ONE AFTERNOON LAST fall, Steve Cannon — who is also known as Professor Steve, the only blind gallery owner in the history of New York and, in the words of his friend Ishmael Reed, “the emperor of the Lower East Side” — was sitting on the couch in his small East Village apartment, wearing Mardi Gras beads over a sweater, his glaucoma-clouded eyes covered by sunglasses. He was talking about how he decided to start the arts organization A Gathering of the Tribes, a magazine and former gallery that is a kind of manifestation of Cannon himself.
The idea came to him one night in 1990 at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which was a block away from the building he owned at the time on East Third Street. The Nuyorican opened down the street in 1981, and by 1990 its poetry slams had become a downtown sensation. Cannon, the author of the legendary but little-read 1969 book “Groove, Bang and Jive Around,” which Reed calls a “pre-rap novel” that predicted the spoken-word style that was flourishing at the Nuyorican in the late ’80s, was the club’s resident heckler, shouting at hesitant performers to get on with it and “read the goddamn poem.”
He was there with his friend David Hammons, a renowned artist so famously reclusive and unreachable that the very idea of him having a friend seems strange, like trying to imagine Thomas Pynchon buying toilet paper. Cannon and Hammons met on a park bench in the late ’70s, a few years after Hammons arrived in New York from the West Coast and began making mordant, provocative sculptures that dealt with black identity, using discarded materials he gathered around the city. A gardening spade with chains dangling from it lampooned racist terminology; bottle caps gathered from bars were used to adorn comically tall basketball hoops in a 1986 public installation called “Higher Goals”; hair swept from the floors of black barbershops became a leitmotif of many sculptures and installations. Hammons would often find these materials on long walks from his studio in Harlem all the way downtown, where Cannon’s house was a regular stop.