The centers of the art world simply did not merely happen. They emerged by circumstance, opportunity, and by the hard work of artists, critics, gallerists, collectors and curators that created them. Before World War II, Paris was arguably considered the epicenter of the global art market, shifting after to New York. Even though the art world today is more global, New York is an essential center of the Contemporary. Art worlds are living communities, and they possess histories and social trajectories. Inventing Downtown, documents a seminal time in the emergence of New York’s Post-War art scene between Abstract Expressionism and Pop through a look at artist-run galleries. As NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery Curator Maya Allison states, its presentation parallels the emergence of art worlds in the UAE, such as the group of artists that formed around the late Emirati artist Hassan Sharif, and artist-run institutions such as the Emirates Fine Art Society, the Flying House, and Tashkeel. NYU Abu Dhabi offered a similar visual history of the UAE in its previous exhibition But We Cannot See Them: Tracing a UAE Art Community 1988-2008 (2 March – 26 August 2017). These two exhibitions propose a comparative history of art worlds built on artist-run initiatives.
Red Grooms transporting artwork to Reuben Gallery, New York, 1960 by John Cohen. © John Cohen
Inventing Downtown consists of five thematic segments. These are Leaving Midtown, City as Muse, Space and Time, Politics and Practice, and Inventing Downtown. Such a programme illustrates the emergence of the mid-20th Century Modernist scene in New York, its development, and its eventual distinction of political, commercial, and nonprofit art worlds. It also shows the movement of seminal artists between groups, revealing the emergence of movements like Fluxus and Pop.
Announcement for Jim Dine Exhibition, Jim Dine. Courtesy of the artist
A closer look at the Leaving Midtown section shows the work of three pioneering cooperative artist-run galleries, Brata, Hansa, and Tanager. Members would share the operating costs, allowing for greater access. According to Jon Ippolito (son of Tanager founder Angelo Ippolito), at the time, the art world in New York was limited to only a couple hundred people, mostly artists, and collectivism was essential. Hansa Gallery was founded mainly by artists who studied with painter Hans Hofmann, as hinted by the name. Most would paint, but artists like George Segal began to work objectively/figuratively for more immediate impact. The gallery moved to 210 Central Park South, which placed it strategically as a place for artists, critics and collectors to meet. Brata, founded by the brothers Krushenick, originally performed framing services, but also championed Japanese artists like Kobayashi, Momiyama, Yayoi Kusama (featured last year at the Sharjah Art Foundation), and Ed Clark, one of the few African American artists showing 10th Street selection of galleries.
Blue Intrusion, 1958 by Hale Woodruff
City as Muse focuses on the notion of urban life as driving factor, featuring City, Reuben, and Jusdon Street Galleries. After the closing of Hansa, Alan Kaprow would team with Anita Rubin at the Reuben, developing art “happenings”, doing 18 Happenings in 6 Parts for the Reuben Gallery’s grand opening. The Reuben Gallery became known for its experimental approach, launching the development of artists like Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg’s signature works in painting and “soft sculpture”. Red Grooms and Jay Milder’s City Gallery had a dynamic 2D program largely in drawing, with a notable show, Drawings, featuring Franz Kline and George Grosz, alongside emerging artists. Jusdon Gallery, funded by Bud Scott, a progressive minister at Judson Memorial Church, called to artists in Greenwich Villiage, to show a variety of artists, including Dine, Oldenburg, and Al Hansen. Delancey Street Museum was another Red Grooms project, working in medium and performance with frequent collaborators Milder and Bob Thompson.
Bob Thompson Announcement for opening at Delancey Street Museum, New York.© Estate of Bob Thompson; Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY
Space and Time features spaces as well as highlighted installation and performances, such as Yoko Ono’s 112 Chambers Street, where she invited co-Fluxus member LaMonte Young to co-curate, with the movement’s figure head, George Maciunas taking some of the photography of Ono’s work for the exhibition. 79 Park Place, run by Dean Fleming, would then explore issues like collaboration, improvisation, and concepts by thinkers like Buckminster Fuller who would challenge the notion of the art market and pave the way for the contemporary non-profit space.
Portrait of Jane Freilicher, 1957 by Jane Wilson. Oil on canvas. 36 x 24 in. Collection of John Gruen and Julia Gruen, New York. © Estate of Jane Wilson. Courtesy DC Moore Gallery, New York
Politics as Practice encompasses four spaces that looked at the viability of politics in art, mostly after the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy. The March Group would take a markedly antagonistic stance toward the art world, taking unpopular stances in exhibitions like The Vulgar Show and the Doom Show. Phyllis Yampolsky would create the Hall of Issues at Bud Scott’s Jusdon Memorial Church, where she would have Wednesday night talks and happenings. While not a gallery per se, members of the community were involved, like Oldenburg, Fleming, and so on to spur on discussion of social issues. Aldo Tambellini’s The Center would be an exemplar for media art spaces, using his backyard and the detritus from the crumbling buildings around to make “portraits” of the neighborhood, paving the way for his work in technological art. The Spiral Group, consisting of fifteen African American artists just before the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Their own tensions between politics and Modernism caused them to only have one exhibition, Spiral: Works in Black and White in 1965.
Apollinaire wounded (to Ward Jackson), 1959–1960 by Dan Flavin. Crushed can, oil, and pencil on Masonite, and plaster on pine, 13 1/2 x 19 3/8 x 7/8 in. Collection of Stephen Flavin. © 2016 Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Inventing Downtown and its focus on the Green Gallery breaks with the notion of the artist-run gallery. Green exhibited the edginess of the less commercial spaces. Run by Richard Bellamy (who had worked at Hansa), this gallery focused on what would become Pop and Minimalism, and was instrumental in defining the marketability of such movements. This would lead to eventual separations along genre lines, and the emergence of the larger market would lead to the success of many represented artists, such as Rosenquist, Segal, Oldenburg, Judd, Flavin and Morris. Materialism continues to resonate today in the art world in post-internet works that reflect internet culture represented in traditional forms, and for example, in the deep materialism found in the Emirati contemporary school centring around Sharif.
"Untitled (Blue/Green)" by Tadaaki Kuwayama. 1961
The narratives of community, politics, the emergence of various art worlds, and the trajectories of icons in American Modern art are writ large in Inventing Downtown. As Maya Allison asks in her foreword to the exhibition’s introduction, how do art scenes develop, and how does this relate to the UAE, from Dubai’s AlSerkal, D3, and DIFC districts, Sharjah’s museum and foundation culture, to Abu Dhabi’s emerging institutional scene? Inventing Downtown draws parallels to the previous exhibition, But We Cannot See Them, asking what New York’s historical trajectory holds for the UAE.
Inventing Downtown, curated by Melissa Rachleff, is on exhibition at the New York University Art Gallery on Saddiyat Island until 13 January 2018