At artist-run galleries, the conversation centers on art rather than commerce. Alternative spaces provide a place for unknown and under-recognized artists to mount exhibitions, for curators to organize their first thematic shows, and for established artists to present experimental projects that their commercial galleries aren’t interested in showing. “Inventing Downtown,” an ambitious and densely hung group show at the NYU Grey Art Gallery, is full of outstanding work from the artist-run gallery scene in 1950s and 1960s New York City. Some of the artists who showed at the galleries, such as Robert Morris, Alex Katz, and Louise Bourgeois, went on the have big careers, and others, whose work was vital to the conversation at the time, are virtually unknown today.
The show features fourteen galleries that embraced a wide range of programming, from abstract painting and sculpture to performance and video. The exhibition is organized into five thematic groupings. According to the press release:
“Leaving Midtown” focuses on three Tenth Street galleries which adopted a cooperative business structure where expenses were shared among elected members: Tanager Gallery, Hansa Gallery, and Brata Gallery.
“City as Muse” features four ventures that did not adopt the co-op model: City Gallery, Reuben Gallery, Delancey Street Museum, and Judson Gallery. They are best known for creating dynamic installations and pioneering performances.
“Space and Time” investigates two significant artist-run projects, 112 Chambers Street and 79 Park Place, which occupied different conceptual terrains, embraced a wide range of media, and shared an interest in exploring temporality and geo-spatial dimensions.
“Politics as Practice” includes four groups: March Group, Judson Church’s Hall of Issues, The Center, and Spiral Group, which examined the viability of politics as a subject for art and channeled a new sense of social urgency in addressing Cold War politics, the civil rights movement, and the legacy of World War II, among other concerns.
“Defining Downtown” looks at the Green Gallery, which played a decisive role in bringing downtown uptown and fostering the rise of Pop and Minimalism. Its program, however, resulted in the narrowing of aesthetic possibilities and the marginalization of many artists.
Every artist’s career has its own own trajectory, and this show proves that building and sustaining a creative life isn’t easy. Imagine a show, curated in 50 years by a curious young academic, that includes work by artists who are working in neighborhoods like Bushwick today. This show is a reminder that many will ultimately leave the city. They may lose their studios to gentrification, realize that rents are too high, miss their hometowns, get academic jobs far away, or, for whatever reason, decide that life is just too damn hard in New York. Now, however, social media makes it possible to stay connected–leaving the city no longer means quitting the art community.
“Inventing Downtown” has a lot of surprising work. In his fine NYTimes review, Holland Cotter writes that the show is “a view of typical — rather than outstanding — art, of familiar artists looking unfamiliar, and of strangers you’re glad to meet.” Don’t miss it.
“Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965,” curated by Melissa Rachleff. Grey Art Gallery, NUY, Greenwich Village, New York, NY. Through April 1, 2017