A Painting of TriBeCa's Past: New York Dolls' singer David Johansen sits down with gallery owner Rodrigo Salomon

New York’s rich history is recorded in many forms. For some, it’s through photographs, for others, it’s through literature, but for David Johansen, singer and founding member of the iconic rock group The New York Dolls, it’s through music. David sits down with Rodrigo Salomon, owner of Salomon Arts gallery, to talk about his latest exhibition “In Tune with the Portraits” with Gilson Lavis (drummer in classic UK pop act Squeeze, now famed portrait artist), as well as TriBeCa’s transformation into one of New York City’s booming art scenes.

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David Johansen: Rodrigo and I met, way back, when we were kids; actually we lived in the same building and used to play music together, smoke pot, play bongo drums, and we have known each other ever since. Now Rodrigo’ s got an important art gallery and he’s going to bring us up to date with that.

Rodrigo Salomon: Yes, Salomon Arts is located at 83 Leonard Street in TriBeca. I’ve been there since I moved from 6th Street, where we used to live. I think we met back in 1970, then I moved to Leonard Street a couple of years later.

DJ: Rodrigo, you are like a pioneer of TriBeCa. You probably have a lot of historical references about this little “Triangle Below Canal”. For example, I know The Roxy used to be, like, a green house kind of situation?

RS: There used to be a gas station there! It took them over 10 years to develop it into a building, because you can imagine the foundations. With Canal Street being a canal, it cost them a lot of money and presented engineering challenges. After all those years, the Tribeca Grand, and now The Roxy, came about.

DJ: So, TriBeCa was very different then. It was still all about manufacturing, right?

RS: Yes, it was an industrial and commercial zone, where they had spices and all sorts of merchandise. Old factories too. That attracted artists to the area where they, to this day, find all kinds of materials and big spaces to create art — dancers, musicians, filmmakers, photographers… Since Soho, which means South of Houston Street, was a very narrowed area, TriBeCa opened up much more wider area south of Canal, so it was great for artists to move there and have big studios — and the rent was very cheap. You could live with $200 in a 2000-3000 sq. ft. space, and you could do some construction work or work in a bar and still own a car.   

The scale of the art works became bigger. In the Lower East Side, artists had to paint in small spaces so the format was smaller. Here at TriBeCa, they could produce much bigger paintings. My roommate at the time, was the late Alan Shields, who was one of the first artists that exhibited at Paula Cooper’s, one of the first galleries to open in TriBeCa.

RS: The size of Alan’s paintings were massive, sometimes on an 8 ft x 10 ft canvas. He would unroll the canvas onto the floor and sew on beads and start paintings, or dripping paint just like Jackson Pollack.

TriBeCa was an artist’s community of about 300 artists, and there were little bars like Barnaby’s Rex, Magoos, Ocean Club and Mudd Club where we all hung out and did whatever kids do… and then, there were the studios… all that,  attracted many people as a fun destination. When they opened The Odeon the rent went up, all the limousine, all the collectors and a few galleries were moving downtown. That brought demand for real estate, and it was already hiking up, so the landlords started to buy out the tenants and sell their lofts.

DJ: Yeah, I think it’s the most expensive real estate wise, the most expensive neighborhood in NYC.

RS: Right, right, correct.  

DJ: So your gallery is on Leonard Street and you have a show coming up.

RS: Indeed! We’re bringing in Gilson Lavis, a former member of Squeeze, a British band which was big in the 80’s, and who’s now a portrait artist and player for Jools Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra.

DJ: Squeeze, Squeeze… how did you get on to him?

RS: Well, we have some friends in common. They brought their publicist James Sliman and he liked the gallery because he saw it as an underground place, which I suppose we are, and Gilson approved it. It is his first art show in New York! He’s a portrait painter, and he’s very good at sketching. He captures some great images, has a good sense… insightful. He captures character with an excellent expression and works in black and white. It takes talent to do that.

DJ: And when is that show?

RS: He’ll be here from September 14th through October 5th

DJ: Now, what comes after that? Do you have another show in October?

RS: After that, we are having Li-Wang from Beijing, an incredible artist who paints and draws from the ancient calligraphy art to modern techniques with a great sense of humor and color. Highly skilled and sophisticated. He will be here in October.

DJ: And will he actually come as well?

RS: yes, yes…and we are working on bringing some other artists from Beijing…Then in November we are having Graffiti artists. We are having Phase 2 and other artists and exhibition curated by Aakash Mehta. Phase 2 was one of the first in their field.

DJ: So, Li Wang… How did you become aware of him?

RS:  We know a gallery in Beijing… a woman Lydia Duanmu who is a curator friend and she wanted to interchange. She wanted to bring people from New York to Beijing, and vice versa. So we thought it’d be a great opportunity to present artists there and also bring some Chinese artists here. They have a different approach from Western art, but there are some artists there that have been influenced by the West ….I am going to kind of bridge East and West. Artists are pioneers of scientific ideas, because they see. They are able to reach the power of creativity. Because we have the power of creativity, we also have the power of destruction, and what we tend to exercise is the power of destruction. Everybody is an artist in their own way. Think about when you were a kid, for example. Every body has access to that channel of creativity. Being creative is helpful to the world, and that’s why art is important and revealing about the world psychic.

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