The chief interest of Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952-65, an important exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery in New York, is anthropological. The 200 or so paintings, sculptures, photographs and documents by around 120 New York artists are largely unremarkable, even though some are handsome. For most exhibitions, this would be fatal, and for most of the works of art in this one it is. But this show is concerned with another kind of quality: the quality of a serious discussion, which, like a picture, can be experienced aesthetically, even if one is only learning about it after the fact. These conversations in New York art circles once took place and barely do any longer because the space—literally, affordable real estate—is no longer available. 

The situation in New York in 1952 was far more open. Not having much money was not prohibitive. The Tanager and Hansa galleries opened downtown that year and asked artists for between $10 and $21 a month for membership. Five years later, the brothers John and Nicholas Krushenick opened their own cooperative, Brata Gallery, which showed work by artists like the painter Al Held and the sculptor Ronald Bladen. Yayoi Kusama had a solo show there in 1959. Other galleries came in years to follow, with different models. The Delancy Street Museum, run by Red Grooms, was open for about eight months between 1959 and 1960 and served as both a private studio and a public gallery. It wasn't heated in the winter, but admission was free. Some artists focused on events. Yoko Ono's 112 Chambers Street space hosted poets, musicians and dancers. 

What emerged in such an open environment was an eclectic attitude, or at least a democratic one. Seemingly everyone was welcome. The Reuben Gallery gave room to Allan Kaprow for his 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959) and geometric artists like Leo Valledor had space to show their work at the Park Place Group. Late Expressionists like Hale Woodruff and early Pop artists like Claes Oldenburg found like-minded peers. The Spiral Group was founded by a group of black artists who may otherwise not have had much chance to show their work. Japanese artists found much in common with Americans at the Brata Gallery. 

The 14 galleries included in Inventing Downtown were laboratories with little market orientation, and therefore hosted many failures; the freedom to fail was essential. So it makes sense that many of these artists have been justly forgotten. Woodruff's painting Blue Intrusion (1958) is an nice relic of its moment, but is not important otherwise. Nor is Valledor's staid geometric construction titled Evidence (1964). Many of the artists we do remember—Kaprow, for example—avoided boring art by making it obsolete before it could become rote. The idea behind his Happenings was not only to skirt the market, but also to preserve only in memory the excitement of a moment. 

Relatively few people ever attended his performances and what remains are documents, accounts and Kaprow's written ideas. Yet those documents and this exhibition prove that a proposal—like a painting or a hat or a window or physical exercise or a dream—can be experienced aesthetically. Ideas can be beautiful, and it was a beautiful idea for the Hall of Issues gallery at Judson Memorial Church to invite "anyone who has any statement to make about any social, political, or esthetic concern" to write a placard and tack it to the wall. Wednesdays at the gallery were set aside for discussion. 

Importantly, this was not an experiment in art; it was an experiment in democracy led by artists (primarily Phyllis Yampolsky), to which not everyone was amenable. "One ploy in the ongoing destruction of democracy in politics is to pass democracy along to weak groups and activities that are irrelevant to the politicians." Donald Judd wrote this in 1983. He added: "Politics alone should be democratic. Art is intrinsically a matter of quality." 

Judd is one of a handful of major artists to have emerged from the downtown scene. In 1963, he had his first solo show at the Green Gallery, which opened in 1960. Before it closed in 1965, it showed work by Mark di Suvero, George Segal, Oldenburg and Dan Flavin. It was the downtown scene's crowning achievement. Appropriately, an entire section of the exhibition is dedicated to it. 

"Strictly speaking, the Green Gallery shouldn't be included because it's not an artist-run space," this show's curator, Melissa Rachleff, said in an interview published by the Grey Gallery. Nor was it downtown; the Green Gallery opened on 57th Street, where all the established dealers had shops. Yet the uptown location was a sign of real seriousness; this professionalism was the engine of the gallery's success. The other spaces profiled in Inventing Downtown were more informal, less focused and tended to dissolve quickly. Of them, only Hansa lasted more than five years. The Green Gallery, on the other hand, had financial backing from the collector Robert Scull. (When he pulled out, the gallery closed.) 

The Green Gallery's director, Richard Bellamy, had liberal taste; Di Suvero, Segal, Oldenburg and Judd have little in common. Yet it is true, as Rachleff argues, that the gallery program ultimately "resulted in the narrowing of aesthetic possibilities and the marginalization of many artists." Rachleff makes this into a lament and the closure of the Green Gallery is the end to her exhibition. But artistic success, like financial success (which the gallery also briefly had) is necessarily exclusionary. Good work survives and the rest fades away. Art is not, in the end, a democratic exercise, which is not to say it cannot thrive in a democratic society. But neither can it stand being too open to too many possibilities for too long. 

The downtown gallery scene ended for many reasons. Rents started to rise, art became a vehicle for financial speculation and middle class taste expanded and began to accommodate contemporary art, which drove it above ground. But another real factor was the emergence, after a lull, of real movements with clear principles. The absence of such principle is what makes much of the work in Inventing Downtown weak. This is the nature of experimentation; it is not dedicated to anything because various roads are open. 

Towards the end of the 1950s, those roads led in two major directions: Minimalism and Pop. It is likely neither would have been born without the feverish activity of the downtown artist-run galleries. The final success of this exhibition (and the accompanying catalogue, which is a feat of rigorous scholarship) is to chart this history between Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism and Pop. But the downtown scene, in the grand scheme of things, was essential only as a bridge to better work. This, too, is one of the lessons of Inventing Downtown: that few moments in the history of culture are important in their own right. 

Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952-65, Grey Art Gallery at New York University, until 1 April

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