Critics’ Picks

Jean Follett, 3 Black Bottles, 1958, mixed media on wood, 11 2/3 x 19 1/2 x 1 3/4”.

New York

“Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965”

Grey Art Gallery
100 Washington Square East New York University
January 10 - April 1

A few of the artist co-ops and alternative spaces featured in this show have recently gained some art-historical due—via, for instance, the Blanton Museum’s exhibition on the Park Place Gallery and the Birmingham Museum’s survey of the Spiral Group—though more research and scholarship is still much needed. “Inventing Downtown” is a welcome antidote as the first exhibition to examine a synergy among works and ephemera from fourteen artist-run galleries below Fourteenth Street (with the exception of the City Gallery in Chelsea and Richard Bellamy’s Green Gallery in midtown). It’s a treasure trove that discloses a much smaller yet wilder local scene than the sprawling and somewhat faceless one we know today.

While some of the artists will be familiar, particularly those who embraced the cheap paints, varnishes, and kitsch objects littering 1950s consumer society in the wake of the Korean War (such as Donald Judd, who reviewed some of these galleries, and Claes Oldenburg, who feels omnipresent), there are many more who have been excluded from the canon. And we really should know them better. Sari Dienes, who showed at City Gallery, took an ink-coated roller out into New York, covering subway grates and tombstones with paper or fabric to make her sepulchral transfers. Jean Follett was associated with Hansa Gallery and made sulky sculptural assemblages with trash and found objects. She also fled New York in the early ’60s after a breakdown, and a delinquent former landlord demolished much of her work. I could go on—the capriciousness of taste and luck is merciless. But what emerges most impressively here is the pervasive sense that none of the artists were merely interested in dollars. They were committed to extending, advancing, and opening up aesthetic and philosophical conversations for the benefit of the common good.