When Artists Ruled the Galleries (for a While)
January 17, 2017
In the 1950’s, when there was barely an art market in New York City, young artists who were not served by that market looked to Manhattan south of 14th Street to show their work, and to sell it, if they could.
The galleries that they formed have been gone for half a century, if not more, but some of those artists—Alex Katz, Tom Wesselmann, Norman Lewis, Louise Bourgeois, Louise Nevelson, Red Grooms, John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, Lucas Samaras, George Segal—remain highly relevant. Many more are names that few outside those circles remember.
Grey Art Gallery at New York University has just opened a work of modern archaeology, “Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York, 1952-1965.” The cover photograph of the show’s massive catalog gives you an idea of the spirit of those times. Red Grooms is pushing a baby carriage across Third Avenue with a huge canvas in it. He is wearing a coat that looks purchased from a gift shop. He is running to avoid traffic. The picture, taken by John Cohen, is from 1960.
“Inventing Downtown,” more about art than documentation, isn’t a time capsule, although its informative catalog certainly is. And it isn’t a prequel to the Pop Art, since so many of the artists on view either missed that train or weren’t allowed to board. And its notion of Downtown shows how that term shifted with time, fashion and the costs of renting space.