112 Greene Street
July 25, 2012 | by Claire Barliant
I met with Jessamyn Fiore in the air-conditioned back offices of David Zwirner’s Chelsea gallery in late June to discuss her new book, 112 Greene Street, a series of interviews with artists who helped found or were associated with the eponymous location, one of the first alternative art spaces in New York City. Opened in 1970 by artists Jeffrey Lew, Alan Saret, and Gordon Matta-Clark, 112 Greene Street served not as a commercial gallery but as a space in which artists could create and exhibit works collaboratively. Their participation in the burgeoning SoHo art scene also included cofounding FOOD, a pay-what-you-wish restaurant known for its delicious soups. Back then, the neighborhood more closely resembled a small village, rather than the glamorous, high-end shopping district it is now, and all of the artists associated with 112 Greene Street who were interviewed by Fiore remember that communal period fondly.
Fiore has a direct lineage to the groundbreaking gallery: her mother, Jane Crawford, was married to Gordon Matta-Clark, who died from pancreatic cancer in 1978 at age thirty-five. Known for his daring “building cuts”—literal dissections of buildings slated for demolition—Matta-Clark was, by all accounts, charismatic and widely admired and loved. Fiore herself ran a nonprofit art gallery in Dublin for several years before relocating to New York, where she curated an exhibition at Zwirner about 112 Greene Street last winter. She is warm, easygoing, and candid; it’s easy to see why the artists, whom she considers her friends, would trust her to preserve their memories in print.
Chance encounters played such a big part in the manifestation of 112 Greene Street.
There were a lot of chance meetings involved in its creation. But I think they were a reflection of that community at the time. The art world in New York was a lot smaller. In one Richard Nonas story, he goes to Max’s Kansas City for the first time and ends up meeting Carl Andre and Richard Serra, and they get in a conversation and he goes to see their studio. There are lots of these kinds of stories.
It was also key that Jeffrey Lew and his wife, Rachel Wood, had bought the building and let out the floors to various people. But it really only came together when Jeffrey saw what Alan Saret was doing with his own studio at the time. Alan renamed his studio Spring Palace and opened it up for exhibitions and performances by other artists. So, for example, Joan Jonas came in and did a performance where George Trakas actually built a set for her to perform on. So when the business that was in 112 Greene Street moved out, Jeffrey had a big, empty, ground-floor space and basement, and Alan came on board and helped Jeffrey set it up. And Alan’s uncle was the first backer of 112 Greene Street, whatever that means. No one goes into detail as to exactly what the business relationship was, but he was able to give some kind of initial funding.
How did they convince him to fund the project?
Jeffrey had an amazing ability to meet people and get them involved. A few people I talked to said there was a bit of an air of mystery about Jeffrey as to how he actually got this stuff done, but he would get it done. In the beginning, 112 Greene Street was supported by a series of backers, and Jeffrey would say, “People come on board and I convince them to support it, but then after a while, they want something. They want their name on something or they want some kind of influence on it, and that’s when I say no way and let them go.” He really had this pretty incredible attitude of, What I’m doing is great and it’s working, so give me the money to do it.
When he and Alanna Heiss initially met with the NEA, which was just becoming interested in creating grants for independent art venues, that was his attitude, too—which I think is pretty incredible. In a day and age when we’re so used to having to bend over backward for any kind of funding, to go in and say, If you like what I’m doing, just give me the money and leave me alone—it takes guts.
How did it all come together?
Alan Saret had an architecture degree and was doing jobs he found incredibly boring. But he was working with materials that he later used in his work—wire and meshes and so on. From the start, he had a philosophy about art that was quite radical at the time but which became the beginning of a whole movement. He was quite anticommercial. He had very high standards as to where his work should be shown and the context it should be shown in. He wasn’t interested in sacrificing his creative process or the work’s integrity in order to be included in an institution or to have a commercial gallery. And he really believed that an artist’s whole life is his artwork. So this idea of living and showing and working in the same space—it was very central to his philosophy of what an artist is.
So he provided the philosophical framework from which Gordon and Jeffrey were able to take a leap and open up 112 and allow it to be a space where artists could work, show, communicate, and really embrace the idea that the gallery shouldn’t just be a white cube. It wasn’t that they were anticommercial—artists would still sell work, if somebody wanted to buy it—but their primary goal wasn’t to sell, and they weren’t creating works they thought they could sell. And I think that gave the space a freedom that was necessary for those artists at that moment to push boundaries and take risks, to make works that might be destroyed afterward. Often they were, at the end of the exhibition, destroyed or thrown away.
Nonas describes being against the pedestal, or the idea that the viewer is at a remove from the object. “You couldn’t isolate anything from the world in 112,” he says, “because 112 took over.” It seems like the works were almost interventions in the space.
The physical space of 112 Greene Street was key to the works themselves. They were responses to that context. And I think it was Nonas who said that the most successful shows there were those that really used that space, that could have only been done in that space. A lot of people have described coming in and seeing the raw floors and walls with chunks missing, and then noticing the artwork and wondering, What’s the work and what’s the space?
Gordon did a whole series in the basement that embraced that particular environment—dark, dank, and dirty—to create works that would counteract it. Once, during winter, he planted a cherry tree, put grow lights around it, and created a mound of grass. Suddenly you had a beautiful garden in this underground, urban, disused space.
The stories about Gordon I found especially compelling. In particular the way people responded to the tree.
Rachel had a great story about it. When it was in its full glory, they had an opening, and a woman came down and saw it, and ended up taking off all her clothes and lying on the mound of grass under the lights. And Gordon absolutely loved that. He loved not only that his piece provoked that kind of response but also that it inspired this woman to participate in it and experience it.
Something I never really thought about with 112 Greene Street is dance. And you actually devote quite a bit of room to it.
I do! Because I was blown away when I really began to look into what happened here. 112 was a space where visual artists and dancers and filmmakers came together and collaborated and participated in one another’s work and, in that way, informed one another’s practice. A number of visual artists participated in the dance performances, and some of the dancers, in turn, started making visual installations. Suzanne Harris, for instance, started out in dance and performance and then began creating sculptures that were activated by her own body. She created a sort of rigging for herself and another dancer so they could hang from the ceiling like puppets. They were connected, so if one person moved their arm, the other person’s arm would move, too. They would have to perform in unison, or in response to each other.
On the other hand, you had Gordon, who was very much a visual artist, an installation artist, building pieces that were also stages. His Open House was a Dumpster outside 112 Greene Street, in which he created a house with corridors and doors, though it didn’t have a ceiling. He invited the Natural History of the American Dancer, which was a dance company based at 112, to perform it in, and he made a film of them activating his piece.
SoHo was then fairly abandoned. All these massive factory buildings lay empty, so the entire area had this feeling of falling apart. How did the artists respond to the deterioration?
For his first piece within 112 Greene Street, Alan found huge pieces of metal cornicing, dragged them back to 112, and suspended them from the ceiling. It was a way of bringing the outside into the space and reconfiguring it as an artwork. Gordon’s first solo show at 112 included some of his first cuttings, the Bronx Floors series, where he cut segments from the floors of abandoned South Bronx housing projects. It was a form of obsolete architecture. He paired his cuttings with photographs of the sites they were cut from. Later, he did Splitting, in which he actually cut an entire house in half—but his architectural cuts were always paired with photographs.
One of my favorite pieces that he did at 112 is Walls paper, where he took photographs of the walls of semidemolished buildings and made giant prints on newsprint. He brought all of those into 112 to create a kind of wallpaper composed of walls. He also had a large stack of prints available for people to take home and put it on their own wall.
The way this generation of artists is different from the ones slightly preceding it, is that a lot of the work had a social context, a sense of social responsibility. They weren’t making art for art’s sake. They wanted to have a larger impact on and relationship to what was happening in the city. New York was then near bankruptcy. There was a massive homeless population and a tremendous amount of urban decay and poverty. People wondered if the city was going to last. The artists were very connected to that—it was their environment, their home, and it was also their source of inspiration.
The collective spirit was so strong, it comes through even in the way they shared meals together.
I think it was Richard Nonas who described it as the result of a contingent of artists who had moved up from the South and brought with them a food culture in which the main gathering place was around the dinner table. Tina Girouard and Richard Landry and Mary Heilmann rented out a building on Chatham Square for something like five hundred dollars and made huge dinners there—everyone would come around. Food played a role in the work of some of the artists, too. When Gordon was invited to participate in a show underneath the Brooklyn Bridge in 1971, he roasted a pig as part of his work and gave the food away. In the second iteration of his Dumpster piece, Dumpster Duplex, he built a second floor onto the space, with a working barbeque.
Food was essential to how people related to one other, and in SoHo there weren’t many places to go at that time to eat and to drink, so FOOD restaurant came about as a natural extension of these activities. Opened by Carol Goodden and Gordon, the restaurant had food performances, and artists would be invited in to create a meal. Robert Rauschenberg was invited to do one, and Gordon did a meal called Matta-Bones, where everything he served was on the bone and at the end he drilled holes through the bones to make necklaces. He did another meal called Alive, where everything was alive. That one sounds kind of gross.
He also made a film with Robert Frank on a day in the life of FOOD restaurant. It’s one of my very favorite films by Gordon. It starts with them going to the Fulton Fish Market and buying the fish for the day, and then you see them setting up, and then people eating. And at the end of the night, it’s the whole group sitting around the table, talking.
The way the group dispersed is very bittersweet.
I chose to end the book with the exhibition “Anarchitecture,” which took place in March 1974. The artists for that show consisted of Gordon Matta-Clark, Suzanne Harris, Richard Nonas, Jene Highstein, Tina Girouard—the core Anarchitecture group, a group that got together and discussed ideas around architecture, space, language, and subverting existing norms. “Anarchitecture” culminated with a show at 112 Greene Street in which each artist contributed a few photographs that they felt represented their idea of anarchitecture, such as liminal or overlooked spaces, and they made the works anonymous.
And what’s fascinating about this exhibition is that there is absolutely no documentation of it. I pored through the artists’ archives—and these artists were generally very good about documenting their work—but not a single one had a picture of this show. We have the works that were in it. We know what it was about. But no one took pictures of it. I think it was almost a good-bye to the space. By 1978, they lost the space and had to move to Spring Street. The name changed to White Columns, which still exists today. Sometimes there’s a tendency, particularly nowadays, to create something that is going to be sustainable indefinitely. But the reason these projects and venues are so fantastic is precisely that they’re not meant to last forever.
Join Jessamyn Fiore at 192 Books on Thursday, July 26, at 7 P.M.
White Columns is New York’s oldest alternative art space. It was founded in 1970 by Jeffrey Lew and Gordon Matta-Clark as an experimental platform for artists. Originally located in SoHo (and known as the 112 Workshop/112 Greene Street), the organization was renamed White Columns when it moved to Spring Street in 1979. In 1991 White Columns moved to Christopher Street in the West Village, and in 1998 the gallery relocated to its present address on the border of the West Village and Meat Packing District.