Art on the Block: Tracking the New York Art World from Soho to the Bowery, Bushwick and Beyond
Ann Fensterstock, Publisher: Palgrave MacMillan, 243 pages, $28 U.S./$32 Can., release date Sept. 17, 2013.
Ann Fensterstock’s diligently researched Art on the Block is a must-read for anyone involved or even marginally interested in the New York art world. In her book set for release on September 17, 2013, Fensterstock traces the migration and settling of New York art galleries from their mid-twentieth century stronghold of Fifty-Seventh street to Soho and its peak in the fast-paced 1980s, to today’s preferred gallery neighborhood, Chelsea –with diversions on the smattering of art galleries that grew up in the art scenes of the East Village in the 1980s and in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the 1990s and early 2000s. Fensterstock rounds out her history with a short chapter on the recent movement to opening galleries on the Lower East Side, and what the future might hold.
Published by academic publishing powerhouse Palgrave Macmillan, Fensterstock’s book has been rigorously researched –no small feat, given that that author’s subject material spans over fifty years and covers many lesser-documented personalities and events from the New York art world. Art on the Block combines deep knowledge of New York art history with seemingly hundreds of interviews conducted by Fensterstock (including one with recently deceased dealer Ivan Karp) and an examination of the history and politics of urban planning in New York city and its effects on the denizens of the art world.
Art on the Block is rich with references and provides an intricate and fairly accurate overview of the New York art world, with new facts and insights for even those in the know. That is not to say, of course, that Fensterstock does not appear to have her favorites. One reading the book as an introduction to the New York art scene might come away with the conclusion, for instance, that the only New York art critics in the past 30 years have been the couple Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz, and the only non-New York publications covering New York arts are Artforum (which Fensterstock characterizes as snobbish and overly academic), Art in America, and the now-defunct “artnet news” offshoot of the auction price database of the same name. A small number of prominent galleries are also curiously absent from the book, while a handful of recent players are promoted beyond their due. Of course, descriptions of history are always at their shakiest when they deal with the very recent past, but one does well to remember that ignoring people does not make them go away and saying something is great does not make it so.
Despite its breadth and depth, Art on the Block is not so dense that it cannot be read in a long sitting or two. The writing is tight and concise and no space is wasted, from the description of the early art dealing of late elder statesman Leo Castelli to that of the sprawling Gagosian Gallery empire, headed up by “irrepressible hustler” Larry Gagosian. In the short space of a little over 200 pages, Fensterstock such also treats us to innumerable gems such as a quote from Robert Hughes’ review of the East Village component of the 1985 Whitney Biennial as “young, loud and, except in its careerism, invincibly dumb” and an anecdote from a 1990 Sotheby’s auction where “a Julian Schnabel canvas failed to elicit a single bid. After some silence, cynical laughter and a round of applause followed.” While its epicenter may move and galleries may come and go, some things in the art world never change.
Fensterstock’s book is a welcome contribution to history of contemporary art, and the conversation about what makes it tick and why some galleries survive while others fold. With its index, bibliography, and 24-page inset of color photographs, Art on the Block is a highly recommended book one will want to keep on one’s shelf after reading for use a reference, and keep close tabs on it should one choose to lend it out.
view all articles from this author
Adev is an accomplished equestrienne, metallurgist, and Time Magazine's Person of the Year for 2007. Adev reviews books for Whitehot Magazine.