BY BOB KRASNER | You can count Ruth and Valery Oisteanu among the lucky ones. Still married after 46 years, still making art and still living in the East Village apartment they moved into in 1975.
When they met by chance on the street in Israel, they had already beat the odds. Ruth had been raised from infancy in NYC but was born to Holocaust survivors in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany. Valery had recently escaped Communist Romania (by way of Italy) when they connected in 1972. Though Ruth went home and Valery traveled through Europe, they were reunited in NYC a year later, married in a few months and began life together on the Upper East Side.
Thanks to their friend John Evans, a collage artist in the East Village, they found their home on Second Avenue. The two-bedroom apartment wasn’t in great shape and the neighborhood was, according to Ruth, “pretty awful!” She explained, “There were junkies on every corner, drug dealers on every other corner and hookers in between the corners.”
“We took the place as is,” said Valery. “No new paint, nothing. We filled the place with street furniture, art and mannequins. We funked it up!”
“You didn’t go east after sunset,” noted Ruth, “but the neighborhood was full of energy, art and crazy people. It was a great place to live.” It probably didn’t hurt that their spacious digs had a rent of less than $300. The landlord, they said, was happy to have “normal tenants.”
For 34 years Ruth drove to the Bronx to teach at a public school (first grade, then English as a second language) while Valery curated art shows, wrote poetry, created collages and wrote about the art scene for “Soho Arts Weekly” (which became “Cover Arts”) in the 80’s, “NY Arts ” in the 90’s and “The Brooklyn Rail” in the 2000’s. He was, briefly, in a classroom as well, teaching science and art. “As far as elementary school went, he wasn’t teacher material,” explained Ruth. “He should have been working at college level.”
Ruth, who has two master’s degrees, was also creating art. She considers her collage work “a hobby,” but she has an impressive portfolio of work behind her. Also a jewelry maker, she has seen her beadwork exhibited at the Museum of Art and Design, among other places.
The pair participated fully in the East Village art world of the 80’s. The neighborhood was full of galleries and they went to all the openings, with Valery documenting the scene for his column and frequently seeing his work on the gallery walls. Involved in the Club 57 scene, Valery curated a show of Mail Art, was chosen by Keith Haring to be in a group show and even contributed to the overall aesthetic of the place. There were times when, “Haring, Basquiat and I spent the whole day painting the place for a show that was only up for one night!” he exclaims.
The legendary music scene figured in as well. “Danceteria, Mudd Club, whatever was happening, we were out there !” says Ruth.
Not just a visual artist, Valery has been writing and reciting his poetry since his days in Romania. The Acker Award-winning author has produced more than a dozen books (in English), some venturing into short fiction and collage. Not content with the written word, Valery frequently makes use of his booming voice to perform his work, sometimes to the accompaniment of live music. Back in the day, on stage at the Pyramid, he coined the word “Jazzoetry” to describe his performance.
When not at home at their bohemian digs, which were frequently the site of art shows, salon-style gatherings, recitations, dinner parties, concerts, and who knows what else, they made a point of traveling when they could. Not content to just take snapshots, they shot video that went beyond the usual tourist subject matter.
In Bali, they “got into a wedding ceremony, a cremation ceremony, a tooth filing ceremony,” relates Ruth. A two and a half hour documentary, “Rhythms and Rituals of Bali,” was the result. It ended up being a very popular item when it was shown on Romanian TV.
These days, the couple lives in a neighborhood that is very different from the one they moved into, and the apartment has changed as well. They bought the place when it went co-op in the late 80’s and watched the streets begin to clean up in the 90’s. Forced by a burst pipe to renovate in 2003, they stayed at the Chelsea Hotel for a couple of months while their found furniture became history and bookcases designed by Ruth were installed. The guest room became a studio. Art, a mix of their own and their prominent friends, still fills the rooms and family photos mingle with inspirational imagery everywhere.
The makeup of the building also changed as the old folks disappeared and the “artists, painters and writers who made up the intellectual core” left their homes. Some artists and writers are still there, to be sure, but the days when you could be in the elevator with Divine – whose boyfriend was a tenant – are long gone. You’re more likely to encounter couples with their kids than renowned photographer David LaChapelle, another past inhabitant.
Despite the loss of favorite neighborhood haunts – Angelica restaurant, the mom and pop stores that used to be everywhere and more, the couple are feeling positive about their surroundings. There are some mixed feelings – they are not too happy about the “invasion of the 80,000 students who have no interest in improving the neighborhood,” according to Ruth – for instance. On the other hand, she points out that, “streets that were abandoned are now flourishing. Tompkins Square Park was a mess, but now it’s a beautiful refuge.”
Valery sums up how they view the East Village now. “Although we have a bit of a bland corporate invasion,” he muses, “we still have a fabulous community of writers, performers, filmmakers and artists.”
Ruth and Valery Oisteanu will be participating in a group art show, “Unseen” at the Theater For The New City, 155 1st Ave. from November 4th to January 2nd, with a reception on November 13th from 5:30 – 8:00 p.m.
Valery Oisteanu has a solo show up now at the Ottendorfer Library. He will be giving a talk about the work on November 30th from 2:00 – 4:00 p.m.