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INVENTING DOWNTOWN:

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

Curator: Melissa Rachleff
GREY ART GALLERY | 100 Washington Square East | New York NYC 10003 | Jan 10 - Apr 1, 2017
 https://greyartgallery.nyu.edu/
poster grey art gallery signet
INVENTING DOWNTOWN | POSTER
John Cohen, Red Grooms transporting artwork to Reuben Gallery, New York, 1960
Courtesy the photographer and L. Parker Stephenson, New York. © John Cohen
 see documentation

INFORMATION

Between the apex of Abstract Expressionism and the rise of Pop Art and Minimalism, the New York art scene was transformed by artist-run galleries. Inventing Downtown presents works from fourteen of these crucibles of experimentation, highlighting artists’ efforts to create new exhibition venues for innovative works of art—ranging from abstract and figurative painting, assemblage, sculpture, and works on paper to groundbreaking installations and performances.

Inventing Downtown proposes viewing these fourteen galleries via five thematic groupings. Leaving Midtown focuses on three Tenth Street galleries which adopted a cooperative business structure where expenses were shared among elected members: Tanager Gallery, Hansa Gallery, and Brata Gallery. City as Muse features four ventures that did not adopt the co-op model: City Gallery, Reuben Gallery, Delancey Street Museum, and Judson Gallery. They are best known for creating dynamic installations and pioneering performances. Space and Time investigates two significant artist-run projects, 112 Chambers Street and 79 Park Place, which occupied different conceptual terrains, embraced a wide range of media, and shared an interest in exploring temporality and geo-spatial dimensions. Politics as Practice includes four groups: March Group, Judson Church’s Hall of Issues, The Center, and Spiral Group, which examined the viability of politics as a subject for art and channeled a new sense of social urgency in addressing Cold War politics, the civil rights movement, and the legacy of World War II, among other concerns. Finally, Defining Downtown looks at the Green Gallery, which played a decisive role in bringing downtown uptown and fostering the rise of Pop and Minimalism. Its program, however, resulted in the narrowing of aesthetic possibilities and the marginalization of many artists.

Artist-run galleries shaped American art irreversibly. After 1965, New York’s uptown and downtown art scenes increasingly diverged, which led to the flowering of nonprofit downtown alternative spaces. Although more than half a century has passed since the era of Inventing Downtown, many of the issues mined in the exhibition still resonate in today’s art world—split as it is between the booming commercial market for contemporary art and ever more pluralistic models of artistic production, promotion, and display.

Inventing Downtown is curated by Melissa Rachleff, clinical associate professor in NYU’s Steinhardt School.

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Galleries and Artists in the Exhibition

Tanager Gallery (1952–1962), 51 East Fourth Street (May 1952–March 1953), 90 East Tenth Street (April 1953–June 1962) | Artists: Louise Bourgeois, Charles Cajori, Lois Dodd, Perle Fine, Jean Follett, Mary Frank, Sidney Geist, Gloria Graves, Sally Hazelet Drummond, Angelo Ippolito, Al Jensen, Alex Katz, William “Bill” King, Fred Mitchell, Louise Nevelson, George Ortman, Philip Pearlstein

Hansa Gallery (1952–1959), 70 East Twelfth Street (November 1952–November 1954), 210 Central Park South (December 1954–June 1959) | Artists: Robert Beauchamp, Jacques Beckwith, Lily Brody, John Chamberlain, Jean Follett, Miles Forst, Wolf Kahn, Allan Kaprow, Fay Lansner, Alfred Leslie, Dody Müller, Jan Müller, Felix Pasilis, Vaughan Rachel, Lucas Samaras, George Segal, Richard Stankiewicz, Myron Stout, Robert Whitman, Jane Wilson

Brata Gallery, 89 East Tenth Street (October 1957–April 1962) | Artists: Ronald Bladen, Ed Clark, Al Held, Robert Kobayashi, Nicholas Krushenick, Yayoi Kusama, Nanae Momiyama, Sal Romano, George Sugarman

City Gallery, 735 Sixth Avenue (November 1958–May 1959) | Artists: Robert Beauchamp, Gandy Brodie, Sari Dienes, Jackie Ferrara, Red Grooms, Mimi Gross, Joan Herbst, Budd Hopkins, Lester Johnson, Emily Mason, Jay Milder, Claes Oldenburg, Peter Passuntino, George Nelson Preston, Bob Thompson, Michaela Weisselberg (now Mica Nava)

Reuben Gallery (1959–1961), 61 Fourth Avenue (October 1959–June 1960), 44 East Third Street (November 1960–April 1961) | Artists: Yvonne Andersen, Jim Dine, Rosalyn Drexler, John Cohen, Martha Edelheit, Red Grooms, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, I. C. Rapoport, Robert Rauschenberg, Renée Rubin, Lucas Samaras, Robert Whitman

Delancey Street Museum, 148 Delancey Street (October 1959–May 1960) | Artists: John Cohen, Emilio Cruz, Lester Johnson, Marcia Marcus, Jay Milder, Bob Thompson

Judson Gallery, 239 Thompson Street (February 1959–January 1962) | Artists: Dorothea Baer, Jim Dine, Martha Edelheit, Dan Flavin, Martha Holmes, Claes Oldenburg, Marcus Ratliff, Richard Tyler, Stan VanDerBeek, Tom Wesselmann, Phyllis Yampolsky

112 Chambers Street (December 1960–June 1961) | Artists: Simone Forti, Robert Morris, Minoru Niizuma, Yoko Ono

79 Park Place (November 1963–March 1964) | Artists: Mark di Suvero, Dean Fleming, Peter Forakis, Danny Lyon, Anthony Magar, Tamara Melcher, Forrest Myers, Edwin Ruda, Leo Valledor

March Group (1960–62) | Artists: Stanley Fisher, Sam Goodman, Jean-Jacques Lebel, Boris Lurie, Kenneth van Sickle

Hall of Issues at Judson Memorial Church (December 1961–January 1963) | Artists: Dave Heath, Peter Moore, Steven Schapiro, Peter Schumann, Phyllis Yampolsky

The Center (1962–65) | Artists: Ben Morea, Aldo Tambellini

Spiral Group (1963–65) | Artists: Emma Amos, Romare Bearden, Reginald Gammon, Norman Lewis, William Majors, Hale Woodruff, James Yeargans

Green Gallery, 15 West Fifty-seventh Street (October 1960–June 1965) | Artists: Richard Bellamy, Ronald Bladen, Rudy Burckhardt, Geoffrey Clements, Mark di Suvero, Dan Flavin, Sally Hazelet Drummond, Joan Jacobs, Donald Judd, Tadaaki Kuwayama, Lee Lozano, Robert McElroy, Robert Morris, Claes Oldenburg, Pat Passlof, Larry Poons, James Rosenquist, Lucas Samaras, George Segal, Richard Smith, Tom Wesselmann

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CREDITS

Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965 is organized by the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, and curated by Melissa Rachleff. Its presentation is made possible in part by the generous support of the Terra Foundation for American Art; the Henry Luce Foundation; The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; the S. & J. Lurje Memorial Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts; the Boris Lurie Art Foundation; the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation; the Art Dealers Association Foundation; Ann Hatch; the Oded Halahmy Foundation for the Arts; Arne and Milly Glimcher; The Cowles Charitable Trust; and the Japan Foundation. The publication is supported by a grant from Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund. Additional support is provided by the Grey Art Gallery’s Director’s Circle, Inter/National Council, and Friends; and the Abby Weed Grey Trust.

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REVIEW

When Artists Ran the Show: ‘Inventing Downtown,’ at N.Y.U.

By HOLLAND COTTERJAN

Published in: New York Times on January 13, 2017, page C17
Aldo Tambellini: Primitives 1961
Aldo Tambellini’s “We Are the Primitives of a New Era” (1961). Credit Aldo Tambellini Archive, Salem, Mass.

When a call went out online recently for an art world protest strike — “no work, no school, no business” — on Inauguration Day, more than 200 artists, most based in New York, many well known, quickly signed on. In numbers, they represent a mere fraction of the present art world, and there was reason to expect the list would grow. By contrast, in New York in the 1950s, 200 artists pretty much were that world, and one divided into several barely tangent circles.

That era’s cultural geometry has been badly in need of study, and now it’s getting some in a labor-of-love exhibition called “Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952-1965,” at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University. With nearly 230 objects, it’s big and has its share of stars. But it’s not a masterpiece display. It’s something almost better: a view of typical — rather than outstanding — art, of familiar artists looking unfamiliar, and of strangers you’re glad to meet. It looks the way history looks before the various MoMAs get their sanitizing hands on it: funky, diverse, down to earth, with things to teach us now.

Mimi Gross: Street 1958
“Street Scene” (1958), by Mimi Gross. Credit Mimi Gross

By 1952, Abstract Expressionism was the big American deal, the art that won the culture war with Europe. Americans like muscle, ego and size, all of which Ab Ex had. The market likes brands, and will create them where it can, and did so in the case of Ab Ex, which made many people, including the uptown Manhattan dealers who sold it, quite happy.

Not everyone was thrilled. Not all artists were. Some itched to have success as part of the trend but couldn’t quite figure out how. Others were tired of abstraction; they wanted to paint people and nature, tell stories, or try out crazy new forms that merged art and theater. For still others, politics, and art’s expression of it, was of primary concern. The only guaranteed way these artists could achieve their goals was by opening galleries of their own, and they did.

Show view
A view of the show, with an untitled sculpture in the foreground by Mark di Suvero.
Credit Agaton Strom for The New York Times

The earliest of these 1950s artist-run galleries were downtown, on or around 10th Street, east of Fourth Avenue, where rents were cheap. The Grey show, organized by Melissa Rachleff, a clinical associate professor at the New York University Steinhardt School of Art, features 14 such spaces, a few of which lasted for years, others for just a few months.

The most stable were the so-called cooperative galleries, or co-ops, established by groups of artists who paid monthly dues to cover rent, pitched in on running the place, and made joint decisions about membership: whom to bring in, and whom to kick out. In return for their commitments, they could, on a rotating schedule, show their art.

The artist Red Grooms taking work to the Reuben Gallery in 1960.
Credit John Cohen/L. Parker Stephenson Photographs, New York

The earliest of the three co-ops covered by the show, Tanager Gallery, was also the longest-lived, surviving from 1952 to 1962. And it was the one with the most market-friendly aesthetic, a little something for all tastes. Samples of work by members range from realism (a 1959 double portrait by Alex Katz of his wife, Ada), to semi-abstraction (Lois Dodd’s wonderful 1958 picture of three caramel-colored cows), to the full-on gestural painting of Charles Cajori, Fred Mitchell and Perle Fine.

As is true throughout the show, there are memorable discoveries here. One is a sculpture: a splendid wood figure carving by Mary Frank, suggesting the form of a dancer, which Ms. Frank was. The other find is Jean Follett, whose ghostly assemblage painting, “3 Black Bottles,” is in a world of its own. Tanager’s gestural painters would have fit right in at uptown galleries, and aspired to. But in the 1950s, Ms. Follett, who after early success left New York, was still looking for a receptive place to land.

Lewis 165
An untitled painting from 1965, by Norman Lewis. Credit Norman Lewis, Seth Taffae Fine Art, New York

She found one in 1952 at Hansa Gallery. It was named for Hans Hofmann, a revered teacher who, although himself an abstract painter, encouraged his students to experiment in other styles and media. So did the gallery’s young director, Richard Bellamy, who would later champion Pop and Minimalism. Their venturesome tastes may account for the variety of work in this section of the show, from Jane Wilson’s vivid portrait painting of a fellow artist, Jane Freilicher, to a photograph of an early environment by Allan Kaprow, who paved the way for Conceptualism.

The third co-op, the Brata Gallery, brought some racial and ethnic diversity into the 10th Street picture. Ed Clark, fresh from Paris, was one of the very few African-American artists exhibiting in New York. And he holds the banner of abstraction high here with a picture that’s basically a giant swoosh of pink. (He has a solo show at Tilton Gallery on the Upper East Side through Feb. 18.) Brata also exhibited the Japanese-born Nanae Momiyama — two of her tiny ink paintings are here — and mounted one of the most successful downtown shows of the day in the American solo debut of Yayoi Kusama, whose hypnotic and enveloping paintings caused a sensation.

Show view
Credit Agaton Strom for The New York Times

That was in 1960, by which point other kinds of galleries, alternatives to the alternatives, finding 10th Street too conservative and rejecting the co-op model, had sprouted up downtown. And these spaces, scrappy and scrappily documented, are the most interesting of all.

Reuben Gallery acted a bit like a co-op — it had a steady schedule of shows — but its thinking was loose enough to accommodate Mr. Kaprow’s audience-participation happenings, and the street-junk pageants of Red Grooms. In 1958 Mr. Grooms opened a space of his own, called City Gallery, in his West 24th Street studio. It lasted barely six months but presented a much-talked-about group drawing show. Ms. Rachleff has tracked down more than 20 of the original 45 works, among them a luminous Emily Mason pastel and two fantastical street scenes by Mimi Gross (who would later marry Mr. Grooms). The gifted painter Bob Thompson, dead from drugs at 29, showed here. So did the undersung Robert Beauchamp, and the poet and scholar of African art George Nelson Preston, who has a retrospective at Kenkeleba House in the East Village through Monday.

Yoko Ono
“Yoko Ono and Others at Her Chambers Street Loft” (1961), by Minoru Niizuma.
Credit Minoru Niizuma, Collection of Yoko Ono, New York

That project ended when Mr. Grooms had to move, and he started another, the Delancey Street Museum, in a deserted boxing gym on the Lower East Side. There he realized some of his own most ambitious theater pieces, and also presented a solo by the painter Marcia Marcus, now obscure, who has a way-ahead-of-its-time self-portrait at the Grey. Similarly, Judson Gallery, in a basement near Washington Square, is remembered chiefly for Claes Oldenburg’s early, hair-raising performances, but was just as important for introducing painters like Marcus Ratliff and the outstandingly interesting — where can we see more of her? — Martha Edelheit.

And, fleetingly, artist-run galleries popped up way downtown, near the financial district. In the winter of 1960, Yoko Ono opened her studio-loft at 112 Chambers Street to experimental composers like La Monte Young and choreographers like Simone Forti. In 1963 a bunch of Bay Area artists settled, commune-style, in a tenement at 79 Park Place, near City Hall. They lived rough, but the hard-edged paintings produced by Tamara Melcher and Leo Valledor are as neat and clean as can be.

“Adieu Amérique” (1959-60), by Boris Lurie. Credit Boris Lurie, Boris Lurie Art Foundation, New York

But long before then, downtown had moved uptown. Hansa had done a five-year stint on Central Park South, hoping to attract collectors from the commercial art district nearby. In 1960 a start-up space, Green Gallery, set up shop on 57th Street and projected a downtown ambience, thanks to its quixotic director, Mr. Bellamy. He was a downtown type if ever there was one, as is made clear in Judith E. Stein’s engrossing 2016 biography, but Green Gallery was firmly in the business of doing business. In positioning Pop and Minimalism as the next art success stories, it worked with priorities that the more radical downtown spaces had resisted.

It was those spaces, where downtown existed as a state of mind as much as a place, that held my attention longest. This was partly because some were new to me, but also because their thinking seemed vital in a way that Green Gallery’s did not. March Gallery, on 10th Street, was an example. Run by Boris Lurie, a Holocaust survivor, with his fellow artist Sam Goodman and a poet, Stanley Fisher, it approached art not as an ornament but as an ethical argument, a response to racism and greed. Wordy and space-hogging, their paintings seemed pitched to outshout and outbully consumer culture.

Mary Frank: Recycling Figure
The sculpture “Reclining Figure,” by Mary Frank. Credit Agaton Strom for The New York Times

Their populist approach inspired the artist Aldo Tambellini to locate his alternative space, the Center, in the East Village streets, where people would participate in, and contribute to, his art, whether they meant to or not. The same crowdsourced ideal led the artist Phyllis Yampolsky, in 1961, to establish the Hall of Issues, a space at Judson Church where anyone, from community activists to neighborhood kids, could post bulletin-board style comments on matters that concerned them. The space, in place for two years, was a prototype for the “subway therapy” installation of thousands of handwritten sticky notes that covered a wall of the Union Square Station after the 2016 presidential election.

And there’s the Spiral Group, which originated just before the 1963 March on Washington, when several African-American artists — among them Emma Amos, Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis, as well as Hale Woodruff, who taught at New York University — gathered in Greenwich Village to debate the question of whether and how to insert the politics of race into their work. Did doing so misuse art? Did it diminish politics? Was it self-aggrandizing? Self-isolating? Did it do any good?

These questions are all pertinent to artists now, including those who may be considering adding their names to next week’s art strike. The Spiral Group concluded that there was too much at stake for them not to take a stand as artists: Do it, and see what unfolds. So they changed their art and put together a political show. Their example still holds.

Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952-1965

Through April 1 at Grey Art Gallery, New York University; 212-998-6780, greyartgallery.nyu.edu.

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