For over 150 years, Downtown New York has been an epicenter of creative ferment. Indeed, for New Yorkers and just about everyone else, Downtown is synonymous with experimentation. This exhibition examines the rich cross-section of artists and activities that coexisted and often overlapped in Lower Manhattan between 1974 and 1984. Emerging out of the deflated optimism of the Summer of Love and energized by the enactment of the Loft Law—which made it legal for artists to live in SoHo’s industrial spaces—the Downtown scene attracted painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians, performers, filmmakers, and writers who could afford the then-low rents of SoHo lofts and Lower East Side tenements. Downtown artists violated the gap between high art and mass culture, removed the production and reception of avant-garde art from isolation in elite circles, and directly confronted social and political concerns. Creating work that was both populist and subversive as well as utopian and raw, they irreverently pushed the limits of traditional artistic categories—visual artists were also writers, writers developed performance pieces, performers incorporated videos into their works, and everyone was in a band.
In keeping with the scene’s wholeheartedly interdisciplinary practices, The Downtown Show is organized in eight sections divided between two New York University venues: the Grey Art Gallery and the Fales Library. On view at the Grey are:Interventions, which examines how artists took their art to the streets, engaging Downtown urban settings; Broken Stories, a fresh look at the innovative and disjunctive narrative techniques of Downtown writers, visual artists, and filmmakers;The Portrait Gallery, displaying likenesses of key Downtown denizens that create a collective communal “portrait”; Sublime Time, exploring the period’s search for the sublime in the wake of minimalism’s reductive, formal beauty; Salon de Refuse, which brings together works that referenced Downtown detritus to create a “trash culture” that challenged hierarchical distinctions; and The Mock Shop, comprising low-cost artists’ multiples, fashions, and accessories featured in “stores,” that sprung up in a number of influential Downtown shows and collaboratives. On view in Fales Library are De-Signs, which references graffiti and presents artists’ use of advertising’s shorthand signs and strategies; and Body Politics, featuring artworks concerned with sexuality and identity.
Also included in The Downtown Show are musical selections from SoHo’s loft jazz era, Punk, and New Wave. Prominently interspersed as well are books, journals, posters, and ephemera from the Downtown Collection of Fales Library, the world’s largest archive focusing on the scene. The exhibition concludes with Ronald Reagan’s re-election and the rise of the East Village’s storefront art galleries. Viewing the Downtown scene as both geography and metaphor, The Downtown Show demonstrates how this crucial decade radically altered American art and culture.
Seeking alternatives to the gallery and the museum, whose doors were often closed to the most experimental art, many artists embraced their immediate environment as a place to make and display their work. By the mid-1970s, New York City was essentially bankrupt, in disarray, and left to fend for itself—as telegraphed in the infamous 1975 New York Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Yet Lower Manhattan’s desolate industrial landscape yielded spaces for Downtown artists to establish not-for-profit alternative venues. In these factory lofts (where many artists also lived) and in the gritty streets, they created art that directly engaged the urban scene: Gordon Matta-Clark carved a parabolic aperture into the wall of an abandoned Hudson River pier, and Scott Burton cast a discarded Queen Anne chair in bronze and displayed it on the sidewalk. David Wojnarowicz photographed a friend wandering Downtown wearing a mask of French poet Arthur Rimbaud, while Adam Purple built a floral paradise on a rubble-strewn lot on the Lower East Side.
Between 1974 and 1984, many Downtown artists fervently embraced figuration, breaking away from the stark formality of minimalism and the mathematical rigor of dematerialized conceptual art. Writers like Kathy Acker and Lynne Tillman devised innovative narrative techniques that radically departed from mainstream American fiction. In painting, sculpture, and filmmaking, too, stories were often disjunctive, circular, and fragmented. The videos of both Michel Auder and Michael Smith slip fantasy into biography, while Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills document movies that were never made. Sherrie Levine’s appropriated images double their originals, deliberately plagiarizing modernist “classics.” In their non-directional repetitiveness, Ida Applebroog’s cartoon-like vellum storyboards seem to tell no story at all, while Laurie Anderson’s woven newspapers are nearly illegible. Challenging linearity and creating self-referential authorial voices, these experimental artists and writers devised strategies that would later become codified as central tenets of postmodernism.