L to R: Shepard Fairey and Erik Foss at Lit. (Courtesy Erik Foss)

L to R: Shepard Fairey and Erik Foss at Lit earlier this week. (Courtesy Erik Foss)

On Wednesday, Fuse Gallery held its last regular opening after 11 years as a hub of downtown cool and creativity. Guests like Lower East Side graphic designer Kenzo Minami and Lobster Joint owner Tommy Chabrowski gathered in the little room behind Lit Lounge to play with Aliya Naumoff’s photos of musicians who, in some cases, have shown at Fuse Gallery themselves (e.g. Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and ex-Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha).

Holding court there was Erik Foss, who earlier in the week had sent out an e-mail to just a few dozen friends announcing that Fuse would close after September 11 (“this city and economy has caught up with us,” the note explained). He told B+B he planned to renovate the space to maybe include a pool table and more permanent installments by his street-artist and photographer friends. “I want an area where I can have photos of openings I’ve had over the years,” he said, “but I’m going to have them blown up and framed, so people will know that they’re partying in a place where artists got their start and became really famous and went on to do really big things.”

If you doubt Fuse’s staying power, consider that after the opening, gallerist Jonathan LeVine brought Shepard Fairey and other big-name street artists into Lit for an impromptu party that raged past closing time. Yesterday we spoke to Foss about that and more.

BB_Q The great part about Fuse seemed to be that you were tapping artists – whether they were musicians or people on the downtown scene – who might not have otherwise shown in a gallery.

BB_A We viewed it more as a project space – we never really focused on selling the work as much as seeing what people would do, almost like a science project: give someone an opportunity and see what happens and it usually turns out pretty good.

BB_Q Is there something you look back on that still makes you think, “I can’t believe we pulled that off?”

BB_A I think the [H. R.] Giger show – the very first show we did. That all came about from my partner David Schwartz having a gallery in Chinatown in the ’90s called Subculture – that was kind of a collective space where there was always between 20 and 40 artists showing at the same time. There was an artist that was showing there who was being helped by H. R. Giger’s agent Les Barany.

When David’s gallery closed because the lease ran out and they raised the rent, we decided to open a bar/gallery together – that’s when Les approached us and said H. R. hasn’t had a show in New York in a long time and we think this would be a great time for his first little show in many years in New York City. It was a massive turnout — Debbie Harry turned out and all sorts of interesting New York characters and we brought Giger out.

To open a gallery with a show like that, it was a miracle to us – just being people who moved to New York thinking that this is where you come to really be weird and really be embraced and moving here and realizing that it wasn’t completely like that and also realizing that we had to open our own gallery to do that, where we never really showed our work but had a place where our friends and people in our community could be recognized.

Giger really set the bar and helped us with other artists who may not have been too psyched about the idea of showing in a small space in the back of a bar. It’s how we’ve always run the bar and gallery – through community and word of mouth and friends.

L to R: Shelter Serra, Aliya Naumoff, Ivory Serra. The Serra brothers (nephews to artist Richard Serra) had a show at Fuse in 2009. (Photo courtesy Erik Foss)

L to R: Shelter Serra, Aliya Naumoff, Ivory Serra. The Serra brothers (nephews to artist Richard Serra) had a show at Fuse in 2009. (Photo courtesy Erik Foss)

BB_Q So why stop now?

BB_A We can’t afford to just keep the space – I look at it as a gift we gave to the community every month for over 11 years. The bar always supported the gallery. I never booked shows to sell work; I never took corporate dollars or did anything that would sacrifice your vision or integrity. When you do that for that long, it’s a miracle we stayed open for as long as we did because we were our own patrons – we had two businesses connected to each other and one floated the other.

I never curated shows to make money — it was always, this is a fucking awesome artist, we gotta show this guy because he’s going to be huge or this girl’s going to be in the history books or this person is so retarded that they can’t even write their name on a piece of paper but they’re the best painter I’ve ever seen.

After years of doing that and being an artist myself and having an art career, the reason ultimately we had to call it quits is that we couldn’t afford to really do it anymore. Rent is constantly going up, real estate taxes are constantly going up, the price of liquor is constantly going up, and with this neighborhood changing as much as it’s changing, we don’t have the same community as we did 11 years ago.

So many of the young art kids who would’ve come here to drink knowing the gallery was there all live in Brooklyn now. So we either had to close or evolve or do something else. We’d rather keep the bar open, make the change and try to still employ all the people we employ and give the opportunity to the bands and DJs and still have a place for creative people to come when they’ve just arrived to New York and have read all about the history of Fuse.

There’s people who went to school in New York now teaching in major art schools, talking to kids about what I’ve done and we’ve done – now there’s a legacy, so I feel like now I’ll take the shows and I’ll put them in other galleries and other places so I can continue helping young artists, just not monthly and not in the back of our space. I can do it at a more casual pace and also focus more on my own art career.

We opened up the gallery not really knowing what was going to happen – we were just young crazy artists trying to do something magical in a magical place. But watching the neighborhood change so much and knowing this place isn’t going to embrace what we did then now, I think of it as a little sliver of time we got to capture and really have fun with. Most of the art world doesn’t really know about what we did I’m pretty sure and I think most people probably don’t even care but now that it’s over I think people will care and say, “Whoa, what happened here? How did we miss this?”

BB_Q Whose careers are you especially proud to have helped launch?

BB_A Almost every artist we gave a solo show to, it was their very first solo show in New York City and there was over 100 of those. It’s all over the place – it’s literally everyone from H. R. Giger to Dash Snow.

BB_Q When you talk about the neighborhood changing as much as it’s changing, what do you mean?

BB_A It’s funny, because when you walk the streets in this neighborhood now and you look around you – it used to be you couldn’t spit without hitting someone covered in tattoos and now you can’t spit without hitting someone dressed in L.L. Bean or the Gap. It’s like the Upper East Side moved to the neighborhood in the last four years – it’s really crazy, man.

Every season it gets worse and worse, but at the same time it’s like walking down the street and feeling like a freak again – people don’t even look at me. I’m just like the old last guy from the neighborhood from this time that they all heard about.

It’s maybe us and Niagara and a couple of other bars that are holding on, one or two record stores, one or two tattoo shops – but I don’t have a problem being the last man standing. I was raised to be a fighter and I’ve been in this neighborhood 17 years and the bar’s been here 11 years. If we left everyone would just throw their hands up and say, “Fuck it, we’re out.”

BB_QHave you thought about saying the same yourself? Max Fish is moving to Brooklyn, after all. Welcome to the Johnsons is opening a place there. Have you thought about moving your bar or even yourself there?


David Yow of The Jesus Lizard showed his paintings at Fuse in 2011. (Photo: Angelo Fabara)

BB_A I think it’s important to still have a place in Manhattan. Last night Jonathan LeVine Gallery and Wooster Collective collaboratively did a 10-year anniversary of Wooster Collective’s first show and the after-party was at Music Hall of Williamsburg and after the after-party Jonathan brought Shepard Fairey and probably 10 to 15 street artists that were in the show and probably 20 or 30 people along with him.

Even though these people were way out in Brooklyn and I’m sure a lot of people staying in New York were staying with friends in Brooklyn, they all came back into the city from Brooklyn after a night of free booze just to hang out at Lit, because they love the bar and there’s so much history there.

My partner Max Brennan opened up The Flat in Brooklyn and we don’t have any part of that bar and he did it because he saw the change in this community and he wanted to continue making money and he wanted to be a businessman. I’m an artist – I didn’t move to New York to be a businessman. If I wanted to be a businessman, I would’ve had a chain of Lits by now. I’m not driven by money – I’m driven by culture and lifestyle.

I don’t feel comfortable in Brooklyn. I don’t hang out there. I lost a studio about a year and a half ago and I was forced to have a studio in Brooklyn because it’s the only place that’s cheap so I had to go to Brooklyn every day for 7 months and it was a pain in the ass to get over there and everyone there is in their 20s and they look exactly the same. It’s like a hipster churn machine – they’re just spitting them out.

I’m okay in Manhattan. I like a village – that’s why I moved to the Village. When I moved here to the East Village you didn’t have to have a car, you didn’t even have to have a bike. You can’t do that in Brooklyn – I mean, I guess you can but most of my friends who live in Brooklyn have cars. If all of the sudden a one-bedroom in Manhattan was $5,000, of course I’d have to live in Brooklyn but to tell you the truth if I had to leave Manhattan I’d probably buy a little house upstate or something.

BB_Q Was there a financial issue that prompted this all? A rent hike?

BB_A The landlord was very fair with us. We signed a very expensive lease when we first opened but now when you look at it in comparison with the square footage for the neighborhood it’s a very fair lease. I hate the fact that I’m saying a landlord in New York City is fair but he is – he could’ve destroyed us if he wanted to so I can’t blame it on anything besides gravity. Shit just changes – it’s everything else from the price of plastic cups and toilet paper to the electric bill. It’s everything – inflation is insane in this world. New York City is broke, the US is broke, Detroit just went bankrupt. Dude, how does a city go bankrupt?

BB_Q You just renewed your lease for 10 more years?

BB_A A year ago. So, if you know anyone that wants to buy a bar… I’m just kidding. I feel like that’s where the real magic is going to happen. If we can actually stay open 10 more years that would be sick.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated that a photo of Nick Zinner was included in the show and that James Iha was the bassist rather than the guitarist for the Pumpkins.