By Melissa Rachleff

Prestel Publishing. 296 pages. £50. ISBN 978-3-7913-5558-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Tenth Street, the whole block on Tenth Street became the hangout. One hung out at the galleries and Friday nights were big social occasions, and it got to be very much the Downtown scene ……That world was very small then – a few hundred people”.

                                                                                                                                     Al Held

In the 1950s in New York it was Abstract Expressionism that held sway in the art world. Newer, younger artists, and even some older ones, who perhaps leaned more towards figurative painting, had difficulty in getting their work shown in the established commercial galleries in uptown Manhattan. Without critical approval, and that could only come when they exhibited, they weren’t likely to be asked to provide paintings for consideration by dealers and others in positions of power and influence.

It needs to be also acknowledged that, despite some attention being paid to painters like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, there wasn’t widespread interest in contemporary art on the part of the general public and the media. If people wanted to buy paintings they mostly looked to the past, and often to European artists. A concern for the new would come later, but in the early and mid-Fifties, even in New York, working artists inhabited, as Al Held recalled, a small world.

Faced with indifference from the public, likely patrons, and critics, young painters and sculptors considered their position and, in some cases, decided that opening their own galleries might not be a bad idea. Their work would then be seen, if only by a small audience of fellow-artists, and, hopefully, by a critic or two curious enough to venture into what could be somewhat shabby and run-down areas of downtown New York.

Harold Rosenberg, one of the leading writers on art, and a critic who was partly responsible for promoting the so-called Action Painters (another name for the Abstract Expressionists) wrote an article for the Art News Annual in 1954 in which he talked about “Tenth Street: A Geography of Modern Art”. (reprinted in his Discovering the Present: Three Decades in Art, Culture, & Politics, University of Chicago Press, 1976). In it he described an area of pawnshops, liquor stores, cheap restaurants, a poolroom, an employment agency for restaurant workers. And, for the artists, cheap studios in old factories, warehouses, shops, and other empty buildings.

There had been some attempts at drawing attention to new work by young artists when certain coffee-house owners in Greenwich Village hung paintings on their walls. But the numbers and sizes of the selected canvases were inevitably limited by the space available. Having their own galleries would obviously provide better facilities for the artists. The aim was that the galleries would be run on a co-operative basis, with members donating a fixed amount each month to pay for rent, lighting, and other necessities. Initially, artists would take turns looking after the gallery concerned during opening hours. After a time, a regular assistant might be hired, assuming that funds were available to pay a modest wage.

Irving Sandler provides a vivid picture of the time he spent in such a role at the Tanager Gallery in his A Sweeper-Up After Artists: A Memoir (Thames & Hudson, London, 2004), and also writes about the need to accept that functioning in the Downtown milieu meant acknowledging that poverty was a way of life, at least for a time. It wasn’t that anyone wanted to be poor, and in fact, opening a co-operative gallery was usually a means to an end. Most artists saw “Downtown galleries as transitional. Nearly all the artists strove for commercial representation uptown”. This shouldn’t be held against them, and they weren’t all ready to compromise on their ideas and ideals about art in order to succeed. But artists, most of them, anyway, produce works that they want to be seen and sold, and there was a better chance of that happening in the commercial galleries.

The Tanager Gallery, which ran in one location or another (mostly 90 East Tenth Street), from 1952 until 1962, was “the most influential of all the co-op galleries”. Other leading co-op galleries were the Hansa (1952-1959) and the Brata (1957-1962), and all three helped to “redefine the parameters of artmaking and challenged the definition of art by critics and museum curators”.  It would take up too much space to list all the painters and sculptors involved with these galleries, but among them were William King, Angel Ippolito, Lois Dodd, Wolf Kahn, Jan Muller, Nicholas Krushenick, and Al Held.  It was. on the whole, a male-dominated scene. Rosalyn Drexler, asked about her experiences at the Reuben Gallery (1959-1961), talked about being “aware that there were things that happened to women”, meaning that their work was often looked on as less relevant or interesting than that produced by men.

Each gallery had a distinctive approach to what was exhibited. The Tanager’s “juxtaposition of disparate styles often defied logic”, with “representational art alongside abstraction”. The City Gallery (1958-1959), with Red Grooms and Jay Milder involved, focused on “life in New York as a core subject”. The March Group (1960-1962) was located at 95 East Tenth Street in “the basement,  a squat, cramped space with exposed pipes, tin ceiling, and whitewashed brick walls”.  With artist Boris Lurie, photographer Sam Goodman, and poet-artist Stanley Fisher participating, the exhibitions there were heavily politicised. There are some of Lurie’s provocative collages in the collection of poems and paintings, Beat Coast East: An Anthology of Rebellion (Excelsior Press, New York, 1960) that Fisher edited.

Another significant outlet for experimental art was the Judson Gallery (1959-1962), linked to “the progressive Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square South”.  The gallery was in “an approximately 1,000 square feet room in the basement of Judson House, an interracial student dormitory at 239 Thompson Street, around the corner from the church”. Claes Oldenberg took over “programming for the Judson”, “and arranged for a joint show with Jim Dine in November 1959 that featured new `figurative work inspired by the streets, Brutalism, and children’s drawings”. The Judson Gallery also became a centre for what became known as “Happenings”, forms of performance art in which Oldenberg, Dine and Allan Kaprow were heavily involved.

It was an especially lively time for the church as a little magazine, Exodus (1959-1960), edited by Bernard Scott and Daniel Wolf, was published from the gallery. Some of Oldenberg’s pictorial work appeared in Exodus, as did that by Red Grooms and Richard O.Tyler. There was also prose from Ivan Karp, who worked at the Hansa Gallery for a time and recalls its struggle to survive in an interview in Inventing Downtown. There are photographs by Fred McDarrah from an event at the Judson Gallery for a new issue of Exodus in The Beat Scene, edited by Elias Wilentz (Corinth Books, New York, 1960). It’s also worth looking at McDarrah’s The Artist’s World in Pictures (Dutton, New York, 1961), which has material on the Tenth Street galleries.

It’s noted that another venture which took place at the Judson Gallery was artist Phyllis Yampolski’s “Hall of Issues”(1961-1963), described as a strategy for “merging art and politics”. It invited anyone “who has any statement to make about any social, political or aesthetic concern” to participate by displaying art work or poetry or other forms of expression. It tapped into a growing need to say something as the restrictive effects of the McCarthy Era wore off, and what Melissa Rachleff, quoting Daniel Bell, refers to as the “end of ideology”, struck a chord with many artists and writers.  But as she further notes: “Such openness promoted diversity, but lack of a clearly defined political goal kept the project as an art initiative diffuse, fractured, and ultimately uneven”.

The Hansa Gallery had stayed afloat largely due to the efforts of Richard Bellamy, and when it finally closed he “drifted and looked for a job”. Eventually, Ivan Karp introduced him to Robert Scull, a wealthy businessman who was prepared to put up the money needed to open an uptown gallery. The Green Gallery (1960-65) was the result, and led to some of the Downtown artists moving uptown, something that wasn’t always looked on kindly by those left behind. But Claes Oldenberg was of the opinion that “The Green Gallery was a way to feel at home on Fifty-Seventh Street for the first time. It was a very unpretentious place. The installations were very straight ahead. There was nothing fancy about it; it was like the downtown moving uptown”.

The full story of the Green Gallery and its backer, Robert Scull, would provide material for a book in itself, with shady financial dealings and much more to complicate the day-to-day operations of an art gallery. Scull’s wife had a significant role in what happened: “Ethel clearly had no patience for Bellamy’s personal conduct or managerial style. And unlike her husband she did not find him fascinatingly bohemian. It was only a matter of time before her discontentment coupled with Bellamy’s disinterest in business and her husband’s limited finances would come together and bring the gallery to an end”.

Before it closed, Green Gallery had played a part in promoting the work of James Rosenquist, Tom Wesselmann, and George Segal, all three of them soon to become leading figures in the Pop Art movement. The rise of Pop Art, its popularity with dealers and collectors (if not initially with the critics), and with the public, led to the boom in the art market that essentially started in the 1960s and continues. Leaving aside the question of money, and as Rachleff notes, there is a “subservience to wealth at the heart of most art enterprises”, there is no doubt that Pop Art gained a wide audience. As the artist Lucas Samaras said, “the images were easily assimilable by the whole country”. And the media liked to run stories on the wealthy collectors who bought Pop Art and displayed it in their homes. Samaras credits Robert Scull with helping to further Pop Art by having it in his own house, and inviting other wealthy people to view it “and see how nice it looked and think how nice it would look in their house”.

It’s relevant to mention that the Downtown activity throughout the 1950s and early-1960s had often inter-related with the other arts, such as poetry. Some galleries had poetry readings to help draw  attention to their exhibitions. It’s mentioned that: “Poetry was integral to the creative life of the Lower East Side, where the main venues for readings in the early 1960s were Le Metro, on Second Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets, and Le Deux Megots, on East Seventh Street. The informality of the café setting transformed Downtown poetry from a solitary endeavour to a performative art”. There’s a photograph of Jack Micheline, a socially-conscious poet sometimes associated with the Beats but really out of an older bohemian tradition, reading at one of Phyllis Yampolski’s “Hall of Issues” events. The black poet, Amiri Baraka (formerly known as Leroi Jones) is acknowledged as a leading light of the Spiral Group (1963-1965), a group of black poets and painters discussed in Inventing Downtown.

The accounts of the various galleries are fascinating to read, and there were others besides those I’ve mentioned. The Reuben Gallery (1959-1961) featured “anti-ceremonious, anti-formal, untidy, highly-physical (but not highly permanent)” exhibitions which were later credited with leading towards “Pop”. Some “iconic projects” by Jim Dine, Claes Oldenberg, Allan Kaprow, and others took place at the Reuben, and were designed to “shift away from traditional artistic categories” and explore “space, performance, and process to the hilt”. The Center (1962-1965) had Aldo Tambellini “working in his building’s backyard”, and using found objects (pipes, joints, discarded washbasins, beer cans) for his sculptures. He treated his studio as “a community space”, and involved local people in what he was doing.

That the period concerned was a vital one is made clear in Inventing Downtown, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. There is some evidence that, by around 1960, the notion of co-operative-operated galleries was declining. Financial limitations inevitably affected what could be done. And there were clashes of temperament and egos. John Gruen, writing about his time at the Hansa Gallery in The Party’s Over Now: Reminiscences of the Fifties – New York’s Artists, Writers, Musicians, and their Friends (Viking, New York, 1972) had this to say: “The Hansa group may have been compatible as far as art was concerned, but not as regards its members personalities. As the gallery began to function any number of violent personal clashes took place, with hysterical outbursts by the more high-strung artists. Countless decisions had to be voted on, and there was always someone totally against one policy or another. Tempers invariably ran high”.

I imagine that what happened at Hansa was probably similar to what took place in other co-op galleries, especially the bigger ones, where there were likely to be a variety of ideas and opinions about personalities and policies. Inventing Downtown mentions some disagreements, and there were resignations from groups and bickering about who was to be included in exhibitions.

Generally, however, there does seem to have been a great deal of co-operation, and the interviews  in Inventing Downtown do elicit some almost-wistful memories of a time when, poor and un-recognised as they were,  the artists appeared to be relatively content. Wolf Kahn claimed that “There was no frantic careerism in those days. It was amazing how idealistic we were, and unself interested”.  Jim Dine remembered, “There was a kind of bohemia”. Jean-Jacques Lebel thought that “Those years in New York felt like paradise. Art was life, daily life was intense art”. And Irving Sandler reckoned that “Most artists were living on air, and elegantly. I don’t know how they did it…..Poverty had an upside. There wasn’t then the division between the successful artists and the unsuccessful artists. It was an open situation”.

Inventing Downtown is an engrossing and informative book, wonderfully illustrated and massively documented. It should be essential reading for anyone interested in the New York art scene of the 1950s and early-1960s. For those lucky enough to be in the city, it accompanies an exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, which opened in January and runs until 10th December, 2017. It then moves to the Kunstmuseum Luzern,Lucerne, Switzerland from 28th September, 2018 to 25th November, 2018.