[Editor’s note: This excerpt is the second of a series from an upcoming memoir.]
Joe DiMaggio gave me 50 cents. He stepped out of his black Lincoln Continental, smiled sweetly, and deftly placed two overlapping quarters into my palm. I was in graduate school in the mid-70s, and supporting myself as a parking lot attendant at the 450 Sutter Medical building in downtown San Francisco, a job that required me to join the Teamsters. The building had the city’s last untouched Art Deco lobby, all silver hieroglyphics. Half a buck was a nice tip, a quarter was expected; I was star struck.
Long before he became famous as the director of the Yale Art Gallery, my professor at San Francisco State, Jock Reynolds, owned a building South of Market that had been rented to an alternative, artist-run space called by its address, 80 Langton Street. It had fallen on difficult times and was in danger of folding. All the older, volatile personalities involved with the organization had resigned, and a last-ditch attempt to inject some calmer new blood was made, with a meeting called for a night in the fall of 1977. A group of around a dozen young artists discussed how to keep Langton open. At one point, someone said, “Well, we’re going to need a president.” After which followed an uncomfortably long silence. I knew I wanted to do it but was too shy to say so, but I finally spoke up and volunteered. That existential moment changed my entire life and soon led to the end of my days as a Teamster.
I served as President of the Board from ’77 to early ’79 when I got a large grant from the SF Foundation and resigned from 450 Sutter and from the Board and worked at the gallery part-time. Judy Moran, my wife, soon joined me as co-director.
Ed “Big Daddy” Roth
At New Langton, where Judy and I were co-directors for eight years (and where I subsequently served a few more years as executive director), we were dedicated to the then-new art forms of installation, performance and video, as well as experimental poetry and music. We were also committed to having an artist-run board of directors, paying artist fees and giving artists control over every aspect of their projects. One board member, the artist Randy Hussong, proposed a show by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. Few, if any of, us knew who he was, but Randy was a fan. Roth had been a key figure in the 1950s Southern California car culture, and its beatnik and surfer scenes. His sculptural custom cars (e.g., Orbitron, Mysterion, Beatnik Bandit) were hugely influential, as was his most famous character, Rat Fink, a green, flea-bitten, libidinous alternative to Mickey Mouse. Roth was semi-retired and living in Utah, where he had retreated when his new Mormon wife saved him from his wild life. We managed to get in touch with him, and he agreed to make an appearance. I sent him half of his fee in advance to nail down the date.
Hussong did an incredible job of getting all the model kits, drawings, and memorabilia he could find sent to us in San Francisco. We even got the original Rat Fink painting that was done on a refrigerator door. Toward the end of the exhibition’s run, Roth came and made airbrushed T-shirts for the line of people that went
down the stairs and out to the street, all day. After it was over, Roth and I settled up in my office. He insisted that I had never sent him any money and that I pay him the full agreed-upon amount (again), asking me if I had any proof that I had paid him in advance. I had learned from many of the musicians we presented over the years, especially the jazz musicians, that they had been ripped off by promoters so often that they usually insisted on being paid in cash. It was suddenly clear to me that Roth, too, had emerged from that carny, American underworld culture of marginal operators, and con men, and that I was being conned.
All during the run of that show, young artists from Langton’s community came up to me. They confessed that they had grown up in small towns around the country, and exposure to Roth had opened their eyes to the fact that there was another, wackier way of life possible, outside the strict confines of middle-class existence. They had become artists because of Big Daddy Roth. I became a curator who drew on visual culture beyond the fine arts because of him. It was worth it. I paid him.
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Renny Pritikin retired in December 2018 after almost five years as the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Prior to that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner.