The Downtown Scene, 1958-1969

At the start of their careers, the Rhino Horn artists were not invited to show in the commercial galleries or museums that were already flourishing as a result of the successes of the older generation of New York School artists. However, the younger artists were successful in creating some of their own venues, most commonly in small storefronts or inside empty and abandoned loft-spaces. Unlike the older galleries, these spaces were run by the artists themselves, inspired by Provincetown’s Sun Gallery and the Hansa Gallery of New York City’s “Tenth Street” scene.

One of these pop-up galleries, the City Gallery, was an important step to the formation of Rhino Horn. The City Gallery was formed in 1958, inside a Flat Iron loft at 24th Street and 6th Avenue that Red Grooms and Jay Milder shared. After Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929) was rejected by his peers to show at the Phoenix Gallery, Grooms and Milder dropped out of the Tenth Street collective gallery scene in protest and decided to invite Oldenburg to exhibit in their space. The exhibit of was Oldernburg’s first solo show in New York City. Grooms recalled, “We were reacting to Tenth Street. In ’58 and ’59, Tenth Street was sort of like SoHo is now, and it was getting all the lively attention of everyone downtown….We were just kids in our twenties, [but we] had a flair for attracting people to our openings” (Quoted from Judith Stein, “Red Grooms the Early Years (1937-1960),” in Red Grooms A Retrospective, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1985).

The City Gallery was a twenty by forty foot, third-floor loft space on top of a men’s clothing store in the historic Flat Iron District. Here, Milder, Grooms, and sometimes some of their friends lived and worked throughout the year. They used the space as a studio to create their artwork by day and at night they entertained friends through parties and exhibitions that started in the evening and went on well into the early morning hours. The artists who exhibited at the City Gallery included Bob Thompson (1937-1966), Christopher Lane, Peter Passuntino, Benny Andrews, Gandy Brodie (1924-1975), Wolf Kahn (1927), Emilio Cruz (1938-2004), Bob Beauchamp (1923-1995), Norman Bluhm (1921-1999), Mimi Gross (b.1940), Lester Johnson (1919-2010), Stephen Durkee (b. 1938), Robert Whitman (b. 1935), and Alex Katz (b. 1927). Claes Oldenburg, and Jim Dine (1935), who would both become influential in the Pop Art movement, were given their first New York solo exhibitions at the City Gallery. The City Gallery represented an alternative concept of the artist’s studio as a place for artwork to be accessible to public view. Rather than seeking to compete with the prestigious uptown Madison Avenue galleries or with those in SoHo, the City Gallery became one of the many downtown lofts that was a part of New York’s growing art scene.

In 1959, the City Gallery’s operations expanded downtown, to a third floor studio loft run by Grooms, Milder, and Bob Thompson at 148 Delancey Street (at the corner of Suffolk Street) on the Lower East Side. The new gallery would become known as the Delancey Street Museum, an early site for Grooms’ “happenings” like The Burning Building (December 4 to 11, 1959), which featured a cast of Grooms, Milder, Barrell, Thompson, Joan Herbst, and Sylvia Small.

Bill Barrell served as director of the Sun Gallery during the summers of 1960-61, where he staged a happening called “Crash Party,” showed Ken Jacobs movies, exhibited Claes Oldenburg’s beach collages, and settled a tumultuous dispute between the local police and the artist colony.  Afterwards he went abroad to live in Europe. In 1965 Barrell returned to New York City where he found a 2,500 square foot loft located on Pitt Street between Delancey and Rirvington Streets near the Williamsburg Bridge, which he paid $90 a month for rent. In this loft, Barrell founded the Pitt Street Salon, where he showed his work and the artwork of his contemporaries including Jay Milder, Bob Thompson, Mimi Gross, and Red Grooms as an alternative to the Tenth Street galleries.

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The final collaborative stage before Rhino Horn itself came into existence took place in a third gallery space in a shared loft called the St. Marks Place Gallery, a Lower East Side establishment located at 12 St. Marks Place. The gallery operated as a multi-disciplinary art space run through the combined efforts of Passuntino, Milder, Barrell, and Lane. It was used for poetry readings and film screenings as well as exhibitions and “happenings” (Fig.5). Most notably, on March 26th, 1967, the St. Marks Place Gallery hosted a tribute to the late Figurative Expressionist Bob Thompson, who had died in 1966 at the age of 29. The exhibition featured the paintings of Thompson and the work of many of Thompson’s friends, including Benny Andrews, Milder, Passuntino, Lane, Grooms, Peter Dean, Barrell, Nicholas Sperakis, Johnson, Beauchamp, Kahn, Robert (Bob) De Niro, Sr. (1922-1993) , Mimi Gross, Brodie, Cruz, George Segal (1924-2000), Mary Frank (1933), Alex Katz (b.1927), Larry Rivers (1923-2002), Emily Mason (b.1932), and many others.

In the late 1960s, New York’s Lower East Side was a rough neighborhood, occupied by squatters, drunks, and gangsters. Here, the Pitt Street Salon, The Delancey Street Museum, and the St. Marks Place Gallery and others like those provided artists with affordable space in which to create their art. Despite the dangerous conditions of the neighborhood, these loft-space galleries attracted large crowds. Passuntino, Lane, Barrell, Grooms and Milder all recalled that the openings were popular and well received among the Downtown scene, but that running the gallery was time consuming and that this commitment interfered somewhat with their ability to spend time creating art. The gallery did not last long, but its closing led to the creation of Rhino Horn.

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One thought on “The Downtown Scene, 1958-1969

  1. Pingback: The Colossal Fruit and Vegatble Show | Rhino Horn Group

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