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The Savage Glitter of Downtown

Richard Kostelanetz, SoHo: The Rise and Fall of an Artists’ Colony (Routledge, 2003)

The SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District did not exist before August 13, 1973. On that day, preferential treatment officially commenced for twenty-six city blocks in lower Manhattan. But the cast-iron buildings were not themselves responsible for determining their future historical preservation. Artists living in the formerly moribund industrial area were. Many of them, it is true, had been residing below Houston Street for only a few years. Yet these same artists were the ones quickly refurbishing buildings and structures that, in many cases, had fallen into considerable desuetude. In its 1973 Designation Report, The Landmarks Preservation Commission of New York City even acknowledged that the hyphenated name "SoHo-Cast Iron" "was chosen for the designation of New York City’s twenty-third Historic District in order to suggest some of the diversity of the area….‘SoHo,’ meaning ‘South of Houston,’ is the acronym adopted by a group of artists who moved, in the 1960s, into what then seemed a doomed neighborhood. They have given it a new life, making feasible the preservation of an irreplaceable part of our cultural heritage."

Richard Kostelanetz, notable doyen of the downtown arts scene, explains how this revitalized SoHo was ultimately short-lived for the artists who helped build it. As the title of his latest book suggests, the life and work of SoHo artists must be understood in terms of the vicissitudes that shaped their community. Skyscraper highs and subterranean lows are therefore equally important to consider. Not that Kostelanetz is enamored of the crashes and burns often fulsomely dubbed aesthetic innovation. He simply refuses to spare any details, comely or not. The result is perhaps the most exhaustive historical and critical treatment of SoHo art, culture, and design to date. There is, though, no pretense of dispassion, as might be found in a similar book written by a straitlaced academic or outsider. Certain moments in the work are actually quite plaintive, wrought by dogged remembrance of a time bygone. "[F]rom the moment I moved into SoHo, back in 1974," Kostelanetz recalls at one point, "the art world there has been threatened."

The artist as endangered species, the world of art under siege—neither, of course, is a cultural phenomenon endemic to New York City. Still, the likes of John Cage, Cindy Sherman, and Donald Judd seldom live and work within the same artistic milieu. So when they do—and they did, after all, for a splendid while—the wellspring of such immense creative output should be properly chronicled. That is one way to rejoin. And such a rejoinder, in the case of Kostelanetz, just happens to span more than two hundred pages. Nonetheless, he is quite succinct when pointing out what exactly fostered the production and favorable reception of objets d’ contemporaine art. In his view, four unique factors contributed to the rise of Artists’ SoHo: The first…was the availability of empty commercial/industrial space that was comparatively cheap initially because nobody else wanted it and then because the city forbade nonartists from moving in…. The second factor was the relaxation of restrictive building codes… (Such leniency continues to this day in SoHo and is perhaps an underacknowledged precondition for all urban renewal by individuals anywhere.) A third fact behind the creation of Artists’ SoHo was that nearly all people living there were artists and artists-lovers. In this ‘gentrification,’ unlike too many others, no prior residents were displaced, although factories were closed when their leases expired (and workers presumably laid off). A fourth factor was the arrival of galleries exhibiting art, which meant that fortunate artists could not only live and work but also sell in the same neighborhood.

But Kostelanetz knows that, for all its attractive succinctness and apparent explanatory power, this account only scratches the surface of the disheveled history of Artists’ SoHo. What really happened there in the past thirty years or so requires much deeper, albeit less analytically slick, explanation. He maintains that the best way to envisage SoHo is by viewing it as a fortuitously anarchistic community: "[N]o one planned that it become an artists’ enclave. City officials certainly didn’t. Nor did any arts institution or artists’ conglomerate. Nor did the galleries or major real estate developers. This urban frontier became an art town…thanks to the initiative of thousands of independent individuals." Yet Kostelanetz inveighs against the idea that SoHo artists were preternaturally engagé. "Though artists are frequently described as predisposed to rabid radicalism," he observes, "especially by conservative polemicists with fanciful imaginations, most of my neighbors were registered democrats…. Subtly perhaps, SoHo represented the culture of the 1960s without its radical politics. Everyone qualifying for an artist’s variance could live in its co-ops regardless of age, race, gender, political affiliation, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or any other category of discrimination popular in the larger world."

Kostelanetz’s observation here is part of his larger effort to highlight the important contrast between the de facto anarchism of SoHo and the cultural bohemianism and political radicalism of other downtown communities. In this regard, his main argument runs as follows: whereas SoHo was an artists’ colony created by artists, the East Village and Lower East Side were bohemias created by cultural and political radicals whose primary interest was not necessarily art. Referring to his own artistic activities, Kostelanetz confesses: "Had I stayed in the East Village (or, worse, stayed uptown), believe me, this work wouldn’t have been done at all." In a similar vein, he admits that, in the case of SoHo, "©ooperation counted more among us than competition," despite the fact that "avant-garde art is cruelly competitive, sending even the most ambitious into other work."

Though Kostelanetz admires many of his artist friends for their pioneering work, he holds out special reverence for George Maciunas, who founded the Fluxus art group in 1961. "In retrospect," he says, "Maciunas became one of the crucial people who made Artists’ SoHo possible." An entire building at 80 Wooster Street was purchased by Maciunas in 1967 for the establishment of Fluxhouse Cooperative II. As an informational leaflet from the period explains:

Fluxhouses were formed in 1966 as cooperatives consisting solely of artists, film-makers, musicians, dancers, designers, etc. seeking adequate combined work and living space. Its aim is to purchase, renovate and maintain suitable buildings for artist occupancy.…Buildings may be formed into independent cooperative corporations or grouped with an existing cooperative. Each member becomes a shareholder with shares proportional to the square footage he owns. Since Fluxhouse Cooperatives are not receiving any assistance from any foundations or government agencies, members must purchase buildings with [their] own money and finance [their] own renovation costs.

To be sure, the Fluxhouse Cooperatives were salient precursors to the recent conversions of industrial warehouses and commercial depots into loft dwellings. Loft living is for the downtown denizens of today, to say nothing of moneyed Brooklyn, probably the most desirable way to live. Some are artists who need space expansive enough for both residential use and artistic production. Many others find the minimalist interior of lofts preferable to spaces where obtrusive, preponderant design dwarfs the dream and function of pure inhabitation. But Maciunas and other influential SoHo artists were interested neither in legitimating prefab minimalism nor in constructing residences as private retreats into a bourgeois intérieur. From their perspective, the cultural cachet of a neighborhood and its vision of livable space should be determined not by the draconian dictates of real-estate capital but by community transformation and reclamation of preexisting structures.

During the 1960s and 1970s, multi-purpose alternative spaces emerged precisely because of this felt impetus to transform and reclaim extant spatial arrangements. While residing in these new venues, artists not only showed their individual works; they also acted as participant observers of the burgeoning efforts of their colleagues, who often explored different aesthetic mediums and modalities simultaneously. The old barriers separating creation and spectatorship were not so much broken down as imaginatively surmounted. It was not uncommon to find exhibits, installations, antinomian performances, and artist studios all within the same building. For over a decade, 80 Wooster Street was the place to find the Film-Makers Cinematheque (later rechristened Anthology Film Archives), abstract theatrical art directed by Richard Foreman, and Flux Harpsichord Recitals in which the theme, as Kostelanetz notes, "was, of course, using the harpsichord for everything except that for which it was initially intended."

Much of the art produced and experienced in these alternative spaces could be classified as performance art. Such a classification became "an inclusive term for live presentations, often in nontheatrical spaces, minimizing text among other theatrical strategies," Kostelanetz suggests, demonstrating his critical acumen, "sometimes from people whose reputations were first established in arts other than theater." Modern dance was among the other arts, and its defining characteristic in SoHo was "the use of space not initially intended for performance…[instead,] choreographers used open lofts that left spectators to stand or sit as well as they could. A related move typical of the time was performing in outdoor spaces." In 1974, Maciunas purchased a few buildings near Broadway and Spring Street. He overhauled them with dancers’ needs in mind. Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown happily partook of this newly customized space, and quickly learned that "SoHo gave them the opportunity to live in the same spaces where they did their daily exercises and sometimes performed."

Around the same time, video art and avant-garde music found their home in the Kitchen. "Created primarily to show the new medium of video," Kostelanetz remembers, "the Kitchen…also had a music program, originally entrusted to Jim Burton, also a painter, whose earliest allegiances were to ‘downtown’ (i.e., nonacademic) Manhattan music in the tradition of John Cage." By the mid 1970s, electronic rock and No Wave were cooking up a storm on Broome Street, near the Holland Tunnel, the fitting new location of the Kitchen. To this day, the whole area is "a rich fount of ambient noise," a roaring scrim of industrial-strength decibels created by the endless movement of trucks and other vehicles leaving and entering the city.

"I am not a ‘filmmaker’ when I make films and a ‘writer’ when I write," Kostelanetz avows, adamantly. "I am, like cummings before me," he continues, "a creative person involved in a variety of artistic situations. I do not change heads in going from one art to another; I scarcely change clothes. Trust the tale, not the teller—consider the work, not the biographical label.… Professional categories function to make disciplinary transgressions into a kind of pseudo-event—a so-called poet’s film is no different in essence from anyone else’s film, whereas a so-called artist’s book is, all current rationalizations to the contrary notwithstanding, still a book." Less valetudinarian than vintage, these lines are indicative of the twenty-six blocks—as much urban locale as idée fixe—in which nearly every piece of artistic work, nearly every artistic situation, could find a space to be heard. It was not just youth that once seemed sonic.


Daniel Morris

Morris writes on intellectual culture for Bookforum and other publications.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2004

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