Inventing Downtown Reviewed

Inventing Downtown:

Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965

January 10–April 1, 2017

Nobody likes to talk about it, but the history of modern art is inextricably tied to the history of modern wealth and money. The “modern” as theory derives from the term coined by Charles Baudelaire in an 1864 essay “The Painter of Modern Life” in which he assigns artists the task of interpreting the heightened proximity of human interdependence and mechanized speed that come with urban life. Raoul Vaneigem provides a historical context for Baudelaire’s mandate:

“As all sectors of human activity proceeded to break apart from one another, culture, just as much as the economic, social or political spheres, became a separate realm, an autonomous entity. And as the masters of the economy gradually built up their hegemony over society as a whole, artists, writers and thinkers were left in possession of the consciousness of an independent cultural domain which the imperialism of the economy would be very slow to colonize...”

Histoire désinvolte du surréalisme by Raoul Vaneigem (Nonville: Paul Vermont, 1977);
A Cavalier History of Surrealism, tr. by Donald Nicholson-Smith (AK Press, 1999).

Throughout the 19th century, the wealth of empire and commerce, ideas and liberty place Paris at the center of the art world. At the same time, America’s relentless capital market enriches a rootless cadre of unfettered robber barons whose fortunes defy the volatility that rattles the diminishing dominion of Old World nobility. By the start of the Civil War, the Commons at City Hall that had opened in 1812 to provide commodities for New York’s wealthy, gave way to the wave of poor and immigrant families who settled into the nearby Five-Points. The rich moved north to Greenwich Village and Broadway as far as Union Square and were followed by a growing number of antique dealers selling European prints and paintings. Eventually, New York’s wealthy dug in on the Upper East Side, having run out of room to flee. As they erected mansions along 5th Avenue from the 50s up into the 90s east of Central Park, galleries surrounded the Metropolitan and occupied the blocks immediately to the south.

By February 1911, The New York Times had announced a “New Art Centre” along 5th Avenue from 38th Street to 50th Street. The Armory Show of 1913 focused attention on the leading Post-Impressionist and School of Paris artists, including Matisse, Picasso, Georges Braque, Modigliani, Rodin. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney established the Whitney Studio Gallery at 8 East 8th Street in 1914. With Europe in the throes of social and political upheavals, many artists headed to New York and Washington Square the number of small galleries, artist studios and co-ops increased.

During the boom of the 1920s, midtown buildings that house galleries today were just being built. The Heckscher Building (now the Crown Building, 730 Fifth Avenue) is where MoMA got it's start November 7, 1929, as a pop-up show in a borrowed apartment organized by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and her friends, Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan. This show of eight prints and one drawing attracted over 47,000 visitors in one month. Until Abby Rockefeller opened this private venue to the public, galleries were exclusive salons open by appointment only to select clientele. Alfred Steiglitz’s Intimate Gallery, The American Art Association galleries, Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery, the Whitney gallery, and a number of art societies and academies were the exceptions and public venues remained rare until the late 1940s post-War boom.

Before the crash of 1929 there were around 140 galleries sprinkled throughout the center of Manhattan from Greenwich Village to the Metropolitan Museum. By 1932, only 30 galleries had survived the early years of The Great Depression. After WWII, large residential and commercial office buildings sprouted up in midtown and art dealers deemed the older buildings’ cheap rents and close proximity to wealth perfect for their needs. The Stable Gallery opened in 1953 on West 58th Street with its name referencing the old horse stable it occupied and represented Franz Kline, Willem deKooning, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg and others.

In an interview conducted by Gail Stavitsky for the Archives of American Art, Michael St. Clair tells us “You have to recall that during the fifties the climate of the art world was just becoming alive again and it was just beginning to stir...” around 1960, Mr St. Clair took over the Babcock Gallery, the world’s oldest gallery devoted to American Art an artists.

The Grey Art Gallery’s current exhibition, Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965 features works from fourteen experimental artists’ efforts to explore alternative venues for showing innovative art. Curator Melissa Rachleff has assembled over two hundred works in a range of styles in painting, sculpture, and works on paper to assemblages, installations and performances.

Rachleff groups the fourteen galleries according to five themes: Leaving Midtown looks at three Tenth Street cooperative efforts—Tanager Gallery, Hansa Gallery, and Brata—each with artist-members sharing expenses. City as Muse features four venues known for pioneering dynamic installations and performances without following the co-op model, City Gallery, Reuben Gallery,  Delancey Street Museum, and Judson Gallery. Space and Time investigates two significant artist-run projects, Yoko Ono’s loft at 112 Chambers Street and 79 Park Place, which embraced a wide range of media, and shared an interest in exploring temporality and geo-spatial dimensions. Politics as Practice examines the spaces focused on a growing sense of social urgency in around the Cold War, civil rights and the legacy of World War II. This includes March Group, Judson Church’s Hall of Issues, The Center, and Spiral Group. Defining Downtown looks at the Green Gallery, where David Bellamy and Irving Sandler played a large part in bringing downtown artists uptown and helped the rise of Pop and Minimalism. For many artists, this meant a commodification of art that choked aesthetic freedom, marginalizing many non-conformist artists.

After 1965, New York’s uptown and downtown scenes grew increasingly entrenched. The rise of nonprofit alternative spaces defined downtown. Today’s art world remains split between a commercial market hungry for contemporary art and more pluralistic models of production and promotion concerned with aesthetic and social challenges and discussion.

Curator Rachliff does a fine job of including over 200 pieces in the show throughout the two floors of the gallery. Few of the pieces are large, and only a couple of sculptural works achieve the monumental scale that seems to validate so much of what passes for “successful” art in today’s scene. The modest size of the many framed, two-dimensional drawings, paintings, prints, collages and assemblages on view suggest the limited means these artists had at their access. In addition, the materiality evident in even figurative paintings reveals the degree to which process became the central issue motivating most artists at the time. This idea of process—that one’s life and work follow a continuum that is not demarcated—explains the interest in found objects, both as subject and as element of the completed work. While there are a good deal of drawings in the show, almost none of them have the polished look of illustration. It’s as if these artists are more interested in exposing their drafts and errors without seeking a detailed, polished result, as if highlighting the inner workings of the work. 

We find the energetic figuration of Red Grooms throughout the show—his studio served as one of the first artist spaces for the year until it was torn down. His performances and “machinic” constructions are only recalled in wall texts, but somehow his presence is palpable. His Untitled Street Scene With Monster is an ink on paper work that seems to dominate the dozen other works that share wall space with it, as if he has somehow orchestrated this grouping of thirteen visual scores by as many artists. Of course, he hasn’t directed these artists at all. It’s to curator Rachleff’s credit that she has so carefully arranged this grouping: Lester Johnson’s dark Man In Street is a monotone woodcut that complements George Nelson Preston’s charcoal Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers at the Five Spot and Bob Thompson’s pastel, Red. Two works by Mimi Gross use bright oil stick coloration to enliven the wall, as does Gandy Brodie with crayon and ink on the same wall. These works, along with others by Claes Oldenberg, Bob Thompson and many others, hail from Grooms’ City Gallery. While only one show was mounted in the studio space, it apparently functioned as a lively and open gathering place for all kinds of makers and thinkers during its brief life.

Represented here are works by black artists who united as The Spiral Group. A Philip Randolph who started the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was a booster of the 1963 March On Washington and he approached Romare Bearden to support the march. Bearden in turn contacted Norman Lewis, considered the black abstract expressionist and whose piece in this show is a stunning and polished example of his controlled approach (in contrast to the looser gestural work of Pollock). Lewis and Bearden, the elder, enlisted Hale Woodruff of NYU, Charles Alston, Emma Amos and others to join the march. 

A few years prior, Buchenwald survivor Boris Lurie took over the coop run March gallery to mount shows protesting the cold war threat of nuclear annihilation, capital punishment and other human rights issues. Aldo Tambellini, who cheated allied bombings in Tuscany, found kids playing in the rubble of urban renewal on the Lower East Side reminiscent of war and started The Center to engage people through street shows and festivals. His Untitled monochromatic sculpture of found metal objects resembles a giant cyborg skull excavated on another planet from the future, while Lurie’s canvases are colorful compositions of bold brush strokes and random details lacking the polish of contemporaries like Rauschenburg and Johns.

There are many other well-known artists here: Jim Dine paintings, a ceramic hat and an exhibition poster by Oldenberg, a typically mesmerizing and oddly earthy canvas by Yayoi Kusama prior to her breakthrough. But one artist grabbed my attention above the others, despite finding only two of her works on view. According to Ivan Karp in 1963 interview I found online, “the artist who we used to focus on with particular interest and remarkable historic importance was young Jean Follett, whose art of collage, assemblage, and construction was very adventurous for the time. And she's a kind of a pioneer, I think, in that spirit of working. And she never received much attention at all, unfortunately. Her art was considered very difficult, and we used to propose it every so often to important personalities in the arts, and she was more or less put aside.” This is an interesting observation, as the pieces Rachliff has placed in the show are two constructions that seem somehow ahead of their time. One of Hans Hofmann’s students, Follett applies black paint to embedded pieces of wood, metal, springs and a heater coil, leaving three porcelain electric components white, with a red stick and attached red string to complete the Many Headed Creature shown here. This figure fetish is as ghostly as her assemblage “3 Black Bottles” and it was hard to tear myself away as I tried to ingest the qualities she’s given us. Curiously, there’s very little on Follett to be found anywhere, but if these works are any indication, someone should put together a monograph soon. Apparently, the curator plans to do just that, as she confesses “many artists cite her as an influence. I am not yet finished with my research on her—she is my next project.”

Besides Hans Hofmann, a revered teacher who started the Studio School on Eighth Street, this show will introduce visitor’s to the influential role of dealers and collectors like Richard Bellamy, whose biography just appeared last year, and Irving Sandler, who’ll be speaking at one of the many public programs associated with the show. Altogether, Inventing Downtown is the kind of show I feel most drawn to explore, mainly for the excellent breadth and clarity it devotes to the history of art. In the best sense available, we gain an awareness of the interconnectivity of art; rather than lone objects displayed in abstract and interchangeable space, the Grey Gallery gives one a sense of the human relationships that inspire artists to create as they do. These are not a bunch of people whose motivation is to make art for themselves, or for art’s sake. While not always expressly political, the works seen here are certainly the result of people who had an interest in the world around them and their place in history. In this sense, this show offers a look at a moment during which cultural history seemed possible—when artists tried to find something human within to share with humans around them. There is little sense of the exalted or vanity that drives so many transcendent efforts in the art world today. Not that there’s anything wrong with transcendence—there is certainly an art to attaining heights not yet reached by most. But the Grey show is about culture, and when artists can address what we do with what we have here to foster a consciousness of what’s human, our culture is enriched and the possibility to maintain its vitality for all is made clear.