For over 150 years, Downtown New York has been an epicenter of creative ferment. Indeed, for New Yorkers and just about everyone else, Downtown is synonymous with experimentation. This exhibition examines the rich cross-section of artists and activities that coexisted and often overlapped in Lower Manhattan between 1974 and 1984. Emerging out of the deflated optimism of the Summer of Love and energized by the enactment of the Loft Law—which made it legal for artists to live in SoHo’s industrial spaces—the Downtown scene attracted painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians, performers, filmmakers, and writers who could afford the then-low rents of SoHo lofts and Lower East Side tenements. Downtown artists violated the gap between high art and mass culture, removed the production and reception of avant-garde art from isolation in elite circles, and directly confronted social and political concerns. Creating work that was both populist and  subversive as well as utopian and raw, they irreverently pushed the limits of traditional artistic categories—visual artists were also writers, writers developed performance pieces, performers incorporated videos into their works, and everyone was in a band.

In keeping with the scene’s wholeheartedly interdisciplinary practices, The Downtown Show is organized in eight sections divided between two New York University venues: the Grey Art Gallery and the Fales Library. On view at the Grey are: Interventions, which examines how artists took their art to the streets, engaging Downtown urban settings; Broken Stories, a fresh look at the innovative and disjunctive narrative techniques of Downtown writers, visual artists, and filmmakers; The Portrait Gallery, displaying likenesses of key Downtown denizens that create a collective communal “portrait”; Sublime Time, exploring the period’s search for the sublime in the wake of minimalism’s reductive, formal beauty; Salon de Refuse, which brings together works that referenced Downtown detritus to create a “trash culture” that challenged hierarchical distinctions; and The Mock Shop, comprising low-cost artists’ multiples, fashions, and accessories featured in “stores,” that sprung up in a number of influential Downtown shows and collaboratives. On view in Fales Library are De-Signs, which references graffiti and presents artists’ use of advertising’s shorthand signs and strategies; and Body Politics, featuring artworks concerned with sexuality and identity.

Also included in The Downtown Show are musical selections from SoHo’s loft jazz era, Punk, and New Wave. Prominently interspersed as well are books, journals, posters, and ephemera from the Downtown Collection of Fales Library, the world’s largest archive focusing on the scene. The exhibition concludes with Ronald Reagan’s re-election and the rise of the East Village’s storefront art galleries. Viewing the Downtown scene as both geography and metaphor, The Downtown Show demonstrates how this crucial decade radically altered American art and culture.

 


The Downtown Show is curated by Carlo McCormick in consultation with Lynn Gumpert and Marvin J. Taylor, and made possible in part by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, Philip Aarons and Shelley Fox Aarons, M.D., the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, the New York University Humanities Council, Ronald and Frayda Feldman, the Buhl Foundation, Frank and Mary Ann Arisman, MRB Foundation, Frederieke S. Taylor, Larry Warsh, NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Science, and the Abby Weed Grey Trust. Public programs are supported by the Grey’s Inter/National Council. Special thanks to Scharff Weisberg/Audio, Video & Lighting Technology and Museums Magazine.