New books look back at NYC's neighborhood art scene
LIT/VISUAL ARTS The term "Mission School" was coined in these pages by Glen Helfand in 2002 to describe a loose-knit group of artists based around the Mission District who were then just beginning to break through into international art world success. These artists — including Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Chris Johanson, Alicia McCarthy, Rigo 23 and others — made use of found materials and shared an informal aesthetic that was influenced as much by the low rent streets of the city around them as a relaxed, collective Bay Area vibe.
A decade later, it seems safe to say that the Mission School was probably the last major art movement of its kind in this country, and itself the end of an era. For over three decades, significant art and music breakthroughs in this country were linked to specific urban neighborhoods (hip-hop to the South Bronx; Warhol's Factory to downtown Manhattan, riot grrrl to Olympia, Wash.; grunge to Seattle; Fort Thunder in Providence, RI, etc.) Today, with the rise of the importance of MFA programs as a means to enter the art world, and the lack of locality fostered by the internet, the era of geographic specificity as arts incubator has perhaps passed us for good.
Two new books take us back to those freer, more experimental days at the inception of the SoHo and East Village arts scenes of New York in the 1970s and 80s. 112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970-1974) (Radius Books, 192 pp., $50) is a brief, but invigorating oral history from the early years of what we now know as SoHo. This just-released catalog to last year's exhibition at Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea brings to life the sense of discovery and improvisation of the nascent neighborhood scene that centered around the legendary pioneering alternative arts space and its north star, the late Gordon Matta-Clark.
In October 1970, when Jeffrey Lew and Matta-Clark opened 112 Greene Street in the storefront of a "rundown former rag picking factory," the area south of Houston Street was a wasteland of abandoned former textile factories known as Hell's Hundred Acres. The space, with its lack of heat, and its raw walls, uneven floors, and poor artificial lighting resembled the city then falling apart all around it. The ruins of the city not only influenced the work; sometimes they literally became work.
Alan Saret remembers walking near Canal Street with Matta-Clark one night when a cornice simply fell off a building right in front of them. Saret found some other cornices on the ground nearby and paid the crew of a passing city garbage truck to haul them back to 112 Greene where they became part of a sculpture piece he called Cornices.
Far from the uptown galleries where Manhattan art world power then was consolidated, 112 Greene's isolation and state of decay fostered a certain kind of "anything goes" artistic freedom and collaborative spirit. For the first opening at 112 Greene, Matta-Clark jackhammered a hole in the basement floor and filled the area with dirt, where he planted a cherry tree that he kept alive all winter with grow lamps. For a later exhibition, George Trakas wanted to do a two-story sculpture, so he simply cut a hole in the floor so his piece could rise up out of the basement into the main floor. The only rule seemed to be that work had to be created on site and could not be made for sale.