In New York, under the stage name Patti Astor, she became a club habitué and Queen of the Downtown Screen. She was a star of some of the underground No Wave films of the late 1970s/early 1980s that helped spark New York’s grungy and wildly creative East Village arts scene.
Patti Titchener was one of the most popular and talented members of Walnut Hills High School’s class of 1968. A National Merit Scholar with a high SAT test score, she also had a creative flair and very in-demand social life. Her family was prominent, too — parents James and Antoinette Titchener both were physicians; he was a psychoanalyst who taught at University of Cincinnati. (They are both deceased.)
For many people, it never gets better than high school. As they take their place in the larger society where they inevitably meet others with similar backgrounds, they become less special.
But not Titchener. In New York, under the stage name Patti Astor, she became a club habitué and Queen of the Downtown Screen. She was a star of some of the underground No Wave films of the late 1970s/early 1980s that helped spark New York’s grungy and wildly creative East Village arts scene. Those included Amos Poe’s Unmade Beds and The Foreigner, Eric Mitchell’s Underground U.S.A., and James Nares’ Rome ’78.
And then, with partner Bill Stelling, she opened the East Village’s short-lived but long-remembered Fun Gallery, which brought Hip Hop/graffiti-influenced street art into a gallery setting while also making an art exhibit as much fun as a party. Street art has proven to be enormously popular and long-lasting, the source of everything from blockbuster museum exhibits (like Contemporary Art Center’s 2004 Beautiful Losers) to urban mural projects.
Astor’s gallery lasted in two storefront locations from 1981-1985 but featured early shows by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring, Fab 5 Freddy, Lee Quinones and others.
Astor has recently published FUN Gallery: The True Story about her art-world and other experiences. The trade-paperback book, which she is self-publishing, costs $40 and is available from thefungallery.com.
It’s an at-times-shocking, often-poignant memoir of wild times and an arrestingly designed book with reproductions of memorabilia and old photographs. It also has quite a bit about her years here. “Growing up in Cincinnati, art was a really big part of my life,” says Astor, during a telephone interview from her home in Los Angeles. “We used to always go to beautiful museums, the symphony and opera.” She also went to plenty of Rock & Roll and Soul concerts here — the book describes formative visits to Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin shows.
FUN Gallery became one of downtown New York’s premier happening scenes — not just for the young artists and the East Village alternative-arts crowd, but also for serious art dealers and collectors as well as celebrities. One of Astor’s earliest supporters was an art adviser for CitiBank named Jeffrey Deitch.
“At one of my shows we were standing in FUN Gallery — there was a huge scene — and he said, ‘You know what, Patti? Some day there will be a recreation of that in a museum,’ ” Astor recalls during the interview. “The fact it was Jeffrey Deitch who did it is highly appropriate.”
Deitch, as director of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, staged Art in the Streets in 2011, which had the highest attendance of any MOCA exhibit ever. As part of it, he asked Astor to recreate her gallery in several rooms. She did that, even borrowing a Basquiat painting — now worth millions and owned by an important art foundation — that once was displayed in the FUN Gallery front window.
Many who were part of that scene have gone on to financially rewarding careers as artists, though Astor did not make money out of it. Others died early from drugs (Basquiat) or AIDS (Haring). “The AIDS epidemic was just unimaginable — we knew hundreds of people,” Astor says.
“One question that comes up now is, ‘Did you know you were making history?’ ” she says. “We were living so in the moment, living so fast, we didn’t even think about what we were doing.”
“I knew I was surrounded by very special people,” she continues. “And when people say, ‘You should do FUN Gallery over again.’ I say, ‘I’ve been lucky enough once in my life to be surrounded by people like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel and Fab 5 Freddy. I’m not even going to try to roll the dice again.’ I’ll take that, thank you.”
Astor’s parents had four children — her mother died of cancer at age 55 and her father subsequently remarried. (Astor’s stepmother still lives here.) Annie, the youngest of the children and the only one in Cincinnati, is finding her own place in the art world. She has Down syndrome and is a highly regarded painter with Visionaries + Voices, the Northside-based non-profit for artists with disabilities.
“She sells,” Astor says, proudly.
(Editor’s note 9-8-17: Annie Titchener passed away in July, 2017)