This review of ‘Pioneers of the Downtown Scene’ was published in Art Monthly issue 345, May 2011
In ‘Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970’, works produced by Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown and Gordon Matta-Clark are presented against a backdrop of the burgeoning 1970s art scene, centred around the city’s SoHo district. While Brown relocated from California to New York in 1961, Matta-Clark and Anderson took up permanent residence after 1968. As a result, hallmarks of Conceptual Art practice bound the early concerns of these individuals together. This brief congruence of style and subject matter provides a solid base for an exploration of the group’s interrelationships. Their shared embrace of a conceptual methodology (adopted in contrast to the pop and minimalist sensibilities of the 1960s) provides a useful point of exposition for the exhibition’s narrative line, beginning in the late 1960s and ending in 1978, the year of Matta-Clark’s death. To help illustrate the formal and informal intersections between their practices, the display is split into four sections: Downtown New York, Drawing and Performing, Urban Interventions, Performance and Interaction.
The gallery’s first floor is used for a series of re-staged installations. Each of the tripartite group has a sizable work here, but Brown’s presence dominates. A programme of four dance pieces is scheduled for performance each day, and the large apparatuses set up for three of these works double as sculptural objects when not in use. Between Floor of the Forest, 1970 (a work in which dancers slip in and out of clothes that form the base of a suspended platform), and Planes, 1968 (a work in which dancers climb a wall, by gripping holes punctured into it), Walking on the Wall, 1971, is the most visually arresting. Five dancers, held up by harnesses and rope, hang and extend perpendicular to the gallery’s wall. Secured in this fashion, the dancers walk the wall’s length, negotiating a risky corner, changing direction at the slightest point of contact. Watching these performers defy gravity is a singularly odd experience. The subtle disorientation that accompanies the spectatorship of this work distinguishes it from the other set-based pieces that seem to unfold apropos of nothing at all. Like much of what Brown calls her ‘postmodern’ (for which read ‘after Martha Graham’) choreography, there is a certain weightlessness to Floor of the Forest and Planes that balances precariously between the ethereal and the vapid.
Offsetting Brown’s equable choreography are two edgier works by Anderson and Matta-Clark. Anderson’s The Electric Chair, 1977-78/2011, is a kinetic artwork for the warehouse party generation. A worn and paint-splattered platform holds a motorised office chair that jerks intermittently back and forth in a straight line. Placed next to amplified fluorescent lights and a Farfisa organ (keys clamped to emit a clustered discord) it is as if the abandoned rehearsal room of Throbbing Gristle had been animated by a poltergeist. Matta-Clark’s Open House, 1972, also makes use of industrial material. Originally, Matta-Clark customised a large industrial waste container by building a set of corridors in its hollow interior. The container was placed between 98 and 112 Green Street in SoHo, and Matta-Clark invited dancers and artists to ‘perform’ inside. Transported out of its site specificity, the constructed soft-lit replica offers a sanitised version of the original piece. Somewhat at sea without its geographical context, the curious decision has been taken to add contemporary graffiti to its exterior, when it originally had none. Matta-Clark’s actual enthusiasm for street art is tentatively referenced via the inclusion of Graffiti: Mike, 1973, and Graffiti: Linda, 1973, two photographs documenting the amateurish tags of the works’ respective namesakes. However, in conjunction with the gallery’s anachronistic decoration of Open House, his engagement with the emerging practice of urban graffiti is represented in a passive frame. The inclusion of more images from Matta-Clark’s Photoglyphs, 1973 (a large collection of graffiti photographs of which Graffiti: Mike and Graffiti: Linda are the sole representatives), would have redressed this imbalance, as would the replacement of Open House with a replica of Herman Meydag, 1973, the name given to a truck Matta-Clark and South Bronx residents publicly spray painted at the opening of his self-mounted 1973 exhibition on Mercer Street ‘Alternatives to the Washington Square Art Fair’. Herman Meydag was parked for the duration of the show and pieces of it were cut off and sold as pictures.
The absence of these works presents a missed opportunity to pull away from the traditional historical ‘downtown’ narrative (with its subliminal celebration of gentrification) in order to bridge the gap between the street and the studio, the sidewalk and the loft. If it is necessary to frame the work of these artists in relation to the city, which seems to be the presupposition underlying this show, then their legacy as ambassadors and interpreters of the esoteric should have been brought to the fore. Contrary to Anderson’s assertion, as quoted in curator Lydia Yee’s nostalgic catalogue essay ‘When the Sky Was the Limit’, 1978 did not mark the ‘end of the pioneering era of the downtown New York art scene’, rather it marked – if things must be put in these chronological terms – the beginning. While the art world and the street happily coexisted in a rarely traversed divide during the 1970s, from the late 1970s onwards art moved away from being something that happened to bewildered New York natives and increasingly became something they produced and participated in. This pulling together of two communities or publics which, to a degree, laid the path for Tim Rollins and KOS, John Ahearn, Bill T Jones and Arnie Zane, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and others, is in this context the defining contribution of Anderson, Matta-Clark, and, to a much lesser extent, Brown. It is unfortunate that ‘Pioneers of the Downtown Scene’ passes over evidence of this in favour of the austere tone set by works selected for display.
On the exhibition’s second floor, documentation of Matta-Clark’s well-known architectural interventions are displayed, with drawings by each of the artists populating separate rooms. In another space, links are drawn between the acrobatic building-based works of Brown in Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, 1970, and Matta-Clark’s Clockshower, 1974, a video of the artist – allegedly – scaling a Manhattan clock tower in tights and a mackintosh. Only Anderson is allowed to descend from these lofty heights to engage with the residents of the city. In Fully Automated Nikon: (Object/Objection/Objectivity), 1973, Anderson produces the most nuanced illustration of the artists’ relationship with New York. The work includes six black and white photographs taken of men the moment after they had cat called her, while underneath each image is a caption explaining the event. A photograph of a young Hispanic couple illustrates the initially amusing and thereafter disconcerting nature of these images perfectly. After the male calls out ‘I’d like a piece of you baby,’ his girlfriend reassures, ‘He don’t mean nothin. He says that to all the girls.’