Which art hubs of 20th century New York City are now sterilized condos, and where does the creative spirit remain? In Unforgotten New York: Legendary Spaces of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde, producer and writer David Brun-Lambert, photographer John Short, and creative director David Tanguy explore the present-day identities of the art spaces, clubs, underground hangouts, and performance venues of the 1950s to 80s.
Unforgotten New York is something of a misnomer, as every single one of the over 40 profiled places is in Manhattan. Photographer Short wrote in an essay for Dezeen that he and his collaborators first “went about trying to evidence our theory that the New York that had been the hotbed of the arts from the 1950s to the late 1980s was dead. And the reason it was dead was that the city had become too prosperous.” Later they discovered this wasn’t exactly the case, acknowledging “that the avant-garde was not dead in the city, but it was now to be found out in Brooklyn.” Brun-Lambert is based in Geneva, and Short and Tanguy in London, to give a bit of an excuse to this revelation.
Rather than a wealthy wasteland, what the authors found is many legendary art spaces are still active, albeit changed. St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery continues to host theater, dance, and music decades after Patti Smith launched her rock career there in 1971. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company Studio at 55 Bethune Street is now home to the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, while the Roxy recently became the home of Hauser & Wirth’s massive gallery. True, the Paradise Garage club of the 1970s and 80s is now a working garage for Verizon, AG Gallery on Madison Avenue that was briefly a Fluxus art space led by George Maciunas is a Christian Science reading room, the 1967 to 1971 Electric Circus nightlife spot on St. Mark’s Place is a supermarket, and the Mudd Club is indeed pricey condos. Although at 222 Bowery, William Burrough’s apartment exists more or less as he left it in 1981, and the Marshall Chess Club where Stanley Kubrick, Marcel Duchamp, and Bobby Fischer all played still appears much the same at 23 West 10th Street.
Each place is forensically photographed as it is now, without any people in frame. The authors don’t delve very deeply into the present, or consider that the arts today might revolve more around collectives and experiences rather than spaces. Nevertheless, Unforgotten New York as a reference book with its compact histories and street locations demonstrates the authors did well in putting in the legwork to visually capture these stories first hand. The book notes that Sam Rivers, when closing his concerts that sometimes played in Studio Riveba on Bond Street, now the Gene Frankel Theatre and Film Workshop, said: “Tell them what they missed.” Yet in setting out initially to document what has disappeared, Unforgotten New York ended up being a book as much about what is still happening.
Unforgotten New York: Legendary Spaces of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde is available from Prestel.
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The Roxy on 18th street is one of the spaces to which I can personally relate and regret losing. There was such a rush of excitement walking up the long concrete staircase to the ticket booth, only to then turn left, go through the curtains, and be overwhelmed by the massive dance floor and booming sound. Hauser & With is cute, but the visceral thrill of what used to reside in that space is gone. Oh well. Plus, I can’t buy any more than catalogues in H & W, so the experience is more rarified.
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