Greenwich Village and the Arts
New York City’s Greenwich Village—bordered roughly by Fourteenth Street on the north, by the Hudson River on the west, by Broadway on the east, and by Houston Street on the south—has long been a fertile spawning ground for the arts. New York University and its art galleries have played key roles in this illustrious history. Art arrived in the Village in 1832, the year Samuel F. B. Morse, the first professor of painting and sculpture in America, took up his post at the fledgling NYU campus. Three years later he acquired studio space for himself and his students in the newly-built neo-Gothic University Building (demolished in 1894 to make way for the present Silver Center, home of the Grey Art Gallery). Better-known today as the inventor of the telegraph, Morse was also a founder and the first president of the National Academy of Design, then the most important professional artists’ organization in America, which sponsored an art school and organized frequent public exhibitions of work by its members.
By the 1850s the Village was a lively art colony, attracting many art schools, private galleries, and clubs, as well as artists’ studios. Chief among them was the National Academy, whose headquarters were then located in Village, first at No. 663 Broadway near Bleecker, then at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Tenth Street. From 1852 to 1857 the Century Association, an elite private club catering to New York’s leading painters, sculptors, architects, and writers, was housed at No. 46 East Eighth Street (formerly No. 24 Clinton Place). In 1857 the Tenth Street Studio Building, which has been described as “the catalyst most responsible for transforming Greenwich Village into a hub for the visual arts,” was erected at No. 15 (later No. 51), near Sixth Avenue. Commissioned by the builder James Boorman Johnston (the son of John Johnston, a wealthy merchant who was among the founders of NYU), it was the first purpose-built artists’ quarters in America. Among its early tenants were many Hudson River School painters and members of the National Academy, including Frederic Church, John La Farge, and Albert Bierstadt. Three years later Cooper Union, “dedicated to the advancement of science and art,” opened its doors on Astor Place, at the western edge of the East Village.
With increased economic prosperity after the Civil War, the American art scene burgeoned. One of the most important private picture galleries in the Village belonged to Robert Boorman Johnston’s brother, John Taylor Johnston. In 1870 he and a group of friends met there to found the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with Johnson as its first president. After opening briefly in temporary quarters, the museum was transferred in 1873 to No. 126 West 14th Street, where it remained until 1879, when it moved to its present home uptown. Meanwhile, in 1877, across the street from the Studio Building, local artists formed the Tile Club, an informal association of artists, architects, and musicians who met on a regular basis at No. 58-1/2 West Tenth Street (a small cottage in the garden behind the structure that now houses NYU’s Lillian Vernon Center for International Affairs); among the Tilers were the painters Winslow Homer, Edwin Austin Abbey, and John Twachtman; the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens; and the architect Stanford White. In addition to painting on ceramic tiles, the Tilers hosted convivial suppers and sponsored occasional sketching jaunts into the countryside.
Numerous artists rented studios in NYU buildings during the postbellum years: tenants of the old University Building (on the future site of the Silver Center, the Grey Art Gallery’s home) included Homer, Eastman Johnson, and George Inness. In 1872 Homer moved to the Tenth Street Studio Building, where he was later joined by William Merritt Chase, who appropriated the skylit central court as his private domain and filled it with opulent fabrics, objets d’art, and bric-a-brac that did double duty as the setting for many of his paintings and as a backdrop for art classes, sales, and exhibitions, as well as for meetings of the Society of American Artists, the Art Club, and the Society of American Painters in Pastel.
Around the turn of the century, many of the older buildings along Washington Square South were converted into inexpensive rooming houses or demolished to make way for the tenements that accommodated the large influx of Italian, German, and Irish immigrants into the neighborhood. With their proximity to the art scene, low rents, ethnic diversity, and picturesque surroundings, these residences attracted a new generation of struggling young artists. The Village soon developed its present-day reputation as a bohemian enclave, tolerant of political radicalism and social nonconformity, and as a nurturing milieu for numerous little magazines, avant-garde art galleries, literary and artistic salons, and experimental theaters. In the pages of the leftist The Masses magazine, whose offices were located at No. 91 Greenwich Avenue, appeared drawings by John Sloan, Robert Henri, William Glackens, and George Bellows; the elegant Dial, edited at No. 152 West 13th Street, reproduced works by European modernists such as Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Henri Matisse.
In 1907 the sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, one of the city’s wealthiest heiresses, took a studio at No. 19 (now No. 17-1/2) MacDougal Alley and began to collect works by contemporary American artists. Especially drawn to modern-life subjects, she concentrated her attention on the work of the Ash Can School, which comprised Henri, Sloan, Glackens, George Luks, and Everett Shinn; in 1908 they joined with three lyrical painters, Maurice Prendergast, Ernest Lawson, and Arthur B. Davies, and exhibited together as The Eight. Whitney soon became one of the foremost champions of contemporary American art, enlarging her focus to include works by Bellows, Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, and many others. In 1912 she broke through the rear wall of her workrooms into No. 8 West Eighth Street, which she dubbed the Whitney Studio and where she soon began to present exhibitions. Six years later, in a brownstone at No. 147 West Fourth Street, off Washington Square, she established the Whitney Studio Club as a gathering place for artists, furnishing it with a reference library, a billiard table, and a sketching studio. In 1931 the Whitney Studio annexed two neighboring row houses on Eighth Street and was renamed the Whitney Museum of American Art, which remained in the Village until its move uptown in 1954. The Whitney’s former Eighth Street space is now occupied by the New York Studio School.
Nearby, in an apartment on the second floor of No. 23 Fifth Avenue, beginning in 1913, Mabel Dodge hosted weekly salons for neighborhood intellectuals. Her guests debated the controversial topics of the day: socialism, workers’ rights, sexuality, free love, and psychoanalysis; the artists among them included Sloan, Charles Demuth, and Marsden Hartley. That same year, both Dodge and Whitney were among the sponsors of the infamous Armory Show, which took place on Lexington Avenue thirteen blocks north of the Village, and whose organizers also included members of The Eight. In addition to contemporary American art, the Armory Show included paintings and sculptures by avant-garde European artists such as Picasso, Cézanne, Matisse, Gauguin, and Seurat, as well as Marcel Duchamp’s dynamic cubist composition, Nude Descending a Staircase. The impact of this massive compilation of international modernism—more than 1,300 works were shown—exploded like a bomb in the midst of the New York art world, which would never be the same.
The first museum in the U.S. devoted exclusively to modern art opened at NYU in 1927, when A. E. Gallatin, a prominent art collector and great-grandson of a founder of NYU, established the Gallery of Living Art in the Main Building, in the space now occupied by the Grey Art Gallery. There, in a converted study hall, Gallatin exhibited works by Picasso, Braque, Mirò, Léger, and other European modernists, as well as by artists associated with the American Abstract Artists group. Removed in 1943 as a wartime measure, the Gallatin collection was eventually donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and became the nucleus of their department of twentieth-century art.
After the Second World War, the Village served as the hub of the Beat Movement, which congregated in its coffeehouses, jazz clubs, and poetry readings. In 1948 a group of artists began to meet at No. 35 East Eighth Street (they later moved down the block to No. 39) for a weekly series of lectures, panel discussions, and conversations that became known as The Club. Members included most of the painters who came to be known as Abstract Expressionists, including Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock. The same artists also frequented a more informal hangout, the Cedar Tavern, a seedy bar at No. 24 University Place between Eighth and Ninth Streets. Many of the Abstract Expressionists lived in the East Village, in and around Tenth Street, where galleries sprang up to market their work. From the later 1950s the Judson Church on Washington Square South hosted avant-garde concerts as well as exhibitions by Pop artists such as Claes Oldenburg and Jim Dine. Allan Kaprow presented New York’s first “Happening” at the church in 1958.
Early in the 1960s artists began abandoning the East Village and moving into the neglected commercial lofts of the cast-iron district south of Houston Street, known as SoHo, where large, airy spaces suitable for studios were available at low rents. There they formed political organizations such as the Art Workers Coalition; attracted commercial galleries, including Leo Castelli, Paula Cooper, Mary Boone, and Holly Solomon; and formed alternative spaces such as 112 Greene, the Kitchen, Artists Space, the Clocktower, the Alternative Museum, and Franklin Furnace. In 1974 Abbey Weed Grey established the Grey Art Gallery and Study Center at NYU, and in 1978 it opened its doors in the Main Building at 100 Washington Square East, just a few blocks above the northern border of SoHo. Over the past two decades, SoHo’s dynamic art scene has attracted numerous other non-profit galleries and museums, such as the New Museum for Contemporary Art, the Drawing Center, the Museum for African Art, and the Guggenheim SoHo.
Around 1980, as SoHo became increasingly commercialized and rents increased, young artists gravitated to the East Village. In tiny storefronts in dilapidated tenements, new galleries opened to show their art, which was often inspired by the street life around them, with its advertising billboards and graffiti. But with the plunge of the stock market in the late 1980s and the consequent decline in the art market, East Village galleries either closed or moved to SoHo. Although recently many major SoHo galleries have relocated to Chelsea in search of lower rents, larger spaces, and a less-commercialized atmosphere, SoHo remains a major part of New York’s contemporary art world, continuing the story that began in neighboring Greenwich Village more than a century and a half ago.
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING
Beard, Rick, and Leslie Berlowitz, eds. Greenwich Village: Culture and Counterculture. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press for the Museum of the City of New York, 1993.
Berman, Avis. Rebels on Eighth Street: Juliana Force and the Whitney Museum of American Art. New York: Atheneum, 1990.
Blaugrund, Annette. The Tenth Street Studio Building: Artist-Entrepreneurs from the Hudson River School to the American Impressionists. Exhibition catalogue. Southampton, N.Y.
Parrish Art Museum, 1997.
Cantor, Mindy, ed. Around the Square, 1830–1890: Essays on Life, Letters, and Architecture in Greenwich Village. New York: New York University Press, 1982.
Miller, Terry. Greenwich Village and How It Got That Way. New York: Crown Publishers, 1990.