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They are wonderfully surreal; at once still and moving, their imbedded energy both contained and flowing around the exhibition space, imbuing it with the creative spirit of their original creators.

The latest exhibition taking place at the New York University Art Gallery on Saadiyat island, Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965, features more than 200 very early works of over 50 artists offering a unique and rarely explored perspective of the cross-section of creative life in the city during that period. These range from the preeminent including Dan Flavin, Louise Nevelson, Yayoi Kusama, Mark di Suvero, Claes Oldenburg, and Yoko Ono — to lesser known gems — Ed Clark, Emilio Cruz, Lois Dodd, Rosalyn Drexler, Jean Follett, Lester Johnson, Boris Lurie, and Aldo Tambellini.

Curated by Melissa Rachleff, a clinical associate professor in the Department of Art and Art Professions at New York University, New York’s Steinhardt School, the exhibition reflects on the city’s renaissance and its rise as an international capital of culture during the 1950s and 1960s. This was due to the varied, artist-run galleries that offered artists of all inclinations a supportive environment in which to showcase their works within the community.

Maya Allison, founding director of the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery and Chief Curator of NYU Abu Dhabi, explained: “[Melissa] was studying the activities of galleries in Manhattan in the 1950s, and while she knew that there was a 10th street artist-run gallery scene, no one, including art historians, realised the depth and complexity of this community in that period.”

Allison added: “She discovered in the archives of MoMA [the Museum of Modern Art, New York] the papers of one of the gallerists that there was this very diverse artistic community that existed at that time. It is surprising that we are only now learning of the complexity of this community as many of its members have gone on to major success as artists in different movements [such as] Conceptual art, Miinimalism, Pop Art, Performance Art, and so on.”

Establishing co-operative and artist-run galleries that triggered new aesthetic directions, they also extended eastward the parameters of what was considered “downtown”, towards the tenements and industrial buildings of Lower Manhattan. These spaces would help shape the artworks they created and exhibited.

“That was the period when the very first artist-run space opened — the Tanager Gallery, in 1952, on 10th street. That neighbourhood around 10th street, and more generally “Downtown” was affordable, so artists could rent shopfronts to turn into galleries. As more opened, it became a destination, a place other artists went to find each other. The brilliance of this show is that the curator has focused on a community, instead of one particular art movement. For economic and social reasons, that community has a centre, geographically “downtown” Manhattan,” said Allison.

A far cry from the current situation in New York, which has seen many artists priced out of the neighbourhoods that they had called home. According to Allison, this has triggered an exodus of sorts, which has seen them put roots in locations from Los Angeles to Berlin, where they help establish or support artistic communities that embody the same spirit as the pioneering artists in New York during the 1950s and 1960s.

“The artist-run galleries were a co-op [co-operative]: they picked their friends and those making work they liked, and everyone contributed money to the running of the gallery. They weren’t as dependent on sales. They are important because what artists think is interesting to look at is going to be different from other types, but you need all perspectives,” noted Allison.

The extensive process to put the exhibition together saw Rachleff, its curator, interview all the artists who are still living from that time, as well as other people who were a part of the scene.

“She [then] tracked down artworks that would have shown in these spaces at that time. From a long list of 900 works, she narrowed [it] down to 200. The works were loaned by over 100 museums, collectors, and artists or artist’s estates,” explained Allison.

The exhibition opened at NYUAD’s sister gallery, the Grey Art Gallery, to critical acclaim.

“[T]here are no other exhibitions like this one, it is what we call a “game-changer” which is why I felt it was so important to bring [it] to Abu Dhabi. Other shows focus on particular aesthetic movements and styles, not on the communities and social groupings that enabled the artistic breakthroughs overall,” said Allision.

She also revealed her hopes for the exhibition: “That artists learn from other artists, they are not born into genius in a vacuum, they experiment, look at each other’s work, and learn from each other. They also support each other, and while there may be healthy competition, it is clear from this exhibition that they ultimately benefit from each other’s successes.”

Those who visited the gallery’s previous exhibition, But We Cannot See Them, which concluded on August 26, touched on the UAE’s art scene, tracing its emergence from the 1980s to 2008, may sense that the two exhibitions are somehow connected, though they cross the boundaries of time and space.

“This is exactly what I’m hoping people will see: this story is not only in New York. This is what great artists do for each other all over the world. It is not the same here, in the UAE, but there are parallels to how the artists supported and enabled each other in the 1990s and up through the emergence of the UAE as a cultural visionary,” she said.

“The decision by the UAE to invest in its arts infrastructure raises this larger question of how artistic community forms, what nourishes it, and how a cultural economy is born. I propose these two exhibitions as part of the continuation of that discussion,” she added.

When asked what artists and galleries in the UAE and across the region could learn from their New York peers in order to push their current momentum even further, Allision offered the following observation: “There must be a place and a means for artists to have time and space to experiment, rigorously, with their practice, their medium, and their concepts, without too much concern about commercial sales. From this show, artists can see what it looks like to be an emerging artist, here we see the very earliest experiments of artists who are now famous, and we can see the kernels of their brilliance, and also see their future in a way that you cannot when you are looking at a young artist’s work.”

She further noted: “Hindsight is 20-20: We know now that Yayoi Kusama, for example, is a world-famous, highly valuable artist. When she made her first “infinity net” paintings in the 1950s in New York, no one knew who she was. And yet, we can see in this painting on view in this show, the roots of all that eventually brought her to such great heights as an artist.”

A good starting point, perhaps, is to see the first-hand impact such an atmosphere has on the artistic community within any city or country. Inventing Downtown offers visitors the opportunity to explore this unique slice of living cultural history through varied artworks ranging from paintings to sculptures. Those unsure of where to begin or who to focus on first could consider Allison’s favourite piece, Apollinaire Wounded by Dan Flavin. One of two tributes to the French poet, Guillame Apollinaire, it features a flattened tin can in the centre that is meant to resemble the poet’s bandaged head after his shrapnel wound in 1916, during the First World War.

“I’m very excited about the Dan Flavin painting — Flavin is famous for his sculptures made out of fluorescent light bulbs, but in this show, you can see the early work of artists as they are just figuring out their style, and discovering the techniques that later made them famous,” she said.

“We are thrilled to have reached a point where we are able to bring a major museum-loaned exhibition to our campus, and at a time when so many of us are thinking about the roles of institutions and artists in the importance of a country’s identity,” she added.

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