“It was a whole art form in and of itself; you could go to sleep one night and people would go up, with their wheat paste, in the middle of the night—there was a lot of construction, there were a lot of semi-abandoned doors or old buildings, and people would just poster all over them.”
Rea Tajiri is describing the poster culture of New York in the 1980s, and, more specifically, a poster she made for The Kitchen, the downtown art space whose archive arrived at the Getty Research Institute in 2015. “There was this whole sense of a conversation, constantly, on the street … it was this poster versus that poster. I loved that: graphic, unspoken conversation on the streets.”
A continuous fixture in New York’s cultural scene since the early 1970s, The Kitchen has played host to generations of artists and is especially noteworthy for the interdisciplinary cross-pollination occurring under its roof, with daily programming entangling dance, performance, video, and music. “It was a place that supported young artists, emerging artists and established artists, and everybody—a lot of the early video artists—went through there. It had an incredible history,” Rea recalls.
Tajiri’s career stretches across short and feature filmmaking, running parallel with work as an educator; she is currently at work on documentary projects in Philadelphia and teaching at Temple University. Starting out as a painter, she switched to working with video while studying at CalArts; upon arriving in New York in 1979, Tajiri gravitated toward The Kitchen, drawn by the space’s affiliation with artists like Arthur Russell and Laurie Anderson. In 1989, after screening early shorts The Hitchcock Trilogy and Off Limits in the center’s Video Viewing Room, Tajiri was asked to produce a calendar of Kitchen events to be pasted up around town. She created this poster:
One of a series of graphic works commissioned by The Kitchen’s public relations director Patrick Moore, alongside designs by Gran Fury and Bureau, the calendar illustrates a typically wide-ranging schedule, encompassing performance by Essex Hemphill and Larry Duckett; music from Karlheinz Stockhausen and members of Can; readings from Gary Indiana and Dennis Cooper; and early video work by Chantal Akerman. Redolent of the scrolling “subjective texts” that thread through Tajiri’s moving image work, the poster fixes its audience’s gaze upon a passage inspired by a dream, “describing things you didn’t see but were forced to imagine.”
“I wanted the sense that you could just come across this poster and you could choose to read it or not read it but you would be entering into this experience, of some unseen narrator, and you don’t know who the narrator is.”
Recalling the reception to the poster, Rea mentions Moore’s enthusiasm, but says it otherwise disappeared from view. “It might have been a little odd, it might have been an anomaly, because everything was so pointed and graphic and in your face in that moment, and then something like this was maybe somewhat obscure, kind of poetic. It might have been odd in that way.”
Tajiri’s design work for The Kitchen came toward the end of her active involvement with the center, preceding the production of her longer 1991 film History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige, which was exhibited beyond the Video Viewing Room and across the country. Moore left The Kitchen around the same time, resigning amid disagreements with the board over the political content of his poster commissions.
“They always had amazing posters that would come in the mail, very collectible, very beautiful, which I wish I’d saved. They were very important though, too, as a young artist, because they did have incredible exposure; if they programmed your work, even if maybe there wasn’t a huge audience, it was archived that you showed there, so it was a way of tracking people. They were very important in that era, they were really this incredible organization.”
Mapping artistic activity in New York between 1972 and 1997, The Kitchen Posters include designs by Barbara Kruger, Robert Longo, and Sol LeWitt, chronicling programs pairing Nam June Paik with Meredith Monk, or Max Roach with Fab 5 Freddy. The collection of 272 posters is available to researchers now.