The New York Scene 1977

WYSTAN CURNOW

He said: of course New York's one of the great energy sources of the Universe. And he didn't mean Con Ed. (What's Con Ed? New York's movie houses all had STOP CON ED in lights, double-billed with CAR-WASH, or THE TATTOOED SWORDSWOMAN. Consolidated Edison controls the power, movie houses protest rate hikes. Their profits dwindle. They drum up sexual energy. Hookers are hastily legislated off the streets in time for the Democratic Convention - unconstitutionally as it turns out. The cops (off-duty) demonstrate in the streets. Power is complex in New York.) He's an American writer. His remark's made casually - like a native might, but without innocence. I like that. There's point to being knowing that way. He made it here, on a visit. He did say the Universe. Not long after, I made my visit. lived there, leastways was there six months and so no tourist. New York's skint but Big Apple still. I took my bite.

Couldn't sleep much though. Such is the in-put. Burglar alarms go all night: no one's around to turn them off. Everything's getting stowed at my place; word's got around, I don't know anymore who's bringing what from I've no idea where. No time to process anything, although I do try to keep a journal. Ease off. I'm constipated for two weeks. Take in: some Brakhage movies. I might've seen every one he made since 1970 while I was there. (Who is Stan Brakhage? Brakhage, from Boulder, Colorado? No matter, New York has all his movies and that kind of concentration is a form of energy, stored.) Take in: an opening at the Guggenheim, some hours talk at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club. Get in (at two), get coffee, black: read. Henry Miller. Hiss of steam pipes. Also, their wheezing and clanking. Sirens wail. Hookers work the block, truckers ram empty rigs across the Williamsburg Bridge. I'd better slow up, back down. Betsy says she just saw a woman walking down Avenue of the Americas with a pacifier (dummy) in her mouth.

Downtown New York, looking south on West Broadway (see also sketch map below)

The places, then. This piece is to be about art places in New York. The Lower Manhattan Ocean Club? That's a large bar and disco artist's patronise. Mickey Raskin owns it - his Max's Kansas City was the place before it got to be the rock club that it is today, and the art scene moved downtown. My place? An artist's loft on Chrystie Street, one block from The Bowery - alkies, soup kitchens, kitsch lamp shops - and two from Hester Street. On the Lower East Side, where the living's not easy, or safe. Just south of here is Chinatown, territory of the Tong. The Mafia? Little Italy's just to the West and, if you continue, across La Fayette and Broadway, you're in SoHo. And SoHo? Well, Nathaniel's teacher at Northcote College swears there's no such place, says she ought to know since she grew up in New York. The name's in fact recent, coined for the run-down light industrial area south of Houston Street (hence: SoHo) into which artists and galleries moved less than ten years ago. It is now the heartland of contemporary art. In New York, in America, in the world.

In the late 'sixties, with studio space at a premium, the flight of industry freed up spaces in SoHo that artists were quick to occupy.  Illegally, as it happened: until, that is, a specific exemption was written into the zoning ordinances. The letters A;I.R. on your door show you're legit; they mean Artist-in-Residence, that you've been voted by the Committee. Rents then were low - now, unfurnished lofts go for more than $400 a month. Dealer galleries followed suit. Paula Cooper and O.K. Harris were among the first. 420 West Broadway, opened in 1972, clinched the move south. This 4-storey building houses the prestigious dealers Castelli, Weber, Emmerich and Sonnabend. Its typically large, flexible spaces are better suited to the larger, less formal art now common than those of midtown office blocks or the old stone buildings on the upper West side, and less expensive. Those areas - sleek, chic and handy to the museums - have dealers still. But come Saturday, hundreds of the sleek and chic head downtown, pick their way across SoHo's littered cobblestones and crowd the clean, well-lighted spaces hidden behind grimed brick or cast-iron frontages. The artists stay home - they're around Friday evenings, for the openings. Of late Greenwich Village-style cafes, craft and antique boutiques have joined the chase. Artists move further south. At the lower Manhattan Ocean Club there is talk of TriBeCa - the name (as yet unofficial) for: The Triangle Below Canal Street.

The building at 420 West Broadway, housing dealers Emmerich, Weber, Sonnabend and Castelli

To hear me tell it artists don't like these proximities. Why is a difficult question. Art is not distributed, disseminated, it is sold - that's part of it. Were you William de Kooning, in your mid-forties, you'd have had a show at the Coots Gallery in 1949, from which you'd have sold only one painting, for $700. Ten years later, at Sidney Janis, your whole show sold for $150,(XX) on opening Day. In 1970, you'd have seen a single painting from the 1940s go under the hammer at a cool $45,000. If you were Andy Warhol and at the same auction, you'd have seen your soup can painting fetch $60,000. You were forty then. And were you Frank Stella, born 1936, people would say you were a millionaire before you'd reached thirty. So contemporary art has become big business. Between 1950 and 1960, dealer galleries in New York increased ten-fold, 30 to 300 and more. Mark Rothko died in 1970; there ensued an ugly tug of war between his family and his dealer, the Marlborough Gallery. The prize, $9 million, went to the Rothkos in a court battle that concluded less than a year ago. That sort of money applies pressures irrelevant, to say the least, to art making.

Artists get to wondering what the avant-garde is avant of. The Vietnam years reminded them of the term's military origin, reminded them that support systems implicitly buy off artists. Earth works, installations, performances, documentary works difficult if not impossible to buy or collect - these have been, in part, a response to a situation which seemed to threaten artists' integrity. The support system, in its turn, has grown twitchy. ARTFORUM, the top art glossy fired its editors late last year, supposedly because their scrutiny of the art situation had gotten too sharp. Marcia Tucker, the Whitney's curator of contemporary art, has just been sacked. Business has been slow in SoHo. The art of the 'seventies defies labels - how do you recognise a Robert Morris, a Bruce Nauman, when you see one? It's like when Pop art upset the applecart in the early 'sixties only worse. Is this it? Or is it the recession? The German and Japanese markets are still buoyant. Both have footholds in SoHo now (Heiner Friedrich, Max Protetch, James Yu). Meantime, Andy Warhol still rides the range; this year's large canvases of hammers and sickles mind you just beg for a place on the boardroom wall and will get it. Dealers (some) still manage to keep prominent conceptualist: artists on retainers of $30,000 or more. There are still artists who own five-storey buildings in SoHo and artists who can't keep up with their rents or on the right side of Con Ed. - a situation that grossly distorts distinctions in talent and accomplishment and thus poisons much New York art talk and writing.

Coincident with the move south of the dealers was the opening of a kind of art place new to New York, called 'alternative'. ARTISTS' SPACE is an example. Its small professional staff are employed by a Committee for the Visual Arts composed largely of established artists. It exhibits the work of artists not yet affiliated with dealers. Committee members take turns to invite an artist to exhibit there. Monday nights are given over to performances, Sunday nights to the Artists Meeting for Cultural Change - an open forum on the politics of the art scene which reflects concerns expressed in publications such as The Fox and Red Herring. In January Artists' Space moved house, from Wooster Street, to the Fine Arts Building, just south of SoHo. This is a multi-storey building owned by the Institute for Art and Urban Resources. Established in 1970 by Alanna Heiss, the Institute is almost an alternative support system in itself. With Workspace, a Greenwich Village building housing studios and performance spaces, the Fine Arts Building, which contains galleries, offices, a book store, the Idea Warehouse, a work-cum-exhibition-space that was unfortunately burnt down two years ago, the Clocktower, which is an exhibition space atop a downtown Court building, and most recently, PSI in Brooklyn, it clearly dominates the alternative scene. As with most of these art places its funding comes in the main from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts, although it also attracts support from successful and well-disposed dealers like Castelli and Weber.

Sketch map of downtown New York

PSI was a condemned school building. Bought and renovated with public funds and a loan from the Chemical Bank it now contains 35 low-rent studios and ample exhibition space. Renovation is rudimentary, but cost only $150,000 compared with the $1.5 million the City estimated necessary to save it from demolition. Moreover its Interior, still peeling, chipped, cracked and crumbling, has inspired works which address themselves more directly to New York's entropic state than any I have seen elsewhere. SoHo may be crummy but its commercial spaces are kempt, clean, bright and bourgeois. Thus the existence of PSI as an art space raises questions about the political and aesthetic meaning of all art spaces: what bearing have they on the art that enters those spaces, on the people that enter those spaces? The Kitchen is on Broome and Wooster Streets. The centre for video and performance work, it also presents the best in avant-garde music and dance, as well as ancillary services to video artists. There's 112 Greene Street Workshop Inc., another non-profit exhibition space and one which between 1972 and 1974 hosted some of the most important one-man shows of the 'seventies. There's 3 Mercer Street, literally a storefront gallery, run by Stephan Eins who lives in the back. There's Franklin Furnace, an archive for artist's writings which runs a programme of artist's readings and performances. The variety is great.

The alternative art spaces have not brought with them a new audience. However, they have served to loosen the commercial nexus and give free play to the eclecticism current in the visual arts. They contribute to the sense of community among the mainly young (in their thirties) semi-attached artists who populate SoHo. Whether or not they find a new audience, whether or not they prove to have the staying power and creative energy of the best dealers is an open question. What's not in doubt is their importance as patrons of 'seventies art-making.

Wystan Curnow had a seven months' stay in the United States in 1976-77, most of it spent in New York. This piece, on Art Places, is the first of two giving his impressions of the current New York scene. The second will deal with Art and Artists.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 7 August/September/October 1977