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Past Exhibition

Cy Twombly, Robert Ryman, Will Insley, Robert Indiana, Les Levine, John Willenbecher, Charles Hinman, Richard Smith, Gerald Laing, John Giorno

On the Bowery

1971

Curated by James Cavello

WESTWOOD GALLERY NYC presented an exhibition of the landmark artist portfolio, On the Bowery, 1971. The portfolio consists of ten silkscreens by the representative artists of the period. The exhibition showcased each artwork in relation to the artist photographed in his working environment, thus recapturing the vibrant community spirit and creative atmosphere that characterized Bowery as a cultural milestone of the New York School.The participating artists include many of the most important of the era: Cy Twombly, Robert Ryman, Will Insley, Robert Indiana, Les Levine, John Willenbecher, Charles Hinman, Richard Smith, Gerald Laing, and John Giorno. The ten artists were photographed by Eliot Elisofon (1911-1973), who also lived on the Bowery and was a founding member of the Photo League in 1936.


From the 1950's until today, well-known artists created their artwork in lofts on the Bowery which was known as "skid row" for decades.New York artists have gravitated to run-down areas of cities where they can obtain less expensive rent, and become integral in defining the neighborhood as a cultural center. "It is here amid the anonymous wreckage that several hundred artists live and work. There is no sense of an 'artists' community' but artists have been attracted by the area for twenty years. In the late 40's and 50's Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Léger and Dubuffet, among others, had studios on the Bowery, and deKooning, Franz Kline and Reginald Marsh worked nearby. In the early 60's, Louise Nevelson took a place on Mott Street just off the Bowery and was joined not long after by other artists attracted by the lofts for reasonable rents and the relaxed, small-time quality of the area." - William Katz, from the introduction for the portfolio

All artworks were created in the period 1964-71. The silkscreen prints are 25.5 x 25.5 inches each, in an edition of 100 plus 20 artist proofs, signed by the artist, numbered, with edition blindstamp at bottom left. Also included in the portfolio and on view in the gallery are biographical prints with a photo portrait of each artist.

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On the Bowery. Essay by Bill Katz, 1971

It is one of the half-dozen immediately recognizable American streets. No mistaking being there: on the Bowery. It has a smell, a look, a feeling so dense and so complete that one has no trouble identifying it. It is after all "the Bowery" - the place where people arrive when they are finally and irrevocably down and out. For those who come to stay, the last stop begins on the Bowery.

Three hundred and fifty years of history make the Bowery one of America's oldest streets: part of it was an Indian path and much of it was later a wagon road. It was declared a public route in 1625, the year the Dutch founded the first permanent settlement on the tip of Manhattan, New Amsterdam, which was to become one of the great furtrading outposts on the North American continent. Just north of the town were the bouweries, large land grant farms which supplied cattle and produce, and through the farms ran the two main roads leading to the wilderness, Broadway and the Bowery.

Not a building of the original Dutch settlement remains, but names survive: Wall Street which had a barricade to keep out marauding Indians, the Battery where cannon protected the harbor, Bowling Green where the burghers played at bowls, and Canal Street, once a swampy inland waterway.

In 1658 when Governor Peter Stuyvesant announced his intention of making a settlement to be called Nieuw Haarlem (now simply Harlem) at the northeast end of the island "for the promotion of agriculture and as a place of amusement for the citizens of New Amsterdam", the Bouwerie Lane ran from the fort in lower Manhattan to the Stuyvesant farm near present day 8th Street (where St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery, the family chapel, was later erected and now stands). Cattle grazed in newly-cleared pasture land on both sides of the lane which joined the Boston Post Road above the Stuyvesant bouwerie.

In 1664 the English seized the colony and it was renamed in the honor of the Duke of York. Except for a brief restoration of Dutch Rule in 1673-74, it remained an English colony until 1775 when the New York Sons of Liberty forced the British soldiers and their governor from the city. In 1789 New York become the first capital of the United States under the Constitution, but only for one year.

A map of 1710 shows the Bowery Road up the Crommesske Pond (later "corrupted" the English to Cramercy and now known as Gramercy Park, the pond having been filled in). During most of the century the road was a popular place for racing the horses that were bought and sold in Chatham Square at the foot of the Bowery.

By the late 1700's the Bowery was one of the main thoroughfares of the city and the demarcation of the Bowery (which remains today) from Chatham Square to Cooper Square, a distance of nearly one mile, was established. At Cooper Square the opening of Vauxhall Gardens made the upper end of the Bowery a fashionable gathering place.

When the Erie Canal opened in 1825, New York's financial and commercial leadership was assured - the riches of the Midwest flowed into the city and by 1840 New York was second only to London as a port.

During epidemics of yellow fever in the early 1800's, the well-to-do had fled the swampy tip of Manhattan for the fresh air and higher ground of Greenwich Village; in the areas they left behind, stores and theaters took their place. Meanwhile the old farms of the Lower East site, just east of Bowery, were transformed into shanty towns, home to the thousands of immigrants arriving in the city every year.

In 1825 the first of what were to be several theatres on the Bowery was built at Canal Street on the site of the Old Bull's Head Tavern (an old cattle driver's stop and one of the most popular Dutch meeting places). The new theater had a stage one hundred feet square and was outfitted for aquatic and equine spectacles. Most of the Bowery theaters burned more than once because both stage and auditorium were lighted by gas. When rebuilt, the theaters were often renamed: the old Bowery Theater which started out between Grand and Hester on the Bowery and ended ultimately at Christie and Grand briefly held the name of the New York Theater and was also known as the American Theater, the Bowery, and the Thalia.

The Atlantic Garden, a few blocks south of the Thalia at 50 Bowery, and the German Winter Garden across the street were the most celebrated of the German beer gardens built during the 1850's. Behind plain facades, these popular meeting places had large and often elaborate rooms (the dome of the Winter Garden was one of the earliest made with cast-iron ribbing) where several hundred people could enjoy beer, radishes, cheese and Strauss waltzes. The gardens flourished until the 70's when the Bowery began to become rundown and the German population moved uptown to Yorkville, leaving the area open to poorer, more recent immigrants.

The New York and Harlem railroad, which opened in 1832 and was the first railroad in Manhattan, had one of its terminals at Price Street and the Bowery. In 1879 it was replaced by the Third Avenue El, the elevated railroad which ran from the South Ferry to 129th Street, casting its shadow over the Bowery for three-quarters of a century.

Life on the Lower East Side spilled into the darkened street beneath the El, and the Bowery became a honky-tonk arena where newly arrived immigrants went looking for a good time. There was a nickelodeon where one could see a moving pictures exhibition for five cents and theaters where Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Strindberg were played (in Yiddish) along with German drama, Chinese plays and Italian vaudeville. There was also an excitement in the tawdry street heightened by the threat of possible danger. Sporadic gang-fights broke out between the Italians, the Irish and the Jews in front of the pawnshops, the narrow dimly-lit saloons and the cheap hotels announced by incongruous names (Sunshine Hotel, Alabama House, The Harbor Light).

Slowly the theaters died as the Bowery became a kind of non-man's land inhabited mainly by the "Bowery Bums". But hardy small-businessman, attracted by low rents in the dilapidated three-story wooden buildings (which survive from the early 1800's) and undaunted by the sleazy surroundings, set up restaurant, hardware and lighting-fixture supply houses, lampshade shops, manikin factories and a jewelry and diamond market.

The drifters are still around - men who approach automobiles stopping for traffic lights, make some attempt at cleaning the windshield and ask for small change or cigarettes. Each evening the Bowery Mission dispenses food and religion under antiseptic conditions in a white tile chapel whose altar swings open after services to reveal the cafeteria. In summer there are perhaps two hundred men and a dozen women basking on the concrete in the warm sun as if on some long, lazy, liquid picnic. They exchange home-spun philosophies surrounded by broken glass, abandoned cars and the debris of city life. Garbage is more evident here than on most other New York streets but it is the small piles of empty wine bottles and the stink of urine which are the pathetic shorthand for disaster. Life for the bums on the Bowery is dismal and lonely.

It is here amid the anonymous wreckage that several hundred artists live and work. There is no sense of an "artists' community" but artists have been attracted by the area for twenty years. In the late 40's and 50's Clifford Still, Mark Rothko, Léger and Dubuffet, among others, had studios on the Bowery, and deKooning, Franz Kline and Reginald Marsh worked nearby. In the early 60's, Louise Nevelson took a place on Mott Street just off the Bowery and was joined not long after by other artists attracted by the lofts for reasonable rents and the relaxed, small-time quality of the area. Food was cheap and plentiful in the Jewish, Chinese, Italian, Puerto Rican and Ukrainian ghettos. And just on the fringes of all this artist found large open spaces in what had been flop houses (the quarter and fifty cents-a-night hotels which lined the street), factory lofts, schools and even in one case a pre-World War I German bank. Many studios are one hundred feet long and twentyfive or thirty feet wide with twelve foot high ceilings and two dozen windows. Such extravagant space is the primary reason the Bowery has become a haven for artists.

The portfolio is a collection of one example of the work of each of ten artists "on the Bowery". John Giono, Charles Hinman, Robert Indiana, Will Insley, Gerald Laing, Les Levine, Robert Ryman, Richard Smith, Cy Twombly, and John Willenbecher. Eliot Elisofon who photographed these artists grew up just off Bowery at 4th Street and the author of these notes lived on the Bowery for five years.

The artistic life on the Bowery is active and diverse: small experimental theaters dot the upper end of the street and several modest art galleries have opened. Among other artists, writers and photographers who have lived or worked there are: Arman, Jack Brusca, Larry Calcagno, Pierre Clerk, George Cohen, Tom Doyle, Jean Dupuy, Janet Fish, Robert Frank, Adolf Gottlieb, Eva Hesse, Jill Johnston, Stanley Landsman, Roy Lichtenstein, Jay Maisel, Ed Meeneley, Malcolm Morley, Kenneth Noland, Joe Overstreet, Paul Potash, Angelo Savelli, Dinah Smith, Gene Swenson, Robert Thomson, Bob Watts, Tom Wesselmann, Ann Wilson and Irene Winter.

Like other "undeveloped" pockets in New York, the Bowery and its neighborhood have become too valuable to escape being noticed. A cluster of modern apartment buildings already rises above Chatham Square and a block on the east side of the Bowery near Houston Street has just been condemned for low income housing. Sammy's Bowery Follies, a landmark saloon and dance hall for three generations, recently closed its doors and the flop houses have all but disappeared.

One says (grandly!) the Bowery is at full flower of its splendid neglect. At five o'clock when the businesses close, quiet dusk descends on the street, the rags, the garbage, the scattered bottles and bodies, insulating in a dark blanket the spaces above the first story which are home and studio to musicians, poets, painters, sculptors…

A letter from a friend in California, the poet Diane di Prima, included a poem written after seeing a photograph of a Bowery studio. There is no simple way to speak of it - but in her poem there exists for me some of that time which has already changed, and is changing still:

To all you with gaunt cheeks who sit glamourized by the sounds of art in the last remaining lofts, shining like gold in ore in the sleek grime of NYC under the shadow of the MOMA, breathing no air, finding lustre in the huge speaking canvases that whisper like Miles Davis in your dusty ears, to all you climbing laboriously on scaffolding shaping these same canvases, bending light, or drinking hot plate coffee on "studio couches" flanked by skinny girls oh how my love reaches for you, gross&holy men fancy women pretty boys expensive flowers oh home I may never see you again oh glamour like Baudelaire fading in a long hall of mirrors called past as I move backwards over its black velvet floor.

William Katz

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