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January 2011: 112 Greene Street A Nexus of Ideas in the Early 70s

 
George Trakas, Photographs of The Piece That Went Through the Floor (1970)
(photo courtesy of Richard Landry)



112 Greene Street: A Nexus of Ideas in the Early 70s
Salomon Contemporary
508 West 26th St. #5G, New York, NY
January 12 through February 19, 2011

The work still looks fresh. 112 Greene Street: A Nexus of Ideas in the Early 70's is an exhibition organized by Ned Smyth, at Salomon Contemporary in Chelsea.  The show is delightful, lively and, as the title indicates, full of possibilities. Ned Smyth and Alice Aycock comment as participants in this article.

Functioning like a time machine, this exhibition brings us back to another state of mind and another place. SoHo was rapidly converting from a warehousing loft district to an art mecca. Castelli had set up shop in 1971 on West Broadway, and there were only a handful of other dealers in the neighborhood. Artists were taking on diverse subjects and methods from many fields to find a way out of the perceived stasis of Minimalism. The SoHo buildings themselves, rich in 19th Century mercantile history and use, became a subject for artists interested in subverting art world commercial interests and norms.

With “The Piece that Went Through the Floor”, (1970), documented here in photographs, George Trakas does just that, challenging the notion of the discrete art object. He has also built a new work for this exhibition, “Through the Looking Glass- The Piece That Went Through the Ceiling” (2011). Looking up at mirrors in this piece, we see a reflection of a catwalk like structure under construction outside, 3 flights down. This outdoor structure could be an installation by Trakas, in fact, I am convinced he thinks so too! Here is proof of his huge influence on landscape architects. Trakas gives us the sense he is still working structurally on things around us in the optimistic, almost gleeful way he has, reversing and ordering, spanning and opening.
 


George Trakas, Through the Looking Glass-The Piece That Went Through the Ceiling (2011)


On a video screen, Joan Jonas is opening and closing a huge weighted-sash SoHo loft window while wandering through tall precarious paper cones, in “Cones/May Windows”. The paper cones are set up right on the floor in front of us, in the flesh. Both rooms of the gallery are filled with the sound of video playing, Jonas in one, Dennis Oppenheim in the other. This takes us back to the do-it-yourself quality video had then- grainy, soft gray light from the monitor, a little shaky, the sound echoing and reverberating throughout loft-size spaces. “Recall” has a long narrow tray near the floor full of turpentine and paint, a video monitor showing only Oppenheim’s mouth sits at one end, the image of his moving lips reflected in the solvent. This solvent, he specifies in a matter of fact drawing near the piece, is “used as a sensory catalyst activating my reflections as a painter”. The ruminations about being an art student in the late’50s go on and on, it is mesmerizing and also quite funny to hear him recall a stream of memories: for example being asked by his teacher whether he was an intellectual or emotional painter…Oppenheim worked deeply to invent new autobiographical modes. This early work re-imagines the body as liquid and paint with talking head, inhaling turpentine fumes. Sensory experience works as a trigger for memory.

 

Dennis Oppenheim, Recall (1973)

Bill Beckley alters sensory experience by building a shrunken table tennis kit, one that makes no sound! And a golfing proposal, “Song for Golf” subverts our expectations with tongue in cheek. Very dry, quite funny, and driven by the ideas. Alice Aycock comments: “ Certainly the space at 112 Greene St was quite rough, and ragtag…the word “Nexus” in this show’s title means to me that 112 Greene St. worked like a huge neural node. Artists came through and charged each other up. Their egg got cracked there! We connected, we fed off each other and then we scattered. It worked like a think tank. We were interested in re-thinking sculpture and architecture, opening up to dance, text, music, video, performance. We all felt the hegemony of Minimalism and were finding a way out from under it. For example, it felt like Susan Rothenberg was really breaking a taboo with her painting. I remember Gordon (Matta-Clark) saying to me “It looks like cave painting, doesn’t it Alice?” Rothenberg’s painting “Split” exists as a rapid, coherent split-second evocation of the essence of being a horse, having the sense of being poised and caught, held and still. Her paintings from this time seem to both affirm and deny the possibility of painting living things. At 112, her paintings exhibited of the same subject were 12’ long. The work in this exhibition, “Split” is a placeholder for those, which could not be lent.


Susan Rothenberg, Split (1974)
Ned Smyth, Renaissance Plan (1973)
Joan Jonas, Cones/May Windows (1976)


Ned Smyth comments, “There were few painters at 112, but we all were very excited by Rothenberg’s paintings when she showed them. They seemed primal, mythic. We all could feel the work’s connection to materiality and roughness. Later on New Image painting developed ideas implicit in her work.”
 
   
Alice Aycock, Stairs (These Stairs Can Be Climbed) (1973)
 Louise Bourgeois, Janus (1968)

“Living-ness” comes up as a subject with the bronze “Janus” by Louise Bourgeois. Two hanging organic globes, somewhat phallic, point downward. They held by organic sleeves, the two halves joined by leaf-like smears. The bronze is painted black, with the paint rubbed off of the globes, the metal glows as it hangs.

Ned Smyth comments, “At 112, Louise Bourgeois was given her own show, and she built an environment. Inside was a giant penis that seemed to be torn off, hanging on a meat hook. She had been of course showing for years, and was known for work that was psychologically influenced, with almost dream-like images. The piece at 112 shocked people with its explicitness. Linda Nochlin wrote about it and soon feminists embraced her as a unique strong woman mining her own material. There were a lot of strong women involved with 112. They weren’t necessarily thinking about being feminists, but they were strong, respected individuals and part of the group.”
Jackie Windsor’s “Cement Sphere” and “Rope” are forcefully executed objects made with a nod to Minimalism. They are simple gestures with rich connotations, materially evocative, executed flawlessly. They are plain and full.
 
 
George Trakas, Through the Looking Glass-The Piece That Went Through the Ceiling (2011)
 Mary Heilmann, First Three for Two Red, Yellow, Blue (1975)

Mary Heilmann plays tricks with figure and ground in her painting “First Three for Two Red, Yellow and Blue”, but what really grabs at us is her irony around the issue of intention: whether she means it or “means” it. Whether things happen by will or accident, or something else. Minimalism is given a shove here; Heilmann’s focus on intention is dead serious. The painting: tensile and light.

 
Ned Smyth, Renaissance Plan (1973)
 Susan Rothenberg Split (1974)
Ned Smyth’s “Renaissance Plan” stays very quiet, very still. Cast concrete architectural forms, seemingly ready for assembly, lean against the wall and diagrammatically spread out on the floor. It is all potential, but resting and waiting, declarative. Ned Smyth comments, “I was very influenced by architecture and public space in Europe. I had spent a lot of time there as a boy. Seeing a piece of Jene Highstein’s at 112 really grabbed me- he spanned the space with pipes, holding them up by plugging them into the walls. It was minimal, but more, because it was tied to the space, it was a very personal response to the space.”

Another seemingly simple structure, Alice Aycock’s “Stairs (These Stairs Can Be Climbed)” against the far wall makes us feel private space becoming public. The generic staircase becomes oversize and impossible in a Surrealist sense. But it also gets us to see what can be done with pine boards in a room. The object quality of the structure has a simple dominating gesture, it allows us to explore by moving us towards the ceiling. It puts us on display. Alice Aycock comments, “We all acknowledged the competition between us, we were all playing the art game with each other. It was about the work, we tried things, got each other’s reactions, and moved on the next thing. It wasn’t about making masterpieces.”

In this exhibition you can see examples of the photograph beginning to operate as documentation, as an “idea transmitting object” devoid of innate sensual qualities of its own. Alice Aycock is pictured by a sign on the highway- “Tropico de Cancer” -she is straddling the border. These are iconic images from conceptual art of the 70s, accessible and available once again as smallish photos on the wall.



Alice Aycock, Tropico de Cancer
 
 
 
 
 
 Alice Aycock, NYC Orientations (1971)

“NYC Orientations” is an exquisite Aycock work, driven by an interest in the axes of the compass as determined by different cartographic readings. Photo images function as a record of the trace of an invisible axis. Each view looking in the cardinal directions from the Empire State building changes slightly, based on whether the alignment is magnetic north, or true north according to several different map companies. The view looking south shows the World Trade Centers under construction- you can “see through” the upper portions of the buildings- amazing and compelling given recent events. But the views themselves are generic and matter of fact.
The same is true for 2 photographs of Chris Burden in the performance “Back to You”.

Described is a harrowing descent and then ascent on an elevator in 112 Greene St., a stranger picked at random is instructed to impose physical pain randomly on Burden by performing a specified action. The matter-of-fact modesty of the presentation makes the actions described in the text that much harder to bear.

And there is a selection of photos on the wall, evoking work and people from the scene at 112- the center of which, I think no one would dispute, being Gordon Matta-Clark, who is pictured.

Aycock comments, “Gordon would have wanted a large show, he was always bringing people together who had talent and energy. He was generous and not paranoid. We were all a bit naïve, not self-conscious relative to the art world.”

Smyth comments, “Of course the scene was bigger than 112- Alanna Heiss was curating shows and running spaces. Avalanche was covering the scene, Liza Bear was writing about people. I think the ethos of the ‘60s was a huge influence. Connecting with people was expected, anti-commercial values were shared by everyone, the hand-made and psychologically revealing were very important.”

112 Greene St. is an evocative and rich show, a real tribute to the artists involved and the time period represented.

Thomas Butter

                                       
Thomas Butter has been living in NYC since 1977, and showing since 1981. He is currently on the Adjunct Faculty in the Fine Arts Department at Parsons the New School for Design, and has taught at many colleges and universities on the east coast, including RISD, Harvard, Yale, Tyler, MICA, University of the Arts, and many others.  
thom.butter@gmail.com website: www.tombutter.com

 

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