Art The Irving Sandler Essay
The Historical Present: Collective Solitude at Coenties Slip
The Irving Sandler Essay Series
Edited by Alex Nagel
This essay series, generously supported by Scott Lynn, is named in honor of the art historian and critic Irving Sandler, whose broad spirit was epitomized in the question we would ask, with searching eyes, whenever he met someone or saw someone again: what are you thinking about? A space apart from the press of current events, the Sandler Essay invites artists and writers to reflect on what matters to them now, whether it is current or not, giving a chance for an “oblique contemporary” to come in view.
For the past five years I’ve been consumed by the story of a group of artists who lived and worked from 1956–1967 in nineteenth-century sailmaking and maritime lofts on a three-block radius at the southern tip of Manhattan, near the Battery and South Street seaport. They were a motley crew who all came from outside of the city and settled (illegally) into rough but cheap open spaces on Coenties Slip, one of New York’s oldest streets. Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Youngerman had just returned from Paris, carrying with them a legacy of abstraction but also an ambition to paint something new. Agnes Martin arrived from the southwest, already thinking of how the city’s landscape could structure her compositions. Lenore Tawney was starting over after another life in Chicago, eager to continue inventing ways to expand a loom’s capacities. The stage and screen actress Delphine Seyrig, Youngerman’s wife, was looking for her first big break and something other than a supporting role. And Robert Indiana and James Rosenquist were just figuring out how to be artists at all; Indiana arrived adrift at the Slip as Robert Clark, and Rosenquist had just left his union job painting billboards and spent his first months there waiting for inspiration to come through his studio window. Youngerman and Seyrig brought their young son, Duncan. The artists ranged in age from twenty-four to fifty, but all were just arriving. They did not constitute a movement or a school, but this brief period encapsulated a pivotal moment in their creative lives, and the trajectory of modern art.
I’d come across vague references to the Slip over the years, and Nancy Princenthal’s biography of Agnes Martin solidified my interest. But it wasn’t until I started having regular conversations with the generous artist-philosopher Youngerman that I realized what a special place it was. If you’ve heard of this difficult-to-pronounce street at all—known as Co-en-tees, though Willem de Kooning told Youngerman that the correct Dutch pronunciation was really Coonties1—it’s probably through a single photograph. Modern American art’s great documenter, Hans Namuth, captured most of the group having coffee and smoking cigarettes, perched atop the ruins of Adirondack chairs on the roof of 3-5 Coenties Slip as downtown Manhattan rises around them. (On warmer days, Kelly would cultivate sunflowers, corn, and avocado plants on the same roof to draw.) This session was just a few years after Namuth had immortalized Abstract Expressionism through photos and film of Jackson Pollock painting on the floor (and on a piece of glass) while his wife, artist Lee Krasner, watched.
The Slip group was pointedly apart from the hyper-masculine posturing of the then-dominant Ab Ex contingent, who had wrested the capital of modernism from Paris to New York, or so the legend goes. Abstract Expressionism had been a part of how the American dream was sold to the world during the Cold War, along with the traditional nuclear family, all marshaled in the name of capitalism and democracy. In scholar Elaine Tyler May’s now famous treatise, the US government’s efforts to contain the Soviet Union’s spheres of influence and contain the threat of the atomic bomb had a parallel containment effort in the domestic space, particularly for women.2 In a period in New York that also saw the harshest crackdown on homosexuality and a retrenched stigma against living alone after decades of progress, the Slip was something else entirely: a safe harbor for its predominantly gay artists. While half the group didn’t even have galleries at first, their work made the rounds in New York during the period they lived there: at Betty Parsons Gallery, The Stable Gallery, Staten Island Museum, Andy Warhol’s factory, The Museum of Modern Art. (In fact, MoMA’s Dorothy Miller was one of the few curators to support multiple artists from the Slip at the time.) And though other artists looking to move out of Ab Ex’s shadow, including Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, lived just around the corner, even they were “too successful” in the view of Indiana, to be a part of the Slip.3
Coenties Slip changed these artists, and their art changed history. Through its contradictory offering of community and obscurity, Coenties Slip provided the setting for the development of what I call “collective solitude”—a model of creativity born in the singular geographic and social conditions of place. Collective solitude is not about a movement and its manifestos, a set of ideals to work toward, or even a shared sense of what art needs to be. It is about being together in a specific place and time, without denaturing each individual story. It’s about knowing that there are others around you—above and below, just down the block—who are also trying to work out how to make something compelling, and how to survive while doing it. But also knowing that you are alone and free.
The river just beyond their street, the commercial words tattooed to their buildings, the sailing knots thrown over the side of tugboats drifting by, the found stencils and paper and ledgers from former maritime tenants, the weathered wooden beams and wheels and nails as constant demolition gave way to parking lots and glass skyscrapers, the ghost of Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and other American literary heroes who once walked the neighborhood, all made their way into the artists’ paintings, drawings, woven forms, sculptures, assemblages, and films.
As a model of meaning, collective solitude follows the story of little pathways of influence and intrigue—akin to the anecdote Youngerman tells of Indiana removing some bricks from the wall of his place at 25 Coenties Slip so that he could peek into Youngerman’s adjacent studio at 27, to see what was going on with his paintings, but also just to gain a better vantage on his neighbor’s separate world.4 It’s Tawney and Martin each talking to the other about the “river” they were making in their studios—Martin, a gridded canvas that established her vocabulary of delicately mapped line; Tawney, a form so tall she had to remove it from her loom and hoist it up on the old sail-making gears to see—and how metaphors of water constituted the shared titles of their art and the ebb and flow of their connection to each other. Or Kelly making a vibrant abstract painting for Indiana the first year on the Slip when they were lovers, sourced from the peel of an orange shared out on a pier. Nature, for Kelly, was not just the world apart from human intervention—it was an ecology of found things in any environment. Channeling the poet John Keats, he wanted to “paint in a way that trees grow, leaves come out—how things happen.”5 The persistence of place lies under every abstraction he made. This opened Indiana’s eyes to how he could move his own painting and sculptures forward in an independent direction, declaring a reference to place directly on their surfaces through words and objects.
The artist Ann Wilson, who resided on the Slip for a short spell, was influenced by how Indiana and Martin “created a gestalt about the total commitment to the work and the life there.”6 The contingency of Slip life—inspectors constantly knocking on the door, wrecking cranes on all sides—gave these artists a certain freedom to just go for it. Seyrig was frustrated by her experience filming Pull My Daisy as the only professional actor on set—others in the cast included poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, who were always goofing off—but it was an immediate cult hit in the city, a blueprint for a new energy and irreverent approach to bootstrap filmmaking. Tawney’s time on the Slip coincides with a turning point in textile art’s reception as something other than a hobby and central to a long tradition of artmaking in the Americas, even if an important contemporary article in House Beautiful still framed her breakthrough from “contemporary craftsmen into the area of fine arts” as inspiration for readers wanting “to develop their artistic potential.”7 The Slip artists forged alternative models for what art could be and what it could encompass; they also forged alternative models to conventional city life. The Slip came just before the explosion of “loft living” in SoHo and beyond, and real estate development strategies that understood artists as key gentrifying agents of abandoned or commercial neighborhoods. Unlike artists who began occupying warehouses in SoHo, the Slip’s inhabitants did not look to codify cooperatives or build alternative institutions or modes of showing their work (though Tawney’s loft, and her generous collecting, did serve as a kind of exhibition space for other Slip artists). The single foray into inviting outside people to partake in any kind of art-making scene there—a workshop that Indiana and Youngerman ran for a few months in 1957—was a failure, in large part because everyone realized the point of the place was about maintaining its apartness from the rest of the city.
We can also tell a history of the country in the Slip’s three block radius, and a history of New York from its founding. Crews of immigrants and people of color dug Coenties Slip out and built it up in the seventeenth century, and crews of immigrants and people of color bulldozed it down and rebuilt it as something else in the twentieth. In the period in between, it was always a place hovering between the land and the water. And therefore a place of itinerant communities: sailors on brief shore leave, journeymen sailmakers, gamblers, drinkers, prostitutes, truck drivers idling while wares were loaded into their wagons, canal boaters, homeless children, artists who knew they were living and working there on borrowed time.
Coenties Slip was at once center and edge: Reporters couldn’t find it when they ventured downtown to profile some crazy artists they’d heard were squatting by the river. Its inhabitants talked about “leaving Manhattan” to return home. And yet, for hundreds of years, it was the economic and industrial hub of the new metropolis, and one of the key grounds of real estate development for the likes of Robert Moses and David Rockefeller in the very period that the artists lived there. Some of this story’s most prominent voices are the peripheral figures of the city’s art history who have shaped how we can understand the importance of collective solitude today through their own, often vulnerable struggles and pioneering efforts, whether the dealer Betty Parsons, who ended up representing Kelly, Martin, and Youngerman after most of her first generation of Ab Ex artists left her; the queer critics Gene Swenson and Jill Johnston, who wrote so provocatively about Indiana, Rosenquist, and Martin; or architectural advocates like Jane Jacobs and Ada Louise Huxtable, who fought for the necessity of neighborhoods like the Slip within a healthy urban ecology. I am continually surprised by the cross section of cultural figures, from Anaïs Nin to Andy Warhol to Alain Resnais, who visited the Slip, and by the fact that these encounters didn’t change the obscurity this neighborhood continued to enjoy then, and into our present century.
Many talks with Youngerman and other artists, actors, and musicians vividly brought to life their time on the Slip. Research carried me from obscure trade regulations in the early colony to nineteenth-century newspaper crime blotters to Robert Indiana’s detailed daily journals (complete with grocery lists and scenes witnessed out the window). I then began writing my book on the artists of Coenties Slip in stolen time: the still-dark, early dawns and weekends of the last few years, mostly during the pandemic. Like any project that consumes you, everything seemed to connect back to it. Just as Covid was declared a pandemic and New York City shut down, I was writing about ships quarantined at Coenties Slip with contagious yellow fever. I was writing about Seyrig struggling to watch her toddler son and manage endless and inconvenient auditions and sexist sets at the same time that I struggled to manage work and childcare for two kids under the age of five. I was writing about the importance of a place apart for these artists at the same time that lockdown delivered a sudden constriction of space to immediate surroundings and family and the ever-present sound of sirens and anxiety that grew loudest at bedtime. As I read contemporary headlines about the pandemic’s mental health crisis I was parsing the ways in which Martin struggled with schizophrenia and Tawney with depression, and how this was braided into the work they made (and didn’t) at the Slip. I was writing about the challenges for many of these artists to find space to live and work safely during a conservative postwar period at the same time that so many LGBTQ+ rights were under threat or signed away in my own contemporary moment. I was writing about the political and cultural promise and compromises of the postwar United States, reflected in work by artists at the Slip commissioned for the 1964–65 World’s Fair, at the same time that Black people were murdered in the streets and refugees were barred from entering the United States. And I was working out the ways that collective solitude allowed the Slip artists to make and advance their work, at a time when our contemporary situation forced a withdrawal from everyday life and community that was devastating.
I’m tempted to extend this model of collective solitude to the last few years and how we’ve tried to stay connected through online portals. But the situation on the Slip was a far cry from what has been defined as our virtual condition today, tethered to handheld technology, what Sherry Turkle calls being “alone together” on our devices. The artists of Coenties Slip benefited from their communal isolation—it was key (and for some, a mental necessity) to their being able to work. They had the natural environs of an extraordinary place to ground them in a shared experience bounded by a few blocks, unlike the infinite map of the Internet’s solitary community. Youngerman saw this as an important urban issue; how artists want intellectual stimulation and exchange, rich and various culture, but also have “this great need for daily aloneness…There’s no opposition there. They actually go together.”8 Or as Martin wrote (even if she broke her own credo): “A studio is not a place in which to talk to friends…[they] should be met in cafes.”9
The Slip artists looked out for each other’s welfare and protected each other from conditions that made it impossible to work. This meant helping each other haul scavenged supplies from the street up the narrow stairs to their studios, or bailing a neighbor out of a psychiatric ward, or buying a fellow Slip artist’s work at a crucial time for them, or encouraging a dealer to take on an artist, or letting a friend make a painting in your larger studio. It meant teaching a younger artist how to stretch a canvas, or lending your hot shower, or writing passionately about a neighbor’s art for their first solo show.
They may not have all agreed on what they were doing to advance American art, though they all had that ambition in their own way; they may have struggled with jealousy when an art sale allowed someone else to abandon their odd jobs and make art when they wanted, not just when they could; they may not have had the operatic gestures of passion and betrayal, usually fueled by alcohol, that trailed the generation before them at the Cedar Bar and the generation after them at Max’s Kansas City restaurant; they may not have thought of themselves as particularly connected, other than through this strange little street and the daily habits it forced one to share; but they all agreed on the need for a separate space to make art and the almost sacred need to protect that place.
These small details around the conditions of working, mostly discarded or written out of public narratives of art, bring us closer to understanding why anything gets made at all. Focusing on place can allow us to see art not as a triumphant end, but as a trial, still trailing its history into the present—including unexpected references to other forms of labor and life that shaped a city’s identity. And here we are, still trying to figure out what it means to make what we do of where we find ourselves.
- Interview with Jack Youngerman, December 30, 2017.
- Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 1988).
- Andrew M. Goldstein, “Robert Indiana on 50 Years of Art, and the Fraught Life of ‘LOVE’,” ArtSpace (September 24, 2013).
- Interview with Jack Youngerman, June 2, 2018.
- Gwyneth Paltrow, “Ellsworth Kelly,” Interview (October issue, published online September 24, 2011).
- Pamphlet for “Nine Artists/Coenties Slip,” Whitney Museum of American Art, Downtown Branch, 55 Water Street, New York, NY 10041 (January 10-February 14, 1974), unpaginated.
- See Jack Lenor Larsen, “Lenore Tawney—inspiration to those who want to develop their artistic potential,” House Beautiful 104 (March 1962): 160-61, 175-77.
- Interview with Jack Youngerman, June 19, 2019.
- Agnes Martin, “I want to talk to you about the work…,” handwritten insert in Arne Glimcher, Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances (New York: Phaidon Press, 2012),