New books look back at NYC's neighborhood art scene
Perhaps predictably, with this last rule, the space could barely keep its doors open. Yet, there is a timeless lesson here for those running arts spaces today: the downfall of 112 Greene came ironically only after it finally achieved financial stability. When Lew landed a big NEA grant in 1973, pure art experimentation and spontaneity gradually gave way to formal scheduling and programming guidelines from the funders in DC, who demanded more and more say in the operation of the space. "The excitement that anything could happen waned as paperwork and schedules were enforced," remembers Lew. The core group of artists slowly drifted away from 112 Greene, just as the original SoHo, too, was beginning to change all around them into the high-end shopping district it is today.
The SoHo model has become a cynical real estate gentrification strategy, as developers create prefab arts — and shopping — neighborhoods in empty warehouse districts across the country from Miami to Portland, Ore. to Brooklyn. But if, say, Bushwick's art scene feels less like a real place than the shores of a desert island where hundreds of young artists have been randomly washed up by the storms of the global economy, 112 Greene Street reminds us that the first art neighborhoods were formed organically around genuine community. In 1971, Matta-Clark and artist Carol Goodden started an artist-run collective restaurant in SoHo called Food. By all accounts, Food was not some relational aesthetic stunt; it was a well loved and sincere attempt to provide cheap meals, a gathering place, and jobs to artists in the scene.
112 Greene Street ends before Matta-Clark's untimely death from pancreatic cancer at age 35 in 1978, and before the artist would famously take the work he developed in the ruins of 112 Greene out into the ruins of the city with a practice he dubbed "Anarchitecture." He took the city as his canvas, transforming raw space by sawing dramatic cuts in the floors and facades of abandoned buildings in the South Bronx and industrial parts of New Jersey. But the charm and dreamy freedom of the era 112 Greene Street depicts comes through in Matta-Clark's film, Day's End. In it, Matta-Clark works calmly with a blowtorch, cutting holes in the steel ceiling of an abandoned city pier on the Hudson River (with no apparent fear of getting caught) as the space slowly fills with radiant light.
A decade later, another artist who would die too young, David Wojnarowicz, would also find a wide-open playground in the rotting piers along the river. Wojnarowicz would spend hours at the piers, writing about what he saw there, having sex with strangers, and drawing murals or writing poetry on the crumbling walls. Wojnarowicz delighted in the ruins and saw the piers as a sign that America's empire was fading away before his eyes. That today we know it was actually only Wojnarowicz's world that was about to disappear is just one of the many poignant aspects of Cynthia Carr's beautiful new book, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (Bloomsbury USA, 624 pp., $35), the first comprehensive biography to date of the artist, writer, and activist who died of AIDS at the age of 39 in 1992.