Behind the Scenes of Inventing Downtown: An Interview with Curator Melissa Rachleff

Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965 at Grey Art Gallery tells the story of how artist-run galleries irreversibly shaped American art.  The exhibition brings together paintings, sculptures, installations, drawings, photographs, ephemera, and film, to reveal an art world that existed between the apex of Abstract Expressionism and the rise of Pop Art and Minimalism.  We interviewed Melissa Rachleff, clinical associate professor in the Department of Art and Art Professions, curator of the show, who spent eight years researching the galleries and artists in the exhibition.

Inventing Downtown runs from January 10 – April 1, 2017.

How did you become interested in the art and artists that are on display in Inventing Downtown?

Inventing Downtown began with research conducted for a 2009 Steinhardt graduate projects course I taught called, The Dematerialization of the Art Gallery. The course began with an exploration of three luminary female entrepreneurs and their galleries:  Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century (1942-1947), Betty Parsons’ eponymous gallery founded in 1946, and Virginia Dwan’s path-breaking New York gallery, which opened in 1965. I had a vague awareness of the artist-run Tenth Street Galleries that started in 1952, as well as a host of very difficult to classify artist-directed “spaces” concurrent with Tenth Street.

I had always regarded the 1950s as a rather monolithic period epitomized by Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock on one side, and Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns on another.  But that semester my perspective widened when I discovered Richard Hu Bellamy, whose persona and galleries presided for more than a decade beginning in 1955, and whose papers had just been made available by the Museum of Modern Art Archives. It was in those papers that I discovered the much more diverse history of New York’s 1950s and early 1960s art scene.

Before the semester ended, I ran into NYU Grey Art Gallery director Lynn Gumpert at a campus event. I had long admired the Grey’s exhibition program, and was especially enthusiastic about their 2006 Downtown Show, which covered New York’s art scene from 1974-1984. I mentioned to Lynn that I had an idea for a “prequel” exhibit about Downtown, but one that required at least five years of research to develop. My nascent concept (and the five-year time frame, pushed back twice due to my plodding research) was embraced by Lynn and nurtured over the succeeding years by the marvelous staff at the Grey.

What kind of research broadened your understanding of the artists-run gallery movement in New York City?

It is not an exaggeration to state that this project simply could not have happened were it not for the generosity of all the artists involved. Capturing the dynamic of the galleries artists pioneered was a core goal of my approach; the representation of galleries required context about a very different New York art scene than I had previously investigated. Artists made the time to meet with me (many more than once) and I was welcomed into their studios and homes.

I also visited archives across New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C. At NYU, the Judson Memorial Church archive held by the Fales Library was extremely important. And of course, secondary research, particularly the work of NYU’s Bruce Altshuler and Julia E. Robinson, as well as pioneering studies of the era by curators Norman Kleeblatt and Linda Dalrymple Henderson, among others.

What was the biggest surprise for you as a researcher?

Inventing Downtown Opening (l-r): Michele Wong, Grey Art Gallery, Melissa Rachleff, curator; Andy Hamilton, President, NYU; Lynn Gumpert, Director, Grey Art Gallery.

It all was a surprise!  I really had no knowledge of the era before I began my research, and it was curiosity that fueled my interest. I was learning as I went along. In the end, I hope I captured the scene, and represented what it was like to see art at artist-run spaces in the 1950s and early 1960s. It was exciting to think about this period through the institutions artists established instead of the formal art historical lineage. Inventing Downtown reveals the variety of visual strategies that co-existed, and this helps to see the era more broadly, in terms of art and in terms of the artists included. Put another way, this is what New York’s Downtown art scene looked like at mid-century when women artists and nonwhite artists are included.

Photo Credits:  Installation photographs by Nicholas Papananias; photo from Inventing Downtown opening  © NYU Photo Bureau: Hollenshead.

This post appears in the following categories: art, Faculty.