Contributed by Sharon Butler / I was on Facebook the other day and noticed Dana Gordon’s post about the history of The Painting Center. Back in the 1990s, when NYC galleries were centered in Soho, curators were more interested in video, installation, conceptual, and performance projects than they were in painting exhibitions. After a brief post-minimalism resurgence in painting in the 1980s (Susan Rothenberg, Moira Dryer, Jennifer Bartlett, Elizabeth Murray, Jake Berthot, Gregory Amenoff, Donald Sultan, Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Eric Fischl , et al.), painters were suddenly left with precious few places in which to show. Gordon, Louisa Waber, Marilyn Giersbach, and David Fratkin used to gather at Carl Plansky’s paint shop on Elizabeth Street and commiserate about the situation. Eventually they decided to do something about it.
In February 1993, before Soho became the outpost for international tourists and big commercial brands that it is today, Waber saw a second-floor space for rent on Greene Street. The rent was reasonable, and a group of painters decided to start a gallery dedicated exclusively to painting. Gordon came up with a name, designed a logo, and put a sign out front. Artists Mark LaRiviere, Jenny Lynn McNutt, Lisa Lawley, Charlie Hewitt, Andy Watel, Riley Brewster, and Tony Martin were also among the founding members. The inaugural exhibition featured forty-nine artists, including Jake Berthot, Louise Fishman, Bill Jensen, and Milton Resnick. Over the years, the roster of members evolved, and Plansky, who passed away in 2009, eventually went on to found Williamsburg Handmade Oils.
Now it’s the norm for artists, especially recent MFA grads, to open spaces and curate shows, but in the 1990s, most painters were loath to engage in exhibitions that lacked validation from a respected commercial gallery or a pedigreed non-profit organization. The prevailing understanding, ingrained in them by the old-timers at art school, was that they had to toil in their studios and wait their turn. To their credit, some – the artists who founded The Painting Center; Williamsburg entrepreneurs like Joe Amrhein, who started Pierogi2000; and those who launched the Four Walls project, including Adam Simon, Michele Araujo, and later Mike Ballou – didn’t care about the gatekeepers.
Perhaps improbably, these noble efforts proved auspicious. Many of the painters in Williamsburg in the 1990s who couldn’t get shows in the mainstream galleries — Chris Martin, Kathrine Bradford, Joe Fyfe, and others — have become art-famous in the more painting-friendly art world of the last decade. This year, The Painting Center, located in Chelsea since 2010, celebrates its 25th anniversary. This past month Director Shazzi Thomas mounted a sprawling group show that featured some of the founding members and a slew of other artists who have been a part of its durable community over the years. This week three solo shows are opening: Tony Moore, Carol Diamond, and Xico Greenwald.