INVENTING DOWNTOWN: ARTIST-RUN GALLERIES IN NEW YORK CITY 1952-1965
By Melissa Rachleff
Prestel Publishing. 296 pages. £50. ISBN 978-3-7913-5558-0
Reviewed by Jim Burns
In the 1950s in
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
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,
There had been some attempts at drawing attention to new work by
young artists when certain coffee-house owners in
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
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
Another significant outlet for experimental art was the
It was an especially lively time for the church as a little
(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
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
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
The accounts of the various galleries are fascinating to read, and
there were others besides those I’ve mentioned. The
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
is an engrossing and informative book, wonderfully illustrated and
massively documented. It should be essential reading for anyone
interested in the