Posted by: exiwp | November 9, 1990

Art Caper (1990)

Artists Defect From Castillo Center Auction When Links to Political Group Surface
By Alisa Solomon
Village Voice, November 1990

Artist Les Levine handed over a silk screen worth more than $2,000 to the Castillo Cultural Center for its auction November 1 to raise money for its “New Visions/New Voices” program. He didn’t think twice when a group of young painters asked that he support the work of Latino, African-American, and women artists. Over the last year, he’d already donated prints to benefits for AIDS, homelessness, Franklin Furnace, and the War Resisters League, but, like more than 40 other established, well-known artists, when the group approached, he couldn’t say no. “Artists from those communities are not shown enough,” he said.

But last week, Levine pulled his work out of the auction. “They didn’t tell me the Castillo Center was connected to the New Alliance Party,” he said. “When I found out, I asked them questions about some of the things I heard they supported, which are repugnant to me, and they didn’t give me satisfactory answers, I decided I couldn’t be associated with them.”

By press time Monday, at least nine artists had withdrawn from the auction or had announced their intentions to do so. While more than 30 remain, including Richard Serra, Christo, and Robert Longo, the move has shaken the Soho art world and generated controversy again around NAP. “The art world is kind of dumb,” said artist Deborah Kass, who decided to withdraw from the benefit after reading some of Castillo’s publications last summer and then was outraged to find her name listed among participants in an advertisement for the event. “We’ll all do any vaguely liberal sounding sort of thing without looking into it because we’re all too busy, or we’re flattered to be asked, or because it just doesn’t occur to us to be suspicious of something that sounds decent.”

It’s a story familiar to critics of the New Alliance Party, the cult-like political organization headed by Fred Newman, whose rhetoric borrows from most progressive movements, and whose omnipresent candidate in every election year is Lenora Fulani. The Castillo Center is another NAP affiliate (like the Rainbow Lobby, named to evoke Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition) that looks good on the surface but is, according to Chip Berlet, an analyst with Political Research Associates, “a recruitment mechanism for the party.” Berlet, who published a report on NAP in 1987 and continues to monitor the group, calls NAP a “proto-fascist” movement.

“They are divisive and destructive to the African-American community,” said Jitu Weusi, longtime black activist and a founder of the Unity Coalition. Just last month, NAP challenged the ballot petitions of the coalition and the United African Party. Weusi fears that NAP could attain permanent ballot status if it garners 50,000 votes on Tuesday. Last year, New Jewish Agenda took the unprecedented step of expelling NAPers from the organization because, as an NJA memo put it, “NJA was faced with what appeared to be a concentrated effort by NAP to infiltrate with the purpose of damaging our work.” And Queer Nation, the gay and lesbian direct action group has recently labeled NAP “a menace to our community.”

While NAP is targeting the gay and lesbian vote, its definition of gayness, Joyce Hunter of the Hetrick-Martin Institute has said, is “merely a political restatement of the pathology view of homosexuality.” Sue Hyde of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force adds, “NAP does not limit itself to preying upon the gay and lesbian movement. It will prey upon any movement, use any issue, use any disguise to further the megalomania of Fred Newman. Their newest scheme and scam plays upon many people’s interest in freedom of expression” and Hyde puts the Castillo Center’s November 1 art auction at the focal point of that scheme.

The Castillo Center does produce plays, exhibit paintings, and develop a variety of artistic projects in its $2.7 million Soho loft. “Right,” said Berlet, “And Leni Riefensthal made films, too.” At the very least, one has to wonder about the idea of an upscale auction by a center that claims to be, in auction co-chair’s Judy Penzer’s words, “a place where art is no longer a commodity.” If Castillo sells all of the objects in the auction at their lowest prices, it will haul in close to $200,000. Meanwhile, one Castillo painting on a central wall of the gallery is a still life with the words “Fuck Bourgeois Art” scrawled across it.

Penzer and the other auction co-chair, S. K. Duff, both of whom have worked in the art world, got the event off the ground by approaching gallery owners, directors, and artists and asking for their support. Once they had some takers, they were also able to use their names to lure others. “1 heard Christie’s was involved,” said one artist who is pulling out. “Leo Castelli was supporting it. Some friends were donating pieces. I figured, why not?”

Yet Christie’s spokesperson Roberta Maneker said that the auction house never gave official permission for Castillo to use their name, much less their logo—which graces the auction invitation and catalogue. While Penzer asserts that such permission was granted, Maneker replies, “I’m the only one authorized to give permission and I did not give it.” She says a letter from Christie’s lawyer has been sent to Castillo expressing their dismay at this “appropriation.” At the Castelli gallery, associate director Patty Brundage said, “I think we were misled. If we had it to do over again, knowing the facts, we wouldn’t have participated.”

Meanwhile, some artists have complained that Castillo unfairly listed their names to promote the event. Penzer has said that some artists, like Kass, were listed in the ad before they had decided to pull out. But Tim Rollins and Altoon Sultan, among others, were listed as participating artists when, in fact, a collector had donated one of their pieces. Penzer says this was a mistake attributable to her inexperience.

Contributors began to have second thoughts after receiving one or more of several mailings. Queer Nation sent out a flier to the advertised list of participating artists, with quotes from Voice articles, Chip Berlet, gay newspapers, and former NAP presidential candidate Dennis Serrette, all warning of NAP’s questionable practices. For some the flier motivated withdrawal from the auction. For others, it seemed unsubstantiated. “It was anonymous and all the quotes were taken out of context,” said Vered Lied, whose husband, Thorton Willis, will participate. Lucio Pozzi questioned auction organizers about various charges, and came away satisfied that the money from the sale of his artwork “will be used for charitable purposes.” And Cary Leibowitz, a/k/a Candyass, says, “1 don’t have time to think about it. It would seem a little fascist to rule them out right away.”

Attorney Jerry Ordover, who represents a number of artists, saw the ad for the auction and “felt alarmed because of the things I’ve read about NAP over the years.” He sent a letter expressing his “healthy skepticism about a group that takes positions which I find weird and which allies itself with individuals who are antithetical to pro-humanity positions.” He enclosed a copy of a Voice article published last year about Castillo’s opening.

That article, and a Voice review of a Castillo production of a Heiner Muller play, were the subjects of a front page article in the National Alliance, NAP’s weekly organ, which called the Voice “the party line-ish voice of the New York City arts establishment.” The article quoted Newman labeling the Voice a “Stalinist operation” trying “to drive an ice pick into the head of a significant and independent rival.”

According to some artists, Penzer tried to convince them to stay in the auction by discrediting the Voice, and calling the mailings part of a “witch hunt” against Castillo. “When she used that word,” said Melissa Meyer, “that’s when I was convinced to pull out.” Penzer told the Voice that there was a “McCarthyite attack” going on, “insinuating that Castillo is not really Castillo and that we don’t really do culture.” She denied that Castillo is part of the New Alliance Party but said that it “is part of a network of progressive organizations. NAP is one. Castillo is another.” She added, “We’re supportive of the work they [NAP] do. We think it’s good.” She did not deny that Fred Newman heads NAP, the “social therapy movement” and the Castillo Center. “He’s lots of things.” she said. “He’s a painter and a playwright, too.”

Penzer said that artists who pulled out are responding to pressure, insinuation, and a “censorship attack on their support of this organization,” adding, “I don’t have a sense from the artists who pulled out of any substantive disagreement about Castillo.” But for Dotty Attie, there were serious problems. “They have ties to political groups that support Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan,” she said. “I don’t feel sympathetic with that.” And Gary Stephan, who let his answering machine pick up his phone for a week even when he was home “because Castillo was calling me six times a day,” was put off by their “left and right analysis mixed in some sort of paranoid soup.”

One artist who chose to withdraw from the auction after reading up on NAP puts it, “When groups as diverse as the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and Jackson, Mississippi’s progressive black newspaper [The Jackson Advocate] all conclude that NAP is seriously bad news, you can’t exactly call it a conspiracy.”

In the end, some artists say, the experience has been sobering, and might, Gretchen Bender suggests, “get us to do our homework in the future.” But, says one artist who requested anonymity because he feared for his family’s safety, “This has left such a bad taste, it’s almost shut me off to the whole idea of donating work. It’s really sad, but next time a group comes to me, I’m going to be really hesitant.”

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