Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965, was organized by NYU’s Grey Art Gallery in New York, and curated by Melissa Rachleff. It was the first major museum exhibition to survey these vital years from the vantage point of fourteen key artist-run galleries. Artists representative of these galleries range from the well-known, like Yayoi Kusama, Alex Katz, Mark di Suvero, Claes Oldenburg, and Yoko Ono, to lesser-known, such as Ed Clark, Emilio Cruz, Lois Dodd, Rosalyn Drexler, Sally Hazelet Drummond, Jean Follett, Lester Johnson, Boris Lurie, Jan Müller, and Aldo Tambellini.
Curator Melissa Rachleff examined the New York art scene between the peak of Abstract Expressionism in the early 1950s and the rise of Pop Art and Minimalism in the early 1960s. Establishing co-operative and artist-run galleries, these artists enabled new aesthetic directions. Artists during this time helped expand the definition of what was considered “downtown” Manhattan, extending the perimeter eastward toward the tenements and industrial buildings of Lower Manhattan. These “co-op” spaces would help shape the creation and exhibition of their artworks.
The exhibition traveled to NYU Abu Dhabi, and was on view in Fall of 2017. It featured over 200 works by more than 50 artists, with abstraction and figuration displayed alongside installation and performance art, thus revealing a scene that was much more diverse than has previously been acknowledged. To read the related essays and see the full list of artists, please see the download links on this page.
Inventing Downtown’s presentation was made possible in part by the generous support of the Terra Foundation for American Art; the Henry Luce Foundation; The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; the S. & J. Lurje Memorial Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts; the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation; the Boris Lurie Art Foundation; the Art Dealers Association Foundation; Ann Hatch; the Oded Halahmy Foundation for the Arts; Arne and Milly Glimcher; Pace Gallery; The Cowles Charitable Trust; and the Japan Foundation. The publication is supported by a grant from Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund. Additional support is provided by the Grey Art Gallery’s Director’s Circle, Inter/National Council, and Friends; and the Abby Weed Grey Trust.
The presentation of Inventing Downtown at The Art Gallery at NYU Abu Dhabi was made possible in part by the generous support of the Terra Foundation for American Art; the Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah; and the Boris Lurie Art Foundation.
Read the essay
Excerpt from the brochure for the exhibition (download link below):
LETTER FROM THE DIRECTOR
An “art world” is not an abstraction. It refers to an actual world, a community of people who foster the production, exhibition, appreciation, and, ideally, sales of contemporary art. It means a network of galleries, dealers, collectors, curators, museum officials and trustees, and critics . . . Inventing Downtown . . . tells part of the story of how . . . New York developed an art world.
—Louis Menand, The New Yorker
In January of this year, Inventing Downtown opened at the Grey Art Gallery (the fine art museum of New York University in New York City), and the critics responded with some surprise: although the exhibition was about a place and period already well-studied by art historians, it complicated, if not upended, what we thought we knew about how New York became an art world center. It did so by shifting the focus away from individual artists and movements, and focusing instead on the venues and communities they created. Curator Melissa Rachleff’s focus on artistic community enabled her to chart innovation, creative breakthroughs, and to re-evaluate the art-historical impact of many different artists in this context of community. As Ariella Budick observed in the Financial Times, “This effervescence played out in basements and backyards, away from the established uptown galleries where Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art duked it out over price and prestige.” By re-framing the emergence of the “Downtown” scene in terms of its actual scenes, Rachleff also re-integrates those whom art market prejudice and art history had since dis-integrated.
While Inventing Downtown was being reviewed in New York, the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery was opening But We Cannot See Them: Tracing a UAE Art Community, 1988–2008. This show surveyed a different under-studied “scene,” a group of avant-garde artists, poets, and playwrights that coalesced in Dubai and Sharjah, forming and re-forming from the 1980s through at least 2008. They generated ateliers and pop-up exhibitions, as well as two artist-run local institutions, the Emirates Fine Arts Society (1980–present), and The Flying House (ca. 2007–2012). Ultimately, a particular core formed around the artist Hassan Sharif (1951–2016), whose Dubai home became a gathering place for those seeking to push the boundaries of their form and concepts. While many of these artists went on to individual renown as the international art world spotlight turned to the UAE, the history of how they functioned and enabled one another as a community before their rise to fame remains little-studied.
A core mission of The NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery is to engage topics of local concern and international significance. For this reason, we are especially delighted to present Inventing Downtown. In the case of both But We Cannot See Them and Inventing Downtown, stories of artists’ communities and innovation will be crucial to the UAE’s current conversations about art worlds and cultural districts. When we talk about “inventing downtown” we are talking about artists inventing a cultural center, and institutions responding in ways that nourished and shaped 20th-century art history. What is an art “scene”? What circumstances give rise to historically important innovation? What value does an institution offer to an artist, and vice versa? All of these are important questions as we consider the varied cultural institutions now populating the UAE, from Sharjah’s museums to Dubai’s gallery district, to Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island cultural district and beyond.
History is a living body of knowledge, not a static list of facts. We know that art history does not get written only once: as our perspective changes, our understanding of the archive and artwork changes, and exhibition-making informs each perspectival shift. Through the lens of artistic community, we can see how the artists of Inventing Downtown and of But We Cannot See Them actively shaped the narrative and context of their work, to be the writers and the makers of their own history. Working in radically different contexts, both shared an impulse to be in dialogue with audiences, with one another, and ultimately, with history.
Why start an artist-run space? Why curate and write art criticism? One wonders why the Downtown artists thought they could or should be exhibiting, if the gatekeepers of the existing New York institutions did not find their work worthy. Why, in the far different context of Gulf countries in recent decades, did a kind of self-made artist movement also take shape? What is at stake?
Exhibitions and community response, whether to Hassan Sharif’s atelier in 1990s Dubai or an artist-run gallery in 1950s New York, breathe life into artistic dialogue. This impulse to create spaces for art to develop is not unique to New York, nor to Paris of the turn of the 20th century, nor to the UAE at the turn of the 21st century—it manifested throughout the Gulf, and in other urban centers around the world, from Beirut to Bombay to Mexico City. It is no doubt happening in yet another way, somewhere else, at this very moment.
— Maya Allison, Galleries Director and Chief Curator, New York University Abu Dhabi
Between the apex of Abstract Expressionism and the rise of Pop Art and Minimalism, the New York art scene was transformed by artist-run galleries. Inventing Downtown presents works from fourteen of these crucibles of experimentation, highlighting artists’ efforts to create new exhibition venues for innovative works of art—ranging from abstract and figurative painting, assemblage, sculpture, and works on paper to groundbreaking installations and performances. click to read full essay
Join us for virtual reunions with artists, curators, and collaborators from the last 6 years of exhibitions. Each reunion will coincide with the launch of that exhibition's archive online.
a community conversation with six founders: Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, Antonia Carver, Sunny Rahbar, Munira Al-Sayegh, Rami Farook, and Maya Allison, co-moderated by Bana Kattan