New York

Mark Sink, Untitled, 2017, Polaroids, C-prints, dimensions variable.

Mark Sink, Untitled, 2017, Polaroids, C-prints, dimensions variable.

“Love Among the Ruins: 56 Bleecker Gallery and Late 80s New York”


Mark Sink, Untitled, 2017, Polaroids, C-prints, dimensions variable.

Look up “NoHo” on Airbnb and you will find a neighborhood tagged “trendy” and “touristy,” a place “filled with eclectic cafés, spacious studios, and sublime shopping.” Gentrification works fast: Such a description of this part of downtown Manhattan would not long ago have been unimaginable, as “Love Among the Ruins: 56 Bleecker Gallery and Late 80s New York” virtually made a fetish of establishing. Dedicated to the 56 Bleecker Gallery, which flourished from 1986 to 1989, the show documented an art space that at that early date had fled a previous location, a derelict theater on Second Avenue and East Fourth Street, because, as cocurator Bill Stelling writes in the catalogue, the area had been “invaded by fashion and media.” For those who four years earlier had been embedded in what Stelling calls “the dewy-eyed East Village art scene of 1982,” this no doubt seemed true, though others remembering the neighborhood in the late ’80s may see Stelling’s perception as well ahead of its time. (To many, the nabe still seemed pretty funky back then.) In any case, what had been the Patrick Fox Gallery moved to 56 Bleecker Street, just off the Bowery—evidently a more welcomingly scuzzy address, after which it renamed itself. The principals in this new incarnation were Stelling, the late Dean Rolston, and Maynard Monrow (another co-curator of the show, along with Susan Martin); they ran the gallery for those three years, then turned NoHo over to the Airbnb guests of the future.

As evoked by “Love Among the Ruins,” 56 Bleecker was wonderfully diverse, embracing no one aesthetic. In the spirit of the East Village of a few years earlier, it ran longer on figuration than on abstraction, but was happy to host Sylvia Martins, say, a former student of Richard Pousette-Dart’s. Otherwise, its exhibitions might run from fashion designer Stephen Sprouse to Bruce Conner, the radical California-based artist who was recently the subject of a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and New York’s Museum of Modern Art; from Bill Rice, a canonical East Village figure who worked in both painting and film, to a quite young Elizabeth Peyton, to the mannequin maker Greer Lankton. Elaine Reichek, represented here by a 2009–10 work in embroidery (the show was catholic in including both works from the gallery’s time and more recent ones by the artists who showed there), did an installation in which a couple of hundred water coconuts gradually aged, making gentle hissing noises as they went. The gallery was an eclectic place.

To the extent that 56 Bleecker had a consistent focus, though, what emerged most clearly from “Love Among the Ruins” was its involvement in the gay life of downtown ’80s Manhattan, a world represented here by Arch Connelly, Nicolas Mouffarrege, Jeff Perrone, Rene Ricard, and others. Best known as a poet and critic, Ricard was also a visual artist, and, making several appearances in both the show and its catalogue, he seems to have been a kind of presiding spirit at 56 Bleecker. That I was unaware of this back then—although Artforum’s offices, where I worked at the time, were just across the street from the gallery, and Rene wrote for the magazine and was often around—suggests a kind of sub rosa life the space had, a place in the daily routines of a distinct self-defined culture. Hanging over that culture, of course, was the threat of AIDS (the cause of Rolston’s death, in 1994), and the title phrase “love among the ruins,” a quote from the poet Robert Browning, seemed to refer not only to the urban decay that Rolston, Stelling, and Monrow evidently sought out, preferring it to smarter surrounds, but to the living of life in that kind of danger. The intensity of that life and that moment was a powerful current in “Love Among the Ruins.”

David Frankel