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

Grey Art Gallery
January 10th - April 1st, 2017

Alex Katz, Ada Ada, 1959. Oil on canvas, 49 x 50 in. Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Golden, 1963.13. Art © Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

“Inventing Downtown” at the Grey Art Gallery is a densely-packed, archival-based group show that charts the beginning of artist-run galleries in New York City following World War II.  The exhibition opens in 1952, a murky year when American Abstract Expressionism continued its decade-long mainstream popularity while gradually on the wane from public interest.  Moreover the massive fallout from the war continued to unwind throughout the world:  the millions of lives lost to the Holocaust due to the pugnacious grip of anti-Semitism followed by the threat of Communism and the Red Scare.  American free speech was blacklisted by McCarthyism and non-market artists went underground.  As a result, the artist co-op model first materialized in the early 1950s to provide space for independent expression and then proliferated beyond 1960, when president-elect John F. Kennedy sought to restore the public’s rights under the First Amendment.

The exhibition is divided into five thematic sections titled, “Leaving Midtown,” “City as Muse,” “Space and Time,” “Politics as Practice,” and “Defining Downtown.”  The first room presents a mix of figuration and abstraction.  “Man with a Checkered Jacket,” (c. 1955) by Bill King presents a long thin figure, referencing back to the aesthetic of Alberto Giacometti. However King’s piece lacks the weight of Giacometti’s heavy, existential struggle and instead presents a rough-carved impresario whose head is deliberately chipped, while wearing a jacket covered with small black and white paint marks. King’s cynicism vanishes upon the sight of a stretching form seen in Mary Frank’s wood sculpture titled, “Reclining Figure,” (1960) juxtaposed to Alex Katz’s painting “Ada, Ada” (1959) revealing a double-portrait of the artist’s wife. Katz portrays Ada in a blue dress and places her within a monumental atmosphere of white. Within this composition, the artist suspends both depth and background while maintaining a full focus on the painted figure.

The push-and-pull between abstraction and figuration resonates evenly throughout the exhibition, such that each artist's chosen medium takes these edgy works of art beyond the role of reflecting an idea, toward transforming into material that sends a message.  “Labyrinthine Tower,” (1962) by Louise Bourgeois presents a stack of brown cast-iron spheres, reviving the dark comical mood found in King’s earlier piece. However in a nearby glass vitrine John Chamberlain’s painted, smashed light bulb from 1958 refocuses on the struggled search for new, relevant subject matter.

Additional pieces inside this small enclosure continue to echo these philosophical oppositions. Dody Muller’s “Untitled (Cat Lady),” (c. 1958) shows a daubed, dark-hued portrait, that strikes a similarity with Pierre Auguste Renoir. It almost doubles as a color palette, like the landscape piece next to it, and appears next to a typed sheet of instructions, outlining a list of procedures required to run an art gallery.  Throughout “Inventing Downtown,” artists are grouped and partitioned based upon the particular artist-run gallery that they once exhibited with.  But the precise historic location connected to each work dissipates as the viewing experience of the ideas continues to unfold.  

Thick, ruddy paint as seen in work by Al Jensen and Yayoi Kusama, for instance, is gradually replaced by the multi-media painting collages of Alfred Leslie and Allan Kaprow. George Sugarman’s extensive wood sculpture titled, “Four Forms in Walnut” (1959) twists and extends across a portion of the gallery floor while George Segal’s “Reclining Woman Bas Relief: Nude,” (1958) appears on a wood floor surface that has been cut out and then mounted high upon the exhibition wall. The flattened nude form seen in Segal’s white painted plaster cast, moreover, could not have been more apropos.

While reflecting on this era in his 1958 essay titled “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” Allan Kaprow suggested a new freedom that artists were anxious to explore: “Pollock, as I see him, left us at the point where we must become preoccupied with and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life, either our bodies, clothes, rooms, or, if need be, the vastness of Forty-second Street.  Not satisfied with the suggestion through paint of our other senses, we shall utilize the specific substances of sight, sound, movements, people, odors, touch.”  Jackson Pollock had died tragically in a car crash, two years earlier on August 11th, 1956 and almost took abstract painting with him.

Between 1952 and 1965, artists not only struggled in their migration from repetitive abstract painting but also searched for something new within the scope of impact-based figuration. The two dimensional pieces presented in “Inventing Downtown”  go as far as collage and mixed media, revealing the two-dimensional surface as a trap. Even paintings in tactile high relief were still weighted against the wall, prohibited from engaging with the lived environment. But when looking at substantial free-standing materials such as concrete, steel and industrial paint, the weight of history shows itself along with its most recent series of events. Thus the genres of sculpture and performance are the anchors of this show, conveying exactly where the strongest innovations had been made. 

Jill Conner, New York