Life & Culture

Celebrating Tim Greathouse, Who Photographed 1980s New York’s Art World

As a new exhibition of the artist’s work goes on show on New York, friends and collaborators Gracie Mansion and Sur Rodney (Sur) remember his powerful photographs, which captured art-world luminaries like David Wojnarowicz and Peter Hujar

The East Village art scene in the 1980s was driven by avant-garde artists who understood the only way to make their way in the world was to do it for themselves. Hailing from all corners of the country, they descended on the Lower East Side, a then-predominantly Puerto Rican and Eastern European neighbourhood, setting up storefront galleries, like that run by artist Tim Greathouse (1950–1998).

With the establishment of his galleries Oggi Domani and Greathouse, the West Virginian native set forth to bring photography into focus, curating early exhibitions for artists Zoe Leonard, Jimmy De Sana, Ken Schles, Kathe Burkhart, and Ann Messner. But less known was Greathouse’s work as an artist himself; this month, Greathouse’s rarely seen drawings, paintings, and vintage photographs are now being celebrated in a new exhibition Tim Greathouse: Albeit at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York. 

“Timothy approached everything he did as an artist. His life was art,” says artist and art dealer Gracie Mansion, a longtime friend and collaborator of Greathouse. In 1982, she received a $250 tax refund and got to work on T. Greathouse: Work Prints, the inaugural exhibition of her namesake gallery, Gracie Mansion Gallery, Loo Division. 

“I lived in a fifth floor walk-up apartment in the East Village with a bathtub in the kitchen,” Mansion says. “I pinned up his photographs in the loo. Then I got a tax refund and I thought, ‘Oh, let’s throw a party’. I said to Timothy, ‘I want to give you a show in my bathroom’ and he said ‘great’.” Mansion whipped up a letterhead, issued a press release, and received a prominent write up in The Village Voice. “It was all extremely tongue-in-cheek but it snowballed into the beginnings of my career as an art dealer,” she says.

Greathouse soon followed suit, opening Oggi Domani on East 11th Street in 1983 and Greathouse in 1984. “He decided to open a photo gallery because there was no place in the East Village that showed photography,” says artist and curator Sur Rodney (Sur), who was also roommates with Greathouse for two years and the co-director of Gracie Mansion Gallery. “The East Village had a family spirit. We were all artists and would create events in galleries, clubs, and on the street. Timothy helped liven the scene, which exploded in a big way because of photography.”

After Mansion opened the renamed Gracie Mansion Gallery Lieu Division on St Marks Place, she organised an exhibition titled Portraits of Famous and Soon To Be Famous Artists; Greathouse was one of the exhibiting artists. Over the years, his portraits of those who would go on to become art world luminaries – David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar, Richard Hambleton and Stephen Lack among them – captured the energy of the emerging scene. “Many of those artists are recognised now, but they weren’t at the time; they were just his friends,” says Sur.

Mansion and Sur, who both sat for Greathouse, note he took a collaborative approach to portraiture. “He didn’t direct people,” Sur says. “He put them in a situation, let them do what they were going to do, and see what he would capture from that moment. As much as it is a snapshot, it is a beautiful portrait.” 

Mansion adds, “You were very comfortable with him when he was taking the photographs. He even has a photograph of me topless which is not my style. It’s great that people are going to be able to see the important things he left behind. I think of him all the time; he died way too young.”

Tim Greathouse: Albeit is on view at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York from January 9 – February 29, 2020.