In 2016, while working on the Grey Art Gallery’s “Greenwich Village Artists Self-Guided Walking Tour,” I realized that in the midst of completing an Art History minor, and with the concomitant accumulation of hundreds of index cards, my understanding of the art I was studying was crippled by the mere memorization of it all. My conceptual understanding of the time periods, of the worlds in which these artists lived, was limited at best.
The Grey’s Artists Tour, dense with familiar names and famous works, insists on acknowledging the artist as existing beyond his or her art. The tour examines the artist in the studio, among friends, at home, at the local tavern. The Tour provides context, allowing us to examine works we may already be familiar with through an additional layer of understanding. And perhaps this selfish, scholarly curiosity prevents us from seeing the art as the artist has intended, that is, as a separate entity from the artist himself. But everything is relevant. Who’s to say that Willem de Kooning would have produced the same work if he lived just a few more blocks uptown (stop #5)? In a true examination of any work, the artist’s story is paramount. Context adds flavor, it gives us something beyond a formal, visual analysis of a work.
Stop #3 on the tour brought me to Marcel Duchamp’s apartment in the St. Denis Hotel at 80 East Eleventh Street, a building I had mindlessly passed endless times before [Ed. Note: Sadly, this 1853 building was demolished in 2019 to make way for new construction]. Standing outside this familiar place, my head shifted from Duchamp, a name I associated with a urinal, to Duchamp, the man who picnicked on the roof of the Washington Arch dubbing Greenwich Village the Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square (stop #6), the man who got drunk at The Mad Hatter on West Fourth Street (stop #18), the man who played chess with Man Ray (stop #9). This is the man that signed a porcelain urinal “R. Mutt.” This is the man who drew a mustache and beard on a postcard of Mona Lisa and titled it L.H.O.O.Q.
The interconnections among artists in the tour add yet another layer of interest. Rather than treating each artist as distinct and separate from all the rest, as my index cards force me to do, the tour situates artworks in the murky pool of continual collaboration and shared inspiration. The Village was, and continues to be, a venue for constant, fluid exchange of ideas. I couldn’t help but wish I could listen in on a chess match between Duchamp and Man Ray as I stood across from what once was the Marshall Chess Club (stop #9). The tour also cites The Cedar Tavern (stop #2) as a spot where artists such as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock met to share ideas and talk about art. The Tavern attracted a rather temperamental crowd. Jackson Pollock was barred for kicking in the bathroom door, and Jack Kerouac for urinating into the ashtrays.
The Tour dances between decades, hinting at the Village’s evolution and its never-ending ability to provide profound inspiration. What was in 1931 the Whitney Museum of American Art (then known as the Whitney Studio Galleries) is now the New York Studio School (stop #24). The buildings featured on this tour are rich in history, many of them repurposed within the art world. For example, even if the original structure is long gone, it’s curious to think that the Meditation Studio on East Eighth Street that I pass every day on my way to class was once home to Thomas Hart Benton (stop #22).
At the very least, this Tour is a reminder to supplement memorized dates and names with stories and gossip about the lives of the people on my index cards.
Sarah Seiler was an intern at the Grey Art Gallery in Summer 2016. In 2018 she received a B.F.A. in Photography & Imaging at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.