Between the apex of Abstract Expressionism and the rise of Pop Art and Minimalism, the New York art scene was transformed by artist-run galleries. Inventing Downtown presents works from fourteen of these crucibles of experimentation, highlighting artists’ efforts to create new exhibition venues for innovative works of art—ranging from abstract and figurative painting, assemblage, sculpture, and works on paper to groundbreaking installations and performances.
Inventing Downtown proposes viewing these fourteen galleries via five thematic groupings. Leaving Midtown focuses on three Tenth Street galleries which adopted a cooperative business structure where expenses were shared among elected members: Tanager Gallery, Hansa Gallery, and Brata Gallery. City as Muse features four ventures that did not adopt the co-op model: City Gallery, Reuben Gallery, Delancey Street Museum, and Judson Gallery. They are best known for creating dynamic installations and pioneering performances. Space and Time investigates two significant artist-run projects, 112 Chambers Street and 79 Park Place, which occupied different conceptual terrains, embraced a wide range of media, and shared an interest in exploring temporality and geo-spatial dimensions. Politics as Practice includes four groups: March Group, Judson Church’s Hall of Issues, The Center, and Spiral Group, which examined the viability of politics as a subject for art and channeled a new sense of social urgency in addressing Cold War politics, the civil rights movement, and the legacy of World War II, among other concerns. Finally, Defining Downtown looks at the Green Gallery, which played a decisive role in bringing downtown uptown and fostering the rise of Pop and Minimalism. Its program, however, resulted in the narrowing of aesthetic possibilities and the marginalization of many artists.
Artist-run galleries shaped American art irreversibly. After 1965, New York’s uptown and downtown art scenes increasingly diverged, which led to the flowering of nonprofit downtown alternative spaces. Although more than half a century has passed since the era of Inventing Downtown, many of the issues mined in the exhibition still resonate in today’s art world—split as it is between the booming commercial market for contemporary art and ever more pluralistic models of artistic production, promotion, and display.
Inventing Downtown is curated by Melissa Rachleff, clinical associate professor in NYU’s Steinhardt School.