Remembering Local Photographer and Art Luminary Toyo Tsuchiya

Memorial to Toyo with Rivington School friends and family, Photo: Roman Primitivo

Local photographer and art luminary Toyo Tsuchiya passed away from natural causes November 23 in his East Village home. He was 69. The following farewell was written by Roman Primitivo Albaer, who is producing a film about No Se No and Rivington School.

I first met Toyo Tsuchiya in Mars Bar, the stinking dive of a place in the East Village full of misfits, losers, and the insane. He, along with Hamlet, curated art shows there. At the time, we traded a few words, and that’s all.

Yet, we really met last year when we started talking about doing a documentary on No Se No, a social club in the 1980s, and the Rivington School, an art collective sculpture garden, both located on Rivington Street. That’s when our friendship bloomed. He was like a Zen philosopher of his generation using a camera as testimony and reflection of something very transcendental that we call “youth,” capturing it all. He chose the camera over drawing and painting but in reality, he was a painter; at the end of his life, he had returned to the latter.

Toyo had a great sense of humor, and was knowledgeable about the arts from literature to poetry and film. An afternoon conversation with him could range from the Pataphysics of Alfred Jerry to the futurism in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

His studio was full of photographs, with portfolios of more prints on the table. There were posters, flyers, newspaper cuttings, all about Rivington School, No Se No, and the art galleries of that era. Along a wall in the living room were four human size sculptures made with wire and newspaper, sitting in meditative poses. Like almost all his work, it was meditative and observant through the lens.

I say almost because he had huge drawings, too. He mastered lines on the paper – curves, verticals, shadows, horizontals, circles, squares – like two Samurai’s in action. He made giant drawings of humans but because of the confines of the apartment they couldn’t be displayed so they sat rolled in huge columns in another room, making it look like the ruins of a Greek temple.

Toyo had a deep sense of community and his outsider spirit was drawn to the edgy corner of the Lower East Side on Rivington and Forsyth, where there was something particular. No Se No (“I don’t know not”) was just opening, and the new owners kept the name from the old business (a Spanish social club). It was there that he found his tribe.

One of his black-and-white photos showed a woman in her mid 50s wearing high waisted jeans and a stripped t-shirt, holding a glass of beer and looking happy. At first I thought she didn’t look like she fit in the place with those younger artists but Toyo told me she was the wife of the super, and sometimes she came to the club to have fun. I then realized she was there because she was another outsider.

Toyo had a photographic memory. He could describe the circumstances around every photo he took.

One of the last photos I saw was of two people on their knees in an empty lot taken horizontally. In the scene in front of the couple is a fire and we can see the wind because the flames were curving in the direction of those two silhouettes. If you looked further you could see a man and woman, the man resting his head on her lap, and the woman looks like she is trying to calm him down. The combination of the light of the fire, the big empty lot, and those two figures on the ground was like a Goya black painting – touching, and tragically beautiful. I asked him what happened. Toyo told me it was a day after Geronimo died and those two people were his friends. Geronimo was real, and then became a mythical character of Rivington School who was a friend, a gangster, and also put up the first sculpture in the garden. After he died the Rivington School garden started.

Toyo was a sensitive person. He was loyal to his path as an artist and near the end of his life was starting to enjoy the harvest of his work. In my mind is coming the play of Calderon de La Barca “Life is a Dream.”

Buen viaje, amigo…