Suzanne Fiol, the founder and artistic director of Issue Project Room as well as a prominent figure in the New York art world for over twenty years, died on Monday, October 5th, in Manhattan. She was 49 years old.
Issue Project Room, so central to her life since 2003, continues on as a space that is as fully eclectic, celebratory, joyful, and daring as its visionary founder was in her life. It brought artists from a wide array of disciplines together and encouraged spontaneous and fresh programming. The weekly series of events found very few equals in these lean last years in the performing arts. As Anthony Coleman said in conversation, “She always reminded me of Diaghilev. I think if you’re too analytical and too skeptical, you can’t do what Suzanne did. Diaghilev would see something that excited him and he would want the world to know about it. People take his phrase ‘Astonish me’ in two ways: they quote it to emphasize his incredible eye and ear for discovering people like Nijinsky; but “Astonish me” also has something to do with a relatively non-intellectual attitude about what just makes you want to jump up and down. Suzanne had those same qualities… She had an unmediated enthusiasm for things.”
Suzanne was a student of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 80s, where Michelle Handelman recalls meeting her as she walked down the hall. “This girl with the most amazing head of red curls came bounding toward me, arms wide open shouting, “Fiorucci Sista!” I looked down as she hugged me and could see that we were both wearing the same pair of pink Fiorucci jeans! She had a knack for bringing you right into the fold.”
Michelle’s memories of later times spent together in the New York of the 1980s sketch a picture of a Suzanne that many around her would recognize to her final days:
“Every place we went Suzanne knew somebody…the doorman at Danceteria, the director of Holly Solomon, Suze and I would hit the streets and she would introduce me to everyone, always giving them a little spiel on my work…always making connections. She was the ultimate matchmaker always thinking about who should meet whom and then going out of her way to make that happen.”
Issue Project Room was where Suzanne stepped into her newest of many incarnations spanning her career in the arts. Prior to IPR she had worked at Donald Wren, Marcuse Pfeifer and Brent Sikkema galleries. She was successful in her role as art dealer but after her daughter Sarah was born she chose to spend time raising her. As Michelle continues, “I know the years she spent at home raising Sarah were more precious to her than anything… As I look back on it now I can see that even though she was now a stay-at-home mom she was still networking, building a base of contacts that she would eventually tap in support of her as-yet-unknown future project: Issue Project Room.”
Zach Layton, one of Fiol’s co-curators at Issue Project Room and a close friend, writes of Suzanne’s loves beyond her work, “She loved Brooklyn and owls and her beautiful daughter Sarah. She had one hell of a heart.” At the gathering this past Monday, held at Issue Project Room, the owl statues that had for long been nesting in the back room on a shelf next to her desk, were placed around plates of food, flowers, and candles. They hovered over the festivities while so many of her friends and colleagues, artists and audience, celebrated her life.
As artist and Issue board member, Robert Longo writes, “It was hard to say “no” to this charismatic, big-haired, sexy, powerfully understated woman on a mission. She was well aware that she was about to venture into waters she was uncertain of how to navigate, yet she fearlessly pursued her dream – not for herself but for the musicians and artists she was so lovingly dedicated to.”
One facet of her curatorial boldness and nerve was her programming of artists in their early to late teens: “She loved kids. She loved having kids in the space who wanted to do something. She’d have them collaborate with established artists. Not many people remember that because it was not very successful, but that’s not important; she wanted to present icons and at the same time present kids. That was amazing!”(Anthony Coleman)
Suzanne’s obsession with Issue Project Room is central to many people’s memories of her, and in writing about her life it quickly takes center stage. Her friends, her daughter, her family, the artists she loved, the community she fostered, all became swept up into the space that she was building. As Elena del Rivero remembers, “As we met for drinks, she would tell me about Issue project—always Issue Project—but, in between, she would, of course, talk about her favorite person in the world—her daughter Sarah—and her own personal quest for love. But she was always interested to hear all about the other, the one in front of her. Romantic, beautiful, sincere and honest, driven, visionary and lovingly generous is how I will remember Suzanne… No one was an outsider for her: the power of the community was at the base of her philosophy.”
The place so central to her life became central to my life as well, and yet it was never as much about the venue and all its riches as it was about going there to see Suzanne and all of my friends. It was about an ideal of the community that some nights just sizzled with sexy excitement. I had never felt so good about ‘going to work.’ Playing at Issue when Suzanne was there in the audience was indescribably special. Watching her linking arms with the person next to her, smiling and looking through her big curls, leaning back…she sent out a warmth as a listener that would turn our music making into a desire to give a gift.
“She would get excited about such different things,” Anthony remembers, “I saw her jumping up and down to Jonathan Kane’s February and I saw her jumping up and down to Ligeti’s Piano Etudes. She never asked ‘what does it mean?’ or ‘what is it trying to say when you have rock music playing in the same venue as classical music?’ It wasn’t self-conscious or an attempt to create a brand. We’ll be lucky if there will ever be another curator like that. I’ve never met one.”
Jonathan Kane himself writes, “I told her shortly before she died that she was always so far ahead of the crowd, and that this journey was, as usual for her, going someplace first that we’ll all (if we’re lucky) be going some day. She smiled and said “that’s an interesting way to think of it.” So now the hardest working visionary on the planet is at rest. But her energy will never disappear. Our mission is to further her legacy by making our best and bravest work, something that Suzanne might have booked at Issue.”
As her colleagues at Issue Project Room fiercely and lovingly continue her legacy the space will continue on without her. A recent grant from the discretionary funds of Marty Markowitz has allowed the renovations of the new space at 110 Livingston in Brooklyn, to go ahead. The dream of a “Carnegie Hall for the avant-garde” that Suzanne fought for so hard in the last years was already coming true before she left us this week.
On the Sunday night before she passed on, as Anthony was leaving her bedside, he asked her, “do you have anything else you want to say?” And as if with the awareness of all the beautiful things still left unsaid, undone, and in all their delicious potential, she replied, “Not yet.”
Image via Issue Project Room.