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“Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952-1965” at Grey Art Gallery, New York

by Eva Fabbris

 

In a work from the series of his “Manifestos,” Aldo Tambellini declared: “We are the primitives of a new era.” It was a famous sheet, dated around 1961, with two swirling black circles. The US artist of Italian origins, filmmaker, sculptor and activist, was also the founder of The Center, an organisation focusing largely on public art, and that between 1962 and 1965 staged exhibitions and festivals in the urban spaces of the Lower East Side with the aim of involving residents in artistic activities.

The exhibition and the catalogue Inventing Downtown. Artist-run galleries in New York City 1952-1965 at the Grey Art Gallery of the NYU feature more than one work by Tambellini, including a map of the intentions of his “gallery.” The Center in this drawing is represented as a circular nucleus, surrounded by music, art, poetry, theatre and film; from this framework, three arrows emerge indicating further proposals, growing the field of action of the organization towards other ideas to be deployed in other places. The Center was supposed to be the hub of it all. A solid anchor, precise and well organized, emanating creative energy, spreading and permeating the areas around it. Circles and spirals are recurrent in Tambellini’s work, drawing on his own observations of cosmic movements in physics laboratories, but which also reflect the American obsession at the time with the theme of the atomic explosion: an energetic and utopian emblem of matter in movement, expanding from a point of high concentration. What is interesting in this diagram is to see how The Center offers a sort of experiential and organizational declination of the power of the circle just as Tambellini experimented with it in his sculptures, his drawings and his film works. And something very similar may be said of other artists before and after him, in the period defined by the exhibition, who founded spaces in which to make art and make it available. What emerges from Inventing Downtown is that the artists’ desire to shape their own operational spaces inevitably corresponds to the desire to create an alternative to the commercial sphere and that of artistic institutionalization underway at the time.

The exhibition itinerary is split into chapters, telling a story that starts out from the experimentation with the gallery/artists’ cooperative model, following a structure in which expenses were split among members. Hence, “Leaving Midtown” is the first chapter: while on one hand the correspondence between the geographical landscape shifting towards Downtown and political passage of abandoning the commercial gallery is evident, on the other there is a surprising opening and variety of artistic positions embraced by these first artist-run spaces. Most of the twelve founding artists of the Hansa Gallery (operational from 1954 to 1959) had studied under the painter Hans Hofmann, to whom they paid homage in the very name of the gallery. Hofmann contested the necessity to choose between abstraction and figuration, or between gestural abstraction and geometric painting; thus in the gallery/cooperative of his ex-students, figures coexisted like Allan Kaprow, George Segal and Richard Stankiewicz, who were shifting radically towards assemblage, as well as others like Jane Wilson and Wolf Kahn, who Bonnardianly painted portraits and scenes of everyday life. The vitality of these co-existences seems to be one of the aesthetic and existential triggers for the passage towards “The City as Muse,” the part of the exhibition that describes the activity of no longer cooperative spaces, hosted in venues which are also studios, lived-in and not only exhibition spaces. Among these there was the Reuben Gallery, opened in 1959 with the first event ever to have been defined as a “happening”: the renowned 18 Happenings in Six Parts by Kaprow, who was the founder along with Anita Rubin. The artist stated that the model of the simultaneity of events, so crucial and disarming in this work, is a circus on three levels.

The following steps in the exhibition itinerary show how painting and sculpture on one hand and dance, poetry and music on the other intercept and influence one another to the point of merging together to seek out aesthetic formulae capable of composing space and time. And then, in an almost perfect historical coincidence with the election of John F. Kennedy, the decision taken by certain spaces—including The Center—to dedicate themselves to practices addressing an openly political dimension marks a further vital novelty in the definition of this phenomenon. The conclusion is a homage to the remarkable activity of the Green Gallery, founded as an undertaking of a commercial nature, yet capable of promoting the most radical and adventurous artistic positions, with Mark di Suvero, Claes Oldenburg, Lucas Samaras and Minimalism. Richard Bellamy, the gallery director, had trained working at the Hansa Gallery.

“In the history of art, happenings, figurative painting, assemblage, early Pop art, and Minimalism are often treated as separate tendencies when, in fact, as the study of artist-run organizations shows, a plethora of strategies coexisted and drew from one another,” we may read in the preface to the catalog. And in fact, the exhibition offers an incredibly wide-ranging and articulated opportunity reconsider this period. The white cube seen from here looks like science fiction. After all, we are talking about the start of a real “new era” in which artists—circus performers—tried to lay down a number of democratic and open fundamentals for the art system, with all their nice primitive rules.

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at Grey Art Gallery, New York
until 1 April 2017

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