Tony Rosenthal, the sculptor of the revolving black cube on Astor Place, died over the weekend at age 94. For myself and thousands of other East Villagers, this was the work of art that touched (and was touched by) us most. The memories of Village life revolve with it.
I first felt Alamo (the name of the cube) soon after it was installed in 1967. Coming home from concerts at the Fillmore East, guys would spin it to impress their girls then hop the subway for points north and south. In those days the MTA left all the rush hour cars attached throughout the night. You and your honey would simply position yourselves, so to speak, in an empty car at the back of the train and let the subway do the work.
Walking home at night from the West Village towards Alamo always presented a delightful dilemma. As Astor Place opened up, you had to choose which way to go and dodge the turning city buses to do it. Do you zigzag northeast towards St. Mark’s Church, dodge a few vehicles and continue through the open-air market of 8th Street or veer due South past the pocket park surrounding the statue of Peter Cooper?
A spin of the cube determined the choice and possible encounters with a pot dealer, a pickup or a mugger. In 1971, I was coming home from the Village Gate at 3 am, got into an impromptu cube frug with Richie Havens and he kissed me on the cheek. I miss the wide open parking lot south of Alamo, now just another ugly glass building. I used to buy records there, but it was also the site of New York’s largest open air pornography market.
A large black man in a wheelchair and a toothless white sailor sort of ran the place, which was neatly divided into genres, degree of hardcore, magazines and video. The all-day business attracted all sorts of philosophical debates and impromptu bets to see how fast some of the perv buyers could spin the cube.
Alamo itself was often subject to the top-down spin of city authorities. In the early 1980s graffiti era, when Keith Haring was spraying babies in the Astor Place station, SAMO was tagging walls near the parking lot and you could tear down a Jenny Holzer there for your personal collection, Alamo was bombarded with tags in white paint. Over time, New York bosses cleaned it repeatedly, embossed Alamo with graffiti-proof black paint, removed it (!) in a misguided attempt at urban renewal and, for a long time, fixed Alamo in place so it would not revolve. Such are the idiocies of the clunkers who govern.
But the cube is still there and has now outlasted the man who made it. Today it is a matrix of skateboarders, coffee gourmands and, as always, bad guitar players with one crappy amp. On its own, and with its many local lovers, Alamo has probably stopped more misguided "development" than any structure in New York. Young artists should well meditate on what Alamo says about the power of art and, while they revere it as the East Village Parthenon that it is, give it a spin for Tony, OK?
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).