Max Fish, Lost At Sea

As art galleries spring up like wildflowers in the dingy concrete of lower Manhattan, Max Fish, the world-famous bar once home to artists of the Bowery zeitgeist, fights to stay afloat.

07.17.10 8:07 PM ET

In late May, it was reported that Ulli Rimkus, the owner of Max Fish, appeared at a Manhattan community board meeting—under the pseudonym “Ocean Club” on the agenda to avoid the scent of blood in the water—to plead with the New York State Liquor Authority to allow her to relocate her renowned bar a few blocks west. High property taxes and severe rent hikes were conspiring against her, she complained. The board denied her request, citing the preponderance of nearby bars, including the scandalous nightclub The Box and the brocavore bar Freeman’s. Rimkus, a German émigré, told the Daily Beast this week, “I can't talk about real estate issues. As soon as I can, I will. There will be a time when we will have to talk about it.” But emphatically, “We're not closing.”

Click here to view our gallery of DASH SNOW and HIS ART

Max Fish isn’t simply being squeezed by hipster bars and high-rent condos like “The Ludlow,” a luxury development which is, according to the building’s website, “a work of art." Since the New Museum opened on the Bowery in late 2007, a steady stream of galleries have set up shop on the Lower East Side. Chelsea giants like Lehmann Maupin moved into 200 Chrystie, next door to where Max Fish failed to decamp, and powerhouse Sperone Westwater is soon to move in to the Sir Norman Foster building on Bowery. This is the Lower East Side.

A year ago this week, just shy of his 28th birthday, the artist Dash Snow was found dead in a room at the Lafayette House, a boutique hotel in the hinterlands of that area. His body was run through with heroin and his beard was growing posthumously. During Snow's life, the media and art worlds slobbered all over him; his pedigree as a de Menil and heir to the Schlumberger oil fortune made him all the more enticing. By the time of his death, he, photographer Ryan McGinley, and artist Dan Colen had formed a triumvirate of the Artist, personified—or at least of the Lower East Side Artist, personified. In his prime, Snow, an inveterate graffiti writer whose tag, “Sace Irak,” at one point covered the Lower East Side like kudzu, could ejaculate on a piece of newsprint and it would sell in the mid-five figures. McGinley would take a picture of it and it would sell in the low sixes. Colen could make a sculpture of the wall on which Snow’s newsprint hung and it would make his career. The three were the art world’s Rolling Stones. If McGinley was Mick Jagger the businessman, and Colen the mellow Charlie Watts, then Snow was the Keith Richards, a genius junkie with magic fingers. During his life, those fingers were often clutching cigarettes (and darker pointier things) at various bars on the Lower East Side, including, and especially, Max Fish.

Max Fish and Snow are wed by more than their iambic assonance. The bar, according to Jessie Gold, a lithe dancer, artist, Fish habitué and friend of Snow “is a sandbox. It’s a stronghold for the art community. There’s no headquarters like there is at Max Fish.” For a globally recognized headquarters of intelligentsia, the bar doesn’t look like much, but its ramshackle appearance fits a party platform of hard living and hedonism. There’s a banged-up pool table in the back room, graffiti in the can, and, most importantly, a bar. The place has that particular bar perfume of disinfectant and stale spilled beer. Seven years after Mayor Bloomberg’s smoking ban, the ghosts of a thousand cigarettes linger in the air out of habit and loyalty. The Fish functions much like Gordon Matta-Clark’s Food, a communal commissary in Soho, did in the 70s: a beered agora for the artistic community. (Starving artists at the Fish still have to go next door to the Pink Pony, which once was connected by a joint door, for sustenance.) "Max Fish is supposed to be a place where this sort of gathering [happens]," says Rimkus. "It was always meant to be a place where you meet people you normally don't meet. There's your home, there's your work, and then you have Max Fish. It hasn't changed over the course of 20 years."

“Most of the people who come here are all creative, whether it's making photos, or t-shirts of their paintings. I don't know what the end product will be for most of them, or if they'll end up in galleries, but they definitely all do something," Rimkus says of her clientele. And Snow? "The people Dash traveled with, or traveled around Dash, they were all always very creative."

The walls are hung with a rotating selection of paintings, photographs and sculptures organized into shows by bartender-curators--a sort of downtown Monkey Bar mural that serves as an alternately profane and profound directory of artists and characters who have run wild down Delancey Street: Dee Dee Ramone, Chan Marshall, Leo Fitzpatrick, Mark Kostabi, Brian Degraw of Gang Gang Dance, Angela Boatwright, Faile, Shepard Fairey… All have shown work at the Fish. According to Lesley Arfin, a writer and a friend of Dash Snow’s and others from that scene, “Max Fish is a place for weird outsider art for people who don’t have a gallery in New York or who aren’t seen as artists. It’s more upstate New York than Chelsea.” Nevertheless, over the years Max Fish has become an installation itself. Last year, to celebrate its 20th anniversary, Max Fish was recreated for Miami Art Basel, a shibboleth for the hurly-burly Lower East Side scene that Snow helped create.

In Dash’s day, when the old original LES galleries had mostly gone dark and the new crop had not yet arrived—the apotheosis of what Anthony Hayden Guest called “The Bowery School,"—there were only a smattering of small studio-sized galleries on the Lower East Side, including Max Fish, Participant, which still stands, and Dash's gallery, Rivington Arms, now gone. These days, "Landlords have become the most cruel businessmen," Rimkus says. "The motivation is money. It is no longer, 'Will this business succeed and flourish in my store?' That's what it used to be like."

At the opening of Lush Life earlier this month, the massive, meandering show based on Richard Price’s novel of same name, hordes of people circumambulated from gallery to gallery, nine in total, a fraction of the many that have opened. Steven Stewart, director of the Sue Scott Gallery, one of the galleries that participated in the show, thinks the stream will thicken. “When all the Chelsea galleries made their exodus from Soho in the late '90s,” he explains, “They all signed 10-year leases. Those leases are running out and the time is such that they can’t afford to re-up their leases. Their own success has priced them out.” As new galleries move in, the LES art scene has codified. “It’s not social,” says Terence Koh, one of the Lower East Side’s most commercially successful artists, “I don’t have a single artist I could call up for a drink and talk about a painting anytime. During Gordon Matta-Clark’s time, artists gathered together, got drunk, and made love. I don’t see myself making love to any living artist today.” (Don’t tell this to Garick Gott, the graphic artist whom Koh unofficially married in June 2009.)

For all the doomsday knells, or perhaps because of them, Max Fish lives on. Whether the galleries were pushed to the Lower East Side by Chelsea’s onerous leases or drawn there by the glow of Snow & Co.'s brilliant flame seems not to matter. The Lower East Side is much changed, but if you know what to look for, you can follow Snow’s tracks. They’re written on the wall, in silver pen or spray paint, his looping graffiti tags. It’s just a matter of time before the wall is scrubbed clean.

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