"Artists Could Get Away With a Lot More": Jessamyn Fiore Chronicles SoHo's Freewheeling 112 Greene Street

Installation of works at 112 Greene Street by Alan Saret in progress, ca. 1970.
(Photo by Cosmos Andrew Sarchiapone )

Strolling through the immaculate grid of chain stores and frozen yogurt places that is SoHo, it’s difficult to imagine that —40 years ago — the neighborhood was a derelict, post-industrial artists’ playground, a wasteland of abandoned warehouses that — due to tax incentives and zoning laws — was inhabited only by artists. Curator and playwright Jessamyn Fiore’s new book, “112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970-1974),” vividly portrays this fecund moment, focusing on the artist-run alternative space that was a hot house of site-specific, avant-garde art practice. The book arrives on the heels of last year's "112 Greene Street" exhibition at David Zwirner, which highlighted the work of several key players including Tina Girouard, Suzanne Harris, Richard Nonas, Alan Saret, the space’s founder Jeffrey Lew, as well as the late, great Gordon Matta-Clark.

While Matta-Clark is celebrated as a totemic figure of post-minimal art, 112 Greene Street, which served as his artistic laboratory, had slipped into the shadows of art history, as had many of Matta-Clark's friends and collaborators associated with the space. Fiore — the curator of the exhibition and the daughter of Jane Crawford, Matta-Clark's widow — collected interviews with many of the surviving members, compiling an oral history of the 122 Greene Street’s early years. The book, published by David Zwirner and Radius Books, officially launches today at David Zwirner’s pop-up bookstore at 533 West 19th Street.

Recently, Fiore spoke about the history of 112 Greene Street, it’s key players, and the spirit of experimentation and creative generosity that flourished in its early years. 

Was there a precedent for this kind of space?

There had been artist run spaces, but what made 112 Greene Street unique was that the work itself was site-specific and installation based. That really coincided with a moment of art history, from what was happening with post-minimalism to looking at process art to working with raw and industrial materials to that ethos — which I think 112 really captures — of interdisciplinary experimentation. It was the right space at the right time and that hadn’t happened before… [The artists] never referred to 112 as a gallery. They referred to it as a workshop. There was never an opening per se. It happened quite organically.

Did 112 serve as an incubator for Gordon Matta-Clark’s large-scale interventions in architecture?

Gordon was really inspired by the group of people he was working with…112 was almost his graduate school experience. His first solo show at 112 is where he presented his Bronx floors, which was his first cuttings piece, and also “Walls Paper,” which is one of my favorites. He took photographs of the walls of developments after they had been torn down and got them printed onto news sheet — very colorfully — and then pasted them on the wall as a kind of wallpaper. A wallpaper made of walls. And he also had a stack of them that people could take home, and put up their own "Walls Paper." It was a phenomenally beautiful, yet eloquent and simple way, to bring that experience into your own home... I think 112 was the first opportunity where Gordon really thought, “how do I address the problems with this architecture? With these urban development that are failing? How do I take what’s going on there and bring that into a gallery space. Is that even possible?”

An episode that sticks out was when Gordon Matta-Clark and Ned Smyth were doing building cuttings and got stopped by the cops in the South Bronx.

Ned was Gordon’s assistant when Gordon was doing his first cuttings in abandoned buildings in the South Bronx. A couple decades before, [these buildings] were touted as new housing developments that were going to bring up the area. But the project was a complete failure. So Gordon and Ned went [to the Bronx] and did these cuttings. Ned was really worried that junkies or other people in the neighborhood were going to stick them up. Once they have all the equipment on, it was really loud so they didn't notice anyone coming in. They looked up and they were surrounded by police. Ned was freaking out, thinking, “We don't have a permit. We’re not supposed to be here cutting up buildings.” And Gordon just said, “Oh. We're supposed to be here. It's demolition.” He just said it with such authority and — because it was such a weird thing to come across —the police just said, “Well, OK.”

Gordon managed to do that a few times in his career. There was a warrant put out for his arrest when he cut up a public pier in 1975…But then the city went bankrupt and they had to drop all standing warrants…There were so many bigger fish to fry in terms of the general problems the city was having. Artists could get away with a lot more. With Gordon and Jeffrey Lew as well…what's a nice way to put it? They weren't intimidated by following rules of law per se. It was a bit of a free- for-all. You have to remember the political circumstances of the time. The Vietnam War was going on. The men of that generation were being sent to die in Vietnam. There was a mandatory draft so they were all eligible for that. That was something hanging over their heads.

Jeffrey’s ex-wife Rachel tells a story that I think is pretty funny. Jeffrey got a psychiatrist to say that he was mentally unstable, that he was the last person you want in the foxhole with you. They lived on the top floor of 112 Greene Street at the time. Down on the street there’s a cop giving a ticket. Rachel sees Jeffrey opening the mail. He reads the [draft] letter. Drops the letter. Runs downstairs. Runs across the street to the cop and punches the cop in the face. He got sent to Bellevue, and had to spend a month or two there. Anyway, that’s how he got out of the draft.

Bill Beckley, one of the 112 artists, said 112 inhabited the “cusp of modernism and postmodernism. We were negating much about Modernist aesthetics, but at the same time we believed that what we were doing was new and that there still was the possibility of the new.” How did 112 help change the paradigm from modernism to postmodernism?

I would put it more squarely in post-modernism personally…They were all reacting, not just to modernism, but to early post-modernism. Particularly minimalism, but there was a sense of, “We’re doing something for the first time, we’re breaking the rules, anything is possible.” And I also think there was an immense generosity with a lot of the work. It wasn’t just art for art’s sake. There was a sense of a kind of social responsibility, even if they hadn’t put it in those terms yet.  

You devote some time in the book talking about FOOD, which is the sister space and restaurant run by artists.

FOOD was opened by Carol Goodden and Gordon Matta-Clark, along with Tina Girouard. It was a place where people could get a job if they needed one. It was a place where everyone could hang out. There weren’t really any restaurants around there, there weren’t these kinds of gathering places…This whole food culture really came up from the South with Tina Girouard, Richard Landry, and Keith Sonnier. The community gathered around food, and that eventually became FOOD restaurant. But it was also in some ways an artwork, which I find fascinating. Gordon made the “Food” film with Robert Frank…Also the ads about food in Avalanche magazine are works of art in themselves. FOOD and 112 Greene Street were very much brother-sister spaces.

Going back to this idea of these artists being sort of forerunners to relational practices, food was a huge part of Gordon’s work from the very beginning. It brought people together. It’s a ritual that everyone, no matter who you are, knows how to partake in. I think it was an extension of the ideas the artists were working with, beyond asking, not just how do I make a discreet artwork, but how do I exist within the world and relate to others, and what is that relationship beyond just having something in an exhibition that somebody comes to look at. 

It seems there were quite a few male and female artists working together at 112. What were the sexual politics of the space?

I think that, particularly given the time, it was quite equal…If you look at the timeline, it’s incredible how many women had solo shows there and started their careers there. [My book] stop[s] in 1974, but just after that, Mary Heilmann had pieces in an exhibition with Suzanne Harris. Susan Rothenberg had her first show there of her now-iconic large horse paintings, which really struck people at the time, as it was a very anti-painting era. Those paintings really took everyone aback and made them think painting anew. I emphasized Girouard and Harris because I just adore their work, but they have been overlooked…I personally want to keep pushing Harris. One of the reasons I love her is that she really is at the intersection of dance and the visual arts. She started out as a dancer and performer, and began building these beautiful installations that were activated by her body, then moved into installations that were experiential for the audience. Unfortunately, she died in 1979 when she was still quite young. So she has been largely overlooked. I hope that a lot of women from that generation are now starting to get the recognition they deserve. I hope that the women of 112 fall into that category.

112 received a grant in 1973 from the NEA. Was that the beginning of the end for the space?

It was the beginning of a change, of a transition; it was the end of this early period. It was the end of this core group of artists running the space. It was the end of the Jeffrey Lew years. 112 did continue. It received funding and was run by other people, but they did eventually lose the space in 1978. It moved and became White Columns, which is still around today. In order the recieve outside funding, they had to create a program, like this is what we are going to be doing for the next six months or a year, and that started to seep a bit of the spontaneity out of the organization. It required administration. There were a lot of inspired people there, but not necessarily administrators. 

For a time, you ran Thisisnotashop, a not-for-profit arts organization in Dublin. As the former director of an alternative space, what lessons can current art spaces learn from 112?

I think there is way too much emphasis on the idea of long-term sustainability. Some things aren’t meant to last forever. And that’s ok. You don’t need to sit around justifying a 10-or 15-year plan when what you’re doing in this moment is exactly what needs to be done. It’s not about longevity. It’s about impact and community.

George Trakas cut a whole through the space's floor. Richard Serra locked Leo Castelli in the basement. Bill Beckley’s created an installation involving live rooster, which later became a dead rooster, after it was accidentially exposed to some toxic substance. What was the craziest thing that happened at 112 Greene Street?

Vito Acconci’s performances were pretty sensational at that moment. Chris Burden did a performance where you went into an elevator and there was a sign that said “push pins into my body,” which they then did, and it was put into a live video feed back into the space. But I love the story that Rachel Wood tells about Gordon’s piece in the basement where he had a cherry tree and a mound of dirt that he then grew grass on. It was the middle of winter. Rachel says that, at an opening, this woman was just so moved by it, she took off all her clothes and lay in the grass. And I love that. It’s beautiful. I guess moments like that are wild. But they seem very genuine. There was a real sense of freedom and experimentation. People also talked a lot about the parties they had that sound like so much fun. Somebody told me — might have been Tina — that once they were at a loft party dancing, and the floor actually started to bounce dramatically with them all, bouncing up and down. At the end of the day, one thing you can say is that it sounded like a lot of fun.  

112 Green Street comes out of a specific set of cultural and economic circumstances. With the cost of living as it in New York as high as it is today, such a space wouldn’t be possible.

No it wouldn’t. It’s really interesting to think about what was going on in New York at that point. It’s hard to imagine that 40 years ago the city went bankrupt. It couldn’t fill [Soho and Tribeca], which had been its manufacturing base. Robert Moses even proposed to build a highway right through it. That proposal was blocked, but they were still left with this problem. Here was all this empty industrial space and no industry that wanted to move in. Obviously, the space suited artists’ needs and the city kind of got on board with certain tax benefits to encourage them to move there. Artists were doing a lot of work basically for free in terms of renovating these spaces, bringing life to the area, and making it an interesting place to go. I think nowadays that's kind of become a model that some people exploit, but really at the time it was genuine. It was a confluence of circumstances in terms of the economy, in terms of the urban space situation, and also in terms of what was happening with art practice at that time.

I love the descriptions of SoHo. How there are so few of them there. It was a community of about 500 [artists]. They would walk around at night and feel like they were the only people there. There is this sense of being in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world, but you’re kind of this fringe community. A lot of people I talked to, this was a really special moment in their lives. You get that nostalgia. I think today, people sometimes have a knee-jerk reaction against idealizing something, but I do think there was something special there. It might have only lasted a second, but it was a really special moment in our history. I just think it’s important to capture that history and the voices of the people who were there while we still can.

Book launch and cocktail reception for "112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970-1974)," co-hosted with D.A.P. and Radius Books, takes place on Wednesday, July 25th, from 5-7 PM, at David Zwirner, 533 West 19th Street, New York