentry shop that Schachter has already arranged to use for an upcoming show of graduate-student work that Columbia University has hired him to curate. After that, the space is slated to become a furniture and clothing shop. Reluctantly, Schachter begins to ponder a four-week run, if Tarter can secure even that; the show can't be postponed into July, since the onset of summer virtually shuts down the art world.
Before leaving the room, Tarter hands Schachter a fat loose-leaf notebook. It contains photographs of work by artists in the Sculptors League, of which Tarter is a member. Schachter may not have a gallery to call his own, but everywhere he goes, paintings, photos, slides and resumes are pressed into his hands.
''I need a vacation,'' he mutters, dutifully leafing through the book.
Tarter returns and looks over Schachter's shoulder at the beautifully smoothed and rounded stone forms in the notebook. ''It's stuff that people live with,'' he murmurs tenderly. ''Not the stuff you show.''
''I live with what I show,'' Schachter growls.
WHAT SCHACHTER AND OTHER DO-IT-YOURSELF dealers have to sell is, formally speaking, anarchy. Vigorous and sometimes very good work is now being done by young artists in installation art, video art, computer art, performance art, text art, photography and many other forms, both traditional and new. Artists are increasingly mixing forms, infusing video into sculpture or found objects into installations.
Among the rising artists currently crossing over from the do-it-yourself world are Michael Ashkin, who makes desolate, meticulously miniaturized landscapes from wood, dirt, resin and model trucks; Lisa Yuskavage, whose oil paintings float stylized images of women on monochrome backgrounds, injecting sexual politics into both realism and kitsch; Rirkrit Tiravanija, who changes a gallery's social balance by setting up stockpots and cooking for visitors; Charles Spurrier, who trades in paint and canvas for chewed bubble gum, pigmented petroleum jelly and fingerprints on layers of Scotch tape, and Christian Schumann, whose cartoon painting echoes Lichtenstein, Guston and Dubuffet, among others, but whose collage elements build on Donald Baechler's and Julian Schnabel's work in the 80's.
For all the disorder of this esthetic frenzy, there is a gathering consensus that strong new work is being done in all sorts of genres and that a growing audience exists to support it. (The gallery system, too, seems to be recovering: the Art Now Gallery Guide lists more SoHo galleries than it did before the art crash.) Mary Boone, who brought to prominence such defining artists of the 80's as Schnabel and David Salle, compares the moment to the late 70's, when she opened her gallery: a great time for risk-taking artists as well as venturesome buyers. Larry Gagosian, whose galleries in New York and Los Angeles have been among the few to prosper in both the 80's and 90's, thinks that the upsurge in art entrepreneurship may be a concomitant of the growth in exciting new work.
Neither Boone (who, before opening her SoHo gallery, sold paintings from her Bond Street living loft) nor Gagosian (who started out in 1975 selling posters in an open-air patio space near U.C.L.A.) knew much about Kenny Schachter. Neither one has been to Pierogi 2000. Nor do they seem particularly concerned over the competition that such dealers and venues might present.
''Ultimately,'' Boone says, ''a gallery is only as interesting as the art it shows. The methodology of the venue is of lesser importance.''
Gagosian paid the do-it-yourselfers the compliment of suggesting that other dealers might perceive them as a threat. But not him. In his view, the new, widely scattered subsoil of do-it-yourself galleries can only nurture the scene. ''It gets more people looking at art, thinking about art, buying art,'' he says. For emerging artists, he believes, ''It adds to the vitality of the work to have that kind of guerrilla gallery -- the context gives the art a lot of energy.''
SCHACHTER HAS PLENTY OF CONTEXT GOING for him when he arrives at Graham Gillmore's East 12th Street studio -- a converted meat locker just west of Avenue B, half a block from one of the liveliest heroin markets in the city. Schachter is wearing gym shorts, unlaced black boots and a T-shirt he made himself with a picture of Marcel Duchamp and the legend ''I Am Not a Role Model.'' The day is warm and the sharp wail of two electric guitars fills the street; when a middle-aged woman passes by, arms heavy with groceries, the burning joint in her mouth leaves an aromatic trail.
Schachter fumbles with the keys that Gillmore dropped off on his way out of town. Schachter has brought along Hey, his mostly Shar-Pei dog; the moment he unbolts the iron crossbar outside the double doors, two cats try to surge out and Hey, a bit on the volatile side, starts to rocket in.
Schachter is here to meet a prospective buyer, Hannah Flournoy, a young analyst for a Wall Street hedge fund. She has already seen his jumbled home gallery, where several Gillmore pieces attracted her. Now she pulls up in a cab, slender and coolly groomed in silken beige and blue, and slips through the studio doors while Schachter ties the straining Hey outside. ''One of these days,'' he says under his breath, ''I'll do something normally.''
Gillmore, a 33-year-old transplanted Canadian whose art Schachter has long supported, left six large paintings hanging on the walls. The most typical of his recent works are done on Masonite; words are carved in or painted, then surrounded by painted podlike loops. Linked with vines of paint, the words form an overall pattern suggesting both the organic internal plumbing of the body and the mechanical plumbing of some baroque waterway. The words, sometimes lifted from mail-order bridal catalogues and self-help manuals, read every which way, sliding back and forth between image and information. A thick coat of polyurethane creates a gleaming surface. The effect is at once highly worked and crude, abstract and representational.
Flournoy is drawn to the two Masonite pieces on view. As she inspects them, Schachter smiles nervously, slouches, shrugs, mumbles about technique. Everything he tells her about the art seems an afterthought, a scrap of polite conversation. When her boyfriend, an artist, arrives to advise her, Schachter offhandedly recounts Gillmore's resume (''10 solo shows'') and reels off the places where his work is scheduled to be seen. He leads the couple back toward the living quarters, where a bed, a ratty couch, a toilet and a tub stand in unwalled nakedness. He points out bits of a series that Gillmore did on lengths of cut-up fire hose, each strip printed with the name of a pornographic performer (''LOTTA TOPP,'' ''DESIREE ROXX''). Much of the art that Schachter favors is characterized by a sort of sweaty intensity; like his own work, which ranges from sound and video art to computer-manipulated photographs, it often deals with impermanence, death and decay. He traces this affinity to the year he was 13, when he watched his mother die of a brain tumor.
In a corner, Schachter finds another large Masonite piece. He hauls it out to the front, near the grimy windows.
Flournoy examines it with increasing enthusiasm. ''VENUS,'' it says in one corner; ''TOUCH-SO-MATIC''; ''PETITE D'ACCORD.''
''He's really committed to his work,'' Schachter remarks. ''Resin is such a toxic thing, and he's sleeping here.'' As Flournoy and her boyfriend murmur together, head to head, he glances out the door to see if Hey has been stolen.
The boyfriend asks about price.
''For these? In the $6,000 range.''
Schachter crosses his arms, hums softly. Then Flournoy spots a scrap of paper taped to the wall near the windows. She scans it, hands it to Schachter. It's a price list that Gillmore left, telling how much he wants for his cut on each piece. The couple continue their minute inspection of the painting they like, but she soon asks, ''Are we ready?'' and he nods.
''It's a great piece,'' Schachter mumbles, locking up.
He watches the pair as they walk off toward Avenue A. ''That price list freaked her out,'' he says finally. Gillmore had asked for between $2,500 and $3,500 for each piece -- just about right to leave Schachter the standard dealer's commission of 50 percent. But perhaps Schachter is not, in Flournoy's eyes, a sufficiently standard dealer.
THE GRAMERCY ART FAIR opens on the same night as the Damien Hirst show at Gagosian's downtown gallery. Also this night, across the East River at Pierogi 2000, Joe Am rhein's gallery, the opening of a rare group show of sound art attracts several hundred guests, many of them artists. Fifty or so stand in the light drizzle outside the open door, dark as a flock of crows in heavy boots and paint-spattered jeans. They drink Rolling Rock and their voices wheel with the pleasure of being out and about after long hours alone in the studio.
Inside the white rectangular gallery, a former woodworking shop, the mood is giddy. The room, which appears to be perfectly empty, is in fact booby-trapped with dozens of hidden motion sensors. A couple burst out laughing as their passing unexpectedly triggers what sounds like a chattering monkey. Here and there, people press an ear to the wall to hear pieces installed inside: pendulums swinging in Paul Panhuysen's ''Clock,'' for example. Issuing forth from behind a curtain near the door is the microphoned squeaking of some caged rats. Even Amrhein, who was up most of the night helping to install the show with Brian Conley, the curator, is laughing. When the mother of a toddler tosses a balled-up diaper into a trash can, a child giggles up at her from a buried boom box.
These days, Brooklyn is a sort of Croton Reservoir of the New York art world, a deep, pure and necessary resource. And Pierogi, in artist-dense Williamsburg (by one plausible estimate, between 3,000 and 5,000 artists live there), is arguably the heart of the scene, part clearinghouse, part touchstone.
Amrhein, 43, is a serious abstract painter who shows at the Earl McGrath Gallery in Manhattan. During the 80's, when he lived in California, he made enough money painting to do it full time. ''The 80's were fun, for a while,'' he says one bright afternoon in the cramped office at the back of his gallery space. ''Then, the wall fell down, I guess.''
Square-jawed and James Dean handsome, Amrhein is shy, gently humorous and deeply respectful of the work and intentions of other artists. Though he still sells his own paintings occasionally, he supports himself with sign painting, a trade he learned years ago. He opened Pierogi 2000 out of a personal sense of frustration. ''You want the art world to be vital, you have to be vital yourself,'' he says. ''You can't just wait for something to happen.''
Out in the main room on this day is a show of work by a German artist named Stefan Bohnenberger. Fourteen little cardboard boxes -- shoeboxes, food cartons -- are laid out on a large work table. Each has two small openings, one for light, one for looking; the viewer is supposed to hold each box under a naked bulb and peek inside. In one, a tiny, ghostly figure of white gauze is found to be lashed lethally into a corner. Another, marked ''Caspian Brand Caviar,'' reveals four sugar cubes bathed in mysterious shadows. In a third, the spectator meets his own surprised, reflected eye.
Amrhein puts plenty of energy into the shows at Pierogi, but it is his innovative flat files that have endeared him to artists. Curators and collectors often come to review them, and Amrhein has recently started setting up exchanges of flat-file work with gallerists in other cities.
Now, a young woman, small and blond, turns up in the spill of sun at the gallery's open door. Amrhein goes out to meet her. Proffering a portfolio, she introduces herself as Patricia Smith.
''This is very nice,'' Amrhein says, leaning on the large metal files to sort through her pastels. Now fidgeting, now sternly composed, Smith stands uncomfortably beside him.
''I have a show up at Black & Herron,'' she says, then demonstrates a piece made of acrylic paint on netting. ''You hold it up like this, so the light casts a shadow on the wall. See? And the shadow is part of the piece.''
No sooner is she gone, half a dozen pieces accepted for Am rhein's file, than another young woman comes in, with another portfolio.
''You don't think it's too much like Baldessari's work?'' Amrhein asks gently, inspecting it. The young woman promptly explains why her work is nothing like John Baldessari's. Amrhein hears her out and continues to look, hoping but failing to find something for his files. Finally, inviting her to come back and try again, he returns to the office, a little unhappy about the role he played in the exchange.
''When you're selling work for $100,'' he says, ''it's hard to say, 'This isn't good enough.' ''
Pierogi is a constant drain on Amrhein's finances. He takes only a 20 percent commission on work from the flat files, which require a lot of upkeep. The sound show closed after four weeks with nothing sold, as expected. Indeed, the possibility was so remote that prices had not even been assigned; not to sell is the nature of sound art. And the six rats chewed through the wires on their amplification system.
''I guess they had stage fright,'' says Amrhein, who fed and watered them for four weeks. ''They sure had their way with those microphones.''
SOON AFTER THE GRAMERCY fair closed, Schachter's wife, Ilona, went into the hospital; her doctors, alarmed by a lack of amniotic fluid, prescribed an intravenous drip and bed rest. On top of that, Schachter's ''Death'' exhibition was still homeless, and he was starting to become seriously worried.
The next day, though, Steve Tarter announced that he was almost certain that the Broome Street space would work out. Certain enough to print 5,000 invitations? Schachter phoned an officer of the building's co-op board; the deal hadn't been O.K.'d yet.
''So here we go again,'' Schachter groaned, picking up the phone to call an artist he knows on the board. (He is one of those people who never forget a phone number and who seem to know everyone.) After five days of relentless wheedling, the lease was signed.
''Death'' was set to open on a Sunday in June, the art world equivalent of wearing white shoes in December. But Schachter has no interest in the conventions of the dealers who preceded him.
When he first encountered the New York art scene in the late 80's, he recalls: ''I was shocked by how small it was, how provincial. They looked you up and down, pigeonholed you. There was no desire to communicate beyond a few professionals -- curators, critics. I find that kind of mentality reprehensible. It reeks of exclusivity, and it breeds a small audience over and over. That's why everyone in this country hates art.''
One of his earliest exhibitions, ''Unlearning,'' sought precisely to turn the prevailing construct upside down. Invading a former plush Greene Street gallery, Schachter took down the velvet ropes that had kept visitors from the storerooms and offices. Art went everywhere: Rachel Harrison presented a collection of used tampons in the pristine print drawers. Schachter sold sandwiches, had a row of bus seats installed and kept the doors open seven days a week. He also showed his own work, perhaps the supreme faux pas of the gallery world.
''But if I didn't,'' he reasons, ''surely no one would.''
ON A WARM, PLEASANT FRIDAY morning, Schachter is visiting the Williamsburg studio of Brandon Ballengee to pick out work for the ''Death'' show. The next day, Schachter will become a father: Ilona's doctor has decided to deliver the baby six weeks early.
Normally, Schachter likes his artists to surprise him with pieces for a show; he curates the artists, not the work, an act of faith for which most artists are profoundly grateful. But Ballengee surprised Schachter a little too much at the Gramercy show, bringing a large, framed photocollage that Schachter did not like. In any case, Ballengee is only 22 and Schachter does not know him well.
His yellow mohawk even brighter today, the artist ushers Schachter into a room covered with art, all four walls and the ceiling, too -- huge mud-red crosses; intensely detailed charcoal drawings, the style a blend of Hieronymous Bosch and Loony Toons; rows and rows of crude paintings of facelike potatoes. On a central table sit half a dozen complex, animal-like figures, assemblages of shells, twine, artificial flowers. Ballengee offers coffee while a studio mate who paints in the back of the space hovers quietly nearby.
Schachter says little, though his excitement is palpable. He asks about the animals, which Ballengee explains are drawn partly from chess pieces, partly from Jim Henson's 1983 fantasy film, ''The Dark Crystal.''
And the potatoes?
For three months, Ballengee says, he ate only potatoes and drew only potatoes.
Schachter falls silent again. When he looks at new art, though he carries on a sort of internal conversation about what the work is made of, what other artists' work it relates to, whether it ''smacks of being contemporary,'' he asks relatively few questions. What he does like to know is how dedicated the artist is, where he went to school, whether his day job is sufficiently substantial to pose a threat to his work. Mostly, though, he looks. ''A lot of the stuff I do is conceptual, and sometimes you need an owner's manual to understand something,'' he allows. But for the most part, ''the work speaks for itself.'' Because mounting shows is expensive, he routinely includes works that he thinks will sell, whether or not they suit his own tastes.
In Ballengee's case, he chooses the chess-piece animals, the nightmarish charcoal drawings and three pictures of frogs ingesting humans. As he is about to leave, Ballengee asks shyly, rather gallantly, whether Schachter would mind taking a look at his studio mate's work. Schachter's ''yes'' is unenthusiastic but polite, and he docilely follows his hosts through a narrow corridor to a dim, airless room. Two bodies, mere shapes beneath blankets, lie together on the floor. One, a woman, leaps up, shrieks ''Jesus!'' and flees to the bathroom, a blanket clutched around her. Schachter glances at the large, rather murky paintings on the walls as the other body lies still and silent, then hurries back through the corridor. He invites Ballengee's studio mate to send slides. Then he himself flees. On the sidewalk, he shakes himself like a wet dog.
''Did you see that?'' While Schachter likes to be shocked by art, he has a personal side that is almost prudish. ''I'm supposed to look at paintings with people sleeping, or whatever they were doing -- my God, who knows -- on the floor? Oy! Did you see that?''
JUST BEFORE THE ART WORLD closed down for the summer, there were several signs that life -- and money -- were returning to the contemporary art market, most notably improved sales at Sotheby's and Christie's spring auctions. Things were also looking up in the do-it-yourself world -- which, of course, could spell the beginning of the end. Besides the booming Gramercy art fair, the even less glamorous Art Exchange Show, held in June in former offices of Drexel Burnham Lambert, attracted thousands of people and moved quite a bit of art. In the late fall, the painter Yuko Nii plans to open a Williamsburg art center, complete with galleries, performance space and cafe. Next spring, Joe Amrhein will bring the Pierogi 2000 flat files to the Gasworks gallery in London.
Schachter, too, is doing well. Ilona is home and healthy, as is their son, nameless for the moment. The ''Death'' show produced nearly two dozen sales (including one of Ballengee's frogs) that covered costs nicely. Schachter's own work in the show also attracted attention, particularly a partly painted, computer-manipulated news photograph of a drowned man being dragged to shore by four swimmers. As a result, he will show in two SoHo galleries in the coming year, Daniel Silverstein's upstart and the established Sandra Gering Gallery; Schachter's work will also be seen in a group show opening this week at Real Art Ways, a center for alternative art in Hartford, Conn. On Schachter's Internet site, a buyer in California recently spotted work by Brendan Cass and bought four paintings. And this fall, Schachter will curate a New York-goes-to-Texas show at the Arlington Museum of Art.
If all this continues, the do-it-yourself efflorescence may well be absorbed into the establishment system. That, after all, is what happened to many of the East Village artists and gallerists of the early 80's. If so, no one will be happier than the do-it-yourselfers, most of whom would gladly be co-opted -- and quit their day jobs. They have already considerably undermined the elitism they disliked, helping to create a climate in which the art is more important than the wall it hangs on. And they have emboldened thousands of people to buy art and become collectors. It's a tidy little legacy to leave behind. Or better yet, to take into the future.