You Can Always Go Downtown: The Lower Manhattan Art World Through the Years

Aldo Tambellini, We Are the Primitives of a New Era, from the

Aldo Tambellini, We Are the Primitives of a New Era, from the “Manifesto” series, ca. 1961.


Given the whirlwind of geographic and conceptual changes in contemporary-art landscape, we couldn’t help doing some serious navel-gazing (especially in light of the upcoming “Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965” exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery opening January 10), looking back through our pages to try to find the roots and branches of the art world as we know it today. Taking New York’s downtown scene as a starting point, since it was the undeniable 20th-century hub, we begin with the birth of Greenwich Village and SoHo in the words of some of its preeminent players, from critic Harold Rosenberg and Happenings guru Allan Kaprow, to gallerist/impresario Jeffrey Deitch.

1959 Annual

The modernism of Tenth Street has passed beyond the dogma of “esthetic space,” as its ethnic openness has transcended the bellicose verbal internationalism of the thirties. Its studios and its canvases have room for the given and for the haphazard, as against the clean-up of the Look or the Idea.

—“Tenth Street: A Geography of Modern Art,” by Harold Rosenberg

Angelo Ippolito’s poster for “Painters Sculptors on 10th Street,” at Tanager Gallery, New York, 1956–57. COLLECTION OF LOIS DODD, NEW YORK

Angelo Ippolito’s poster for “Painters Sculptors on 10th Street,” at Tanager Gallery, New York, 1956–57.


May 1961

If you haven’t been to the Happenings, let me give you a kaleidoscope sampling of some of their great moments.

Everybody is crowded into a downtown loft, milling about, like at an opening. It’s hot. There are lots of big cartons sitting all over the place. One by one they start to move, sliding and careening drunkenly in every direction, lunging into people and one another, accompanied by loud breathing sounds over four loudspeakers. Now it’s winter and cold and it’s dark. . . Suddenly, mushy shapes pop up from the floor and painters slash at curtains dripping with action. A wall of trees tied with colored rags advances on the crowd, scattering everybody, forcing them to leave. . . . Coughing, you breathe in noxious fumes, or the smell of hospitals and lemon juice. A nude girl runs after the racing pool of a searchlight, throwing spinach greens into it. . . . You come in as a spectator and maybe you discover you’re caught in it after all, as you push things around like so much furniture.

—“ ‘Happenings’ in the New York scene,” by Allan Kaprow

April 1974

Bounded by West Broadway, Canal, Houston and Crosby Streets, SoHo continues to expand rapidly as it deepens its ties with the uptown artistic establishment. . . . Ivan Karp, who has a canny eye for real estate as well as art, has bought additional gallery space on West Broadway to rent to artists, many of them out-of-towners without local connections who want, explains Karp, “a cool, clean glamorous space to show their work.”

—“SoHo: brave new bohemia,” by Paul Gardner

Paula Cooper Gallery, Wooster Street, New York, September 1973. (Click to enlarge.) MATES AND KATZ

Paula Cooper Gallery, Wooster Street, New York, September 1973. (Click to enlarge.)


November 1980

Why did the dealers come to SoHo, and why do they continue to come? The reason is simple: for the space. According to Charles Cowles, one can still get prime space in SoHo for about half the price per square foot charged on 57th Street. . . .

“Space” is the SoHo password. Paula Cooper says she has a “mystical feeling” about space. Beyond material dimensions it provides a license for the imagination to roam under the inspiration of miles of white wall. . . . Ample space defines the lives of many artists who not only show in SoHo but also live and work there.

—“Still funky but oh so chic SoHo,” by William Zimmer

November 1981

And just as those artists have gone on to thrive and prosper in the galleries they once rejected, the alternative spaces that launched their careers have become part of the art-world status quo. . . .

The single most important factor behind the emergence of alternative spaces has been a parallel growth in federal and state funding for the arts. Most of New York City’s alternative spaces receive at least half of their funds from the National Endowment of the Arts. . . .

[One] museum person who is glad to be free of historical imperatives is Marcia Tucker. She opened her New Museum in 1977. “I wanted to make a place where art and artists were the priority,” explains Tucker, who left a curatorial post at the Whitney Museum of American Art. “The Whitney had become corporate. I wanted to take a theoretical approach to a museum. I wondered how an organization could be structured in a way that would be analogous to the thing it served.” One way the New Museum attempts to achieve this is by focusing on art made within ten years of the present. “I hope that that fact will enable us to keep changing, that we will be flexible enough to change every idea that we now have,” says Tucker with typical enthusiasm.

—“New Faces in Alternative Spaces,” by Deborah C. Phillips

Window installation view of the New Museum’s 1987 “Let the Record Show.” COURTESY NEW MUSEUM, NEW YORK

Window installation view of the New Museum’s 1987 “Let the Record Show.”


Summer 1982

[Leo] Castelli’s gallery celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and his success has become as legendary as that of Ambroise Vollard, the French art dealer who was the astute discoverer and champion of so many Post-Impressionists. It is a comparison he finds flattering, although it would be hard to find two more disparate examples of a successful art dealer, Vollard having inherited an artistic movement that basically arrived on the scene when he was five, and Castelli having discovered his own when he was almost 50.

—“Leo Castelli: Dealing in Myths,” by Meryle Secrest

September 1988

It’s just past 8:30 on Thursday night, and the Wall Streeters at Barocco, on Church Street in TriBeCa, are finishing their last courses and leaving the night shift to the art world. No matter what time of year it is, the restaurant always has the feel of summer. The greenish glow of the lighting, the glass-block walls, the cabana-style drapes at the doors—somehow it always feels as if you’re dining by a swimming pool. But like the art set’s other favorite hangouts—the Odeon (the classic), Canal Bar (young and wild), Jerry’s (lunch)—Barocco is also a fishbowl.

There are quieter places to eat, but if you want to be seen eating Barocco is the spot, especially on Thursdays. As one semi-regular, dealer Janelle Reiring, puts it, the atmosphere of the place “has a lot to do with the owners; they seem to have catered to the art world from the very beginning.”

—“Downtown Fare,” by Mary Ellen Haus

Paula Cooper, April 1983, New York. RICHARD LESLIE SHULMAN

Paula Cooper, April 1983, New York.


March 1989

“I don’t like art dealers very much, and I don’t enjoy the selling of art—practically everything you talk about always comes back to money. That’s not what is important about art.” Paula Cooper has voiced these opinions many times over the 20 years she has been in the art business. Such sentiments, however naively idealistic they may seem, have become her trademark.

The veteran New York art dealer has quietly achieved a track record that makes her one of the most impressive figures in contemporary art: The first dealer to chart the art frontier of SoHo. The feminist who, by promoting work by women, helped crash the male-dominated art party of the ’70s.

[ . . . ]

“When I started I was not very clear,” Cooper says, looking back on those years. “I was finding my way. I was just hanging out with the artists of my generation and following what they were doing. I had no idea about marketing. I thought if the art was good, people would come. That’s still what I thought when I moved to SoHo, when everybody told me that nobody would ever come down there to see art.”

—“Paula Cooper: Quite Contrary,” by John Howell

March 2010

At 57, [Jeffrey] Deitch has a sober but boyish air, enhanced by his trademark owlish glasses and preppy–chic corduroy pants and jacket. . . .

In 1996 the dealer opened Deitch Projects. The name was meant to be taken literally: the gallery offered up to $25,000 and ample space to artists who had ambitions beyond the confines of their studio practices, provided they had never had a solo show in New York. In recent years, Deitch Projects has become famous for some of its more startling ventures, such as the “Hamster Nest” installation by Dan Colen and Dash Snow (an overnight free-for-all with 30 or so artists frolicking among thousands of shredded phone books) and the Mardi Gras–like Art Parade. Deitch himself has become interested in a new kind of street culture, reminiscent of the East Village in the ’80s. . . .

—“On With the Shows,” by Ann Landi

Dash Snow and Dan Colen, Nest, 2007, installation view. COURTESY DEITCH ARCHIVE, NEW YORK

Dash Snow and Dan Colen, Nest, 2007, installation view.


Sept. 14, 2015

On a recent evening in SoHo, there was no block party outside of 76 Grand Street. There was no performance ambling down the adjacent corridor. There was just a name on the door, Jeffrey Deitch.

This was the original location of Deitch’s storied gallery, Deitch Projects, which became famous in the last decade for its lavish opening-night parties and for perennially anointing a new crop of hyped-up artists. The gallery closed in [May] 2010 when Deitch got a job as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, a position he held for three fraught years before returning to New York. . . . He stood in his old stomping ground, wearing a powder-blue suit.

“I always intended to come back,” he said of the space. “It’s a perfect location, and I’m very comfortable here. I’ve done, let’s see, maybe 150 shows here? So I’m very comfortable.”

—“Jeffrey Deitch on His Grand Return to His Storied SoHo Space,” by Nate Freeman

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 142 under the title “You Can Always Go Downtown.”

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