Coenties Slip is a tiny street in Lower Manhattan, situated halfway between Battery Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, and a few blocks southeast of Wall Street, abutting a park that connects it to the water’s edge. It’s hard to imagine a time when artists would have pursued that location “to seek a barer life, closer to reality, without all the things that clutter and fill our lives,” as Lenore Tawney once said. But in the 1950s and 1960s that is precisely what she, along with Agnes Martin, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, Jack Youngerman, and Chryssa, did. There they lived and worked in former sailmakers’ lofts, inventing a new wave of abstraction that this tight exhibition, curated by Michelle White, highlights with elegance. The works’ modest monumentality points to a shared aesthetic in which the powers of close looking distill the honest beauty of everyday phenomena.
White’s curation makes an implicit argument for the importance of thinking about art history through the intimate social geographies of artistic micro-communities. Thoughtful juxtapositions electrify small details that build a conceptualized iconography of the pier, rooting the artists’ abstractions to a specific place and time. There is the pleasing pattern of Indiana’s Ginkgo, 1959, a small painting on wood panel inspired by the leaves of neighborhood trees, and Kelly’s “tablets” that record compositional ideas derived from ships’ sails and the arches of the Brooklyn Bridge. Particularly rewarding are Chryssa’s terra-cotta slabs inspired by ancient Cycladic figures (made by artists who also lived between land and sea), as well as the conversation posited between works by Martin and Tawney. Tawney’s open-weave textile piece Seaweed, 1961, is full of delicate joys. What we discover is that the grid has remarkable evocations beyond the construction of vision in Western art history; more immediately and materially, for these artists it suggests the loom, sail rigging, fishing nets, and city blocks, whose redevelopment pushed artists out of the neighborhood by the late ’60s.