How 1970s Manhattan spawned creativity

Times were tough during the economic crises of the 1970s yet those adverse conditions often sparked intense bursts of creativity. The fears raised by an emerging ecology lobby about the world’s dwindling resources, which were confirmed by the 1973 oil crisis, inspired architects and designers to recycle inexpensive industrial materials in the home – a new movement called high-tech. And the do-it-yourself ethos of punks, who created music and clothing cheaply out of any equipment or materials at their disposal, thrived during the mid-1970s recession.

Punk had much in common with Fluxus, a movement founded in New York in 1961 that made art out of discarded, throwaway materials. Its multidisciplinary approach, encompassing art, dance, film and music, helped to foster a cross-disciplinary art movement that thrived in run-down, recession-hit downtown Manhattan.

Three of its prime movers – performance artist and composer Laurie Anderson, choreographer Trisha Brown and the late artist Gordon Matta-Clark – are the subject of an upcoming exhibition at London’s Barbican Centre. Exploring their milieu in New York at a dismally low point in its history – the city was on the brink of bankruptcy, with high rates of crime and unemployment – it will show about 160 works including sculptures, drawings, films, live performances, posters and ephemera.

Why put on this show now? “With the UK going through a recession, people today are interested in the parallels between then and now,” says curator Lydia Yee. “The art produced in New York provides a welcome alternative to the overblown, glossy production values of the past decade – the art of Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami.”

Frequently ephemeral, site-specific and collaboratively created, the downtown artists’ work differed from the recent pop art and minimalist movements, which favoured mechanical processes to make permanent pieces that could be sold in galleries. Broadly speaking, the community valued ideas and the exploration of creative processes over polished objects.

The early 1970s work of Anderson, who moved to New York in 1966, typified this multimedia approach. She moved restlessly between photography, text, sound and street performances engaging with the public. “My art wasn’t about hiding away in a studio,” she remembers. The Barbican will display her photographically recorded project, “Institutional Dream Series” (1972), which saw her sleep in public spaces, then record the location’s effect on her dreams.

Anderson remembers New York then as “dark, dangerous and broke” yet exhilarating: “It was like Paris in the 20s. I was part of a group of artists who worked on each other’s pieces, and boundaries between art forms were loose.”

The district south of Houston Street, soon nicknamed SoHo, had been zoned for manufacturing but factories had been moving out since the 1940s. The artists who colonised it from the late 1960s took advantage of working and living in its disused, decaying factories for a very low rent, exhibiting their work informally in these raw, cavernous spaces.

Brown moved to New York in 1961 and by the early 1970s was a respected performance artist, having studied under legendary dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. She dispensed with the idea of a stage, often performing on rooftops and car parks. She used both untrained and trained dancers, invited audiences to participate and encouraged improvisation. In her topsy-turvy world, works appeared to defy gravity: in “Walking on the Wall” (1971), dancers (rigged to a track in the ceiling) pace along a wall as if it were the floor. This will be re-enacted by dancers in the Barbican’s lower-level, double-height gallery, which, says Yee, “echoes the scale of SoHo’s lofts”.

“I was inventing choreography outside any existing system or venues for presenting it at that time,” recalls Brown. “SoHo’s urban landscape was ready-made for this.”

Matta-Clark studied architecture in New York in the 1960s and had an arty pedigree: his godfather was artist Marcel Duchamp. Charismatic and dynamic, Matta-Clark is regarded as the ringleader of this scene and many believe it died when he did, in 1978. In 1969, he had designed and built one of the area’s first alternative arts spaces, 98 Greene Street, for art collectors Holly and Horace Solomon. His own dramatic architectural interventions, which entailed cutting parts out of buildings – he called them “building dissections” – were political. They highlighted the “imprisonment” of the poor inside New York’s soulless “urban and suburban boxes” and reflected his desire to break down social and economic barriers. The most ambitious of these, entitled “Splitting” (1974), saw him bisect an entire building. A film of this will be screened in the Barbican exhibition.

The early 70s in the US were a time of highly organised political activism. Even so, according to Anderson, most downtown artists weren’t especially political. “We’d protested in the 60s. By the 70s the political beliefs of the counterculture were a given, we’d internalised them.”

But 1960s activism had bred certain attitudes: generosity, anti-materialism and a strong sense of communality. “There was huge camaraderie,” explains Anderson. “We helped each other with plumbing, hanging our shows or lending stuff like videotapes. We had no interest in money and thought those who did were idiots. It was a completely different world.”

It’s tempting to romanticise this era and assume that there could never be another movement like this again. But some believe it’s similar to today’s art communities in Brooklyn except that, as art historian RoseLee Goldberg, an original member of the downtown scene, says: “They’re paying $3,000 a month, we were paying $200.”

‘Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s’ runs from March 3 to May 22 at the Barbican Centre, London

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