Remembrance, Loss, and Rhubarb at Gallerist Tony Cox’s New Playhouse

Tony Cox, the impresario behind the elusive Club Rhubarb, launches an ambitious satellite gallery that's just as hard to find (but worth it).

Tony Cox at 1 Ludlow on January 16, 2024. Photo: Cheryl Dunn

On a frigid day last week, Tony Cox, the pro-skater turned artist turned curator behind Club Rhubarb—the sixth floor, shoes-off, cozy speakeasy of a Lower East Side art gallery with no website—was giving a tour of his new endeavor a few blocks down the street—a still intimate project with a grander scope. Cox has assembled “I Was Only Dreaming,” a group exhibition that serves as a truncated autobiography, a requiem for lost friends, and an art-world riff on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.

It’s the debut show at 1 Ludlow, a compact 19th-century four-story trapezoid corner building set in the thick of Dimes Square, which is ironic as most of the artists come from the creative class who hung out in the area long before the restaurant Dimes started slinging salads.

An installation view of “I Was Only Dreaming.” Courtesy of Club Rhubarb.

“It’s a family vibe. It’s the nineties, it’s downtown,” Cox said of the show as he mounted the stairs to the second floor where it begins. “It’s my coming to New York and landing at Max Fish and Alleged Gallery. I’m the common denominator between all these people. But everyone has a story and is connected. It’s not just random, like I’m just putting all my cool friends in the show. These people are serious about what they’re doing, have a real practice, and it all makes sense together.”

Cox assembled 70 artists and nearly 100 works (paintings, sculpture, design pieces, furniture) in the homey space. It’s a joyful assemblage, and one that resonates more knowing how from-the-heart the curation is. There is a red thread running through all of the artists, stitched through the neighborhood and connected to loved ones here and gone.

Lola Montes, Artichoke Candleholder Italy (2023). Courtesy of Club Rhubarb.

We ascend to what Cox has dubbed the “Renaissance Room.” “I wanted to have a serious room with ceramics,” he said. “The things I normally show are like ‘Tony World.’ So, I curated this whole room around this table by Lola Montes,” a compelling and intricate baroque tableau. The next floor is the “Play Room.” Felix Beaudry’s knitted nude grotesquerie The Glob Mother and Lazy Boy on Bed is accentuated by K8 Hardy’s painted maxi-pads, displayed on a yoga mat on the floor. Cox stops in front of a wall and explains the narrative he shaped with the artwork, eagerly pointing at it piece by piece like an over-enthused weatherman in front of a map.

“So, this is driving in,” he says beginning with a Quentin Debrey photo of the city skyline seen through a passenger side window and ending with works by Raina Hamner and Reza Shafahi. “Now, it’s getting trippy. This is the blotter paper. This is the acid. This is boots turning into vagina boots and then into the sweet potato vagina tree.” (Hamner’s intricate colored pencil drawings have the depth and feel of oil paintings). The narratives overlap and pile up on the various levels.

Raina Hamner, Limbo Bimbo (2021). Courtesy of Club Rhubarb.

Cox lived in Club Rhubard, over on Canal Street as well, until his landlord got wise a few months ago and tore down the sleeping loft (he’s since decamped to an apartment down the street). 1 Ludlow is operating on a similarly DL, need-to-know basis; potential visitors and collectors email or text him to book a visit. So far, it’s operating temporarily and is scheduled to run until January 28. Cox was able to launch his pop-up gallery after Adam Woodward, a passionate Lower East Side preservationist, donated the space to Cox temporarily after purchasing the building (it’s unclear what it’s going to become next but Cox said it will continue as a gallery or stay in the arts continuum, possibly as a residency).

In 1999 or 2000 (the exact year was lost in the subsequent ether), Woodward hosted a proto-show at his Bleecker Street apartment that was the round-about jump-off point for “I Was Only Dreaming” and Cox’s art forays.

No one remembers the title, either, but it was curated by Athena Currey, the best friend, model, and muse of the late fashion designer Ben Cho who passed in 2017. “It was, like, Ben Cho, Brian Degraw, Leo Fitzpatrick, Ian and Marc Hundley, Tara Sims,” Cox recalled. “Years later, I asked her why did you do that? And she said, ‘I wasn’t confident enough to be an artist myself, but I was surrounded by really talented artists, so putting on a show was a way I could participate.’ All this stuff subconsciously sunk in. We had to take our shoes off because the neighbors complained we were too loud. These things that I never even thought about, but went into Club Rhubarb. Showing art in a context where it’s more natural, you could actually see being around it or living with it.”

Michael Hambouz, Stop! Sign (2023). Courtesy of Club Rhubarb.

Cox hopes to stage a Cho retrospective at 1 Ludlow. “He was a mentor and a jack of all trades that could do anything,” he said. “He inspired so many people on so many different levels. He changed the way that I saw everyday materials in terms of my own art practice. When I used to work for him, one time he sat down and he handed me 250 keys and goes, ‘I want you to make a keygle, an eagle that’s made out of keys.’ What in the hell are you talking about? Of course, I couldn’t do his vision. But this thing did get made. Ben sat down and produced an eagle that lays on your chest and goes around your neck. He was basically everyone’s life force at one point. He was DJ-ing, doing stick-and-poke tattoos, and super realistic drawings. On top of it, his clothes were way ahead of the time.”

Cho appears in images that adorn the walls of the exhibition and is seen throughout Leo Fitpatrick’s very personal contribution to the show, Record/Album, which consists of more than 600 personal images arranged in drugstore photo albums. It’s a remarkable and touching document of the scene and era. “It was the height of debauchery for everybody,” Cox says. “So many people are dead or sober in them now.” Cho is pictured tattooing Dan Colen while he eats a sandwich. A few pages later, fat rails of cocaine spell out “Titanic” in front of a toy boat.

Erik Foss, Toys R Us (2023) and Joe Roberts, WTC (2022). Courtesy of Club Rhubarb.

The top floor, “Future Freak,” was inspired by Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Cox shifts the artworks around from day to day. We are sitting on Marc Hundley’s contribution; he made a lounge area (a sofa, bench and coffee table) for the show which has become a gathering place.

We flip through Fitzpatrick’s albums. Everyone looks pretty modern except for the skinny scarves. “No one was doing anything,” Cox said. “People then didn’t have a real art practice. They were just like, ‘I hang out and do cocaine and I’m young and cute.’ It was an amazing time, but it’s also what  ruined all these like kids. Except Ryan McGinley. Even back then he was a workaholic and worked his ass off.” A lot of It girls and It boys have come and gone. Travis Graves, a pro-skater who released wonderful and obscure music under the moniker Mt. Egypt is in many images. The show is co-dedicated him.

“He was one of my best friends,” Cox said. “He kind of gave up and disappeared and he died at the end of August from alcoholism. These are his ashes.” With that, he pushed a small bottle across the table with a label inscribed “Live well to benefit all and harm none, this time, this earth, this life.”

Alain Levitt, Untitled [Alanna Gabin and Patrick O’Dell] (2000). Courtesy of Club Rhubarb.

“That quote came from Nathan Maddox, who was in Gang Gang Dance. He wrote them on a job application at a health food store three days before he got struck by lightning on a rooftop on Broome Street and passed away. Leo interviewed Travis about 12 years ago and asked what would you want written on your tombstone?  And he said this quote from Nathan. So, each bottle of ashes has this quote.” The exhibition is also dedicated and inspired by agent and photo producer Alanna Gabin who died in 2021.

“She was a big part in starting people’s careers,” Cox said. “She was the one that said, ‘You’re an artist, you need to do exhibitions.’ At the same time, Alanna was a photographer who always put people in front of her instead of herself.” Gabin appears in multiple photos in the show.

Matthew Ronay Doorbell (2019), Mamali Shafahi Flocked Mask (2023), and Paul Kopkau, Post labor (2023). Courtesy of Club Rhubarb.

Matthew Ronay, Doorbell (2019), Mamali Shafahi, Flocked Mask (2023), and Paul Kopkau, Post labor (2023). Courtesy of Club Rhubarb.

The top floor was formerly a photographer’s studio and has floor-to-ceiling slanted windows with a majestic northward view of the city. Joe Roberts’s WTC works two-fold—it depicts a cockpit aiming toward the Twin Towers as well as the Virgin Mary (depending on the viewer). It’s a heady experience in this neighborhood where one could see the towers fall and it became part of the barricaded zone afterwards. This subtext permeates a lot of this group of artists’ narrative.

A standout piece hangs on the red brick wall above the staircase. Ruminative and moving, it depicts two abstract amorphous shapes mid-embrace and it’s by Cox. Armed in Arms, hand-sewn from ponyskin, lambskin, and cording, is one of the last pieces he made before a 2019 sabbatical due to illness. He took a step back right as fiber art started to trend and is about to make a return.

Tony Cox's Armed in Arms (2019) hangs above the stairwell in "I Was Only Dreaming." Photo: Angela Kelley.

Tony Cox’s Armed in Arms (2019) hangs above the stairwell in “I Was Only Dreaming.” Photo: Angela Kelley.

In 2025 the Kentucky Museum of Arts and Crafts will host a solo Cox exhibition of new and old work (Cox originally hails from Louisville; it’s a full-circle return). He will also curate the remainder of the space with Club Rhubarb artists. He said, “I have tons of ideas.”

“I Was Only Dreaming” is on view at 1 Ludlow Street (enter at 144 Division Street), through January 28, Thursday through Sunday, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. For booking, email [email protected].


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