112 Greene Street is where the Soho art scene began. It was the first “artist space” where you could use the rooms to do you artwork and show it, badly needed by artists who couldn’t afford studios. The galleries were still uptown, it would still be a few years before Soho became “galleryland,” but for an
artist with zero following, it was great to be able to make AND show your art in the same space. When I say that it was frequented by artists with no following, I mean the artists who did not have a gallery to show their work, nor a loyal group of fans. Much of the art shown at 112 Greene is now gone.
Jeffrey Lew, the original owner of the building, describes the 1960’s art galleries as being rather kitchy. The art was “doilies and bowls of fruit” and he wanted something a bit more raw. I imagine the art galleries were catering to the decorators, so 112 Greene Street, with its “old crazies in dirty clothes” would’ve been shocking even by modern art standards. Keep in mind that Andy Warhol, the city’s most iconic weirdo-artist, was the darling of the upper classes. His studio wasn’t in Soho either; it was at Union Square, and he and his crowd didn’t appreciate dirty, grungy types. 112 Greene Street would probably not have been on his radar. Lew, along with Gordon Matta-Clark, would also found White Columns to exhibit emerging artists.
112 Greene Street is full of interviews with the artists of the period, most of whom I’d never heard of. There’s a 1970 photo of George Trakas, with his assemblage called “The Piece That Went Through The Floor” which I bet would NOT have been appreciated by the city’s gallery elite. Gordon Matta-Clark’s painting “Walls Paper” is a repeating silkscreened mural, similar in style to Andy Warhol, and I admit that’s what I thought it was at first. But Unlike Warhol’s celebrity pop culture fascination, Walls Paper appears to depict a beat up doorway. Kind of rough compared to Warhol, just like most of the artwork that survives from the space.
This book is the result of an exhibit at the David Zwirner Gallery in 2011, which I didn’t know of at the time. I take for granted that I loved going to Soho as a teenager in the early 1990’s, but I never learned about the history of the neighborhood. It was something of a wasteland in the early 70’s, with its shuttered factories and lack of amenities. The one thing it had on its side, which would become an asset to developers, was transportation. The neighborhood was well served by the subway lines, so when real estate values rose, Soho was converted into more expensive loft apartments. Lew’s White Columns gallery would move several times through Soho, eventually relocating to the Meatpacking District.
The artists depicted in this book are renowned in the art world, but not in the way that the more famous ones are. From the photos and the interviews, you can see the roughness of their world, which was, compared to others, independent. The book portrays them as having none of the financial patronage that other had, but at the same time they are free to do as they like. Kind of like Shirley Chisolm (a politician of the time) calling her platform “unbought and unbossed.” Yeah, she lost the Democratic nomination to George McGovern, but at least she did it her way. I bet she would’ve liked these artists, who were, in a way, homesteaders in a new land. Another factor in 112 Greene Street is that the artists were often self-taught. Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Chuck Close all had formal training, and Warhol had been a commercial artist. These new “baby boom” artists were often self-taught,
Another book reviewed on this site, titled “In Love With Art,” explains the way of life in the area at the time. It was relatively safe compared to other areas of the time, because there was nothing to steal. Who would break into a loft if they knew they’d find only art supplies? I bet the most expensive thing you’d have found at 112 Greene Street was a radio, and even radios were becoming cheaper than ever (the area that would be taken over by the World Trade Center was known as Radio Row). There also weren’t any flophouses or SRO’s in the neighborhood, so you didn’t have alcoholics and junkies coming out at night. The Bowery, with its famous flophouses and dive bars, was half a mile away, and the winos and junkies rarely strayed that far from their haunts. Soho may in fact have been a safer neighborhood than the Upper West Side, which was notorious for muggings, thanks to expensive and cheap housing side by side. If Soho was safe, it was a food desert, and the only restaurants in the area were probably diners that catered to working men. The Soho food scene was over a decade away.
I think that I can sum up 112 Greene Street as an anti-thesis to Warhol and pop art. It’s all about risk takers in a formal industrial area, making art on a micro budget. Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, would become just like Soho by the mid 1990’s, with cheap housing, converted factories, and lousy eateries. Today it’s gentrified, like Soho in the 80’s. Gowanus still has something of an edge to it, and the Gowanus Art Space is open to artists who need studios. Even Gowanus is becoming more and more pricey for artists, so it remains to seen which neighborhood will be on the radar.