Alfred H. Barr Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, declared, “I look forward to a rebellion.” Jackson Pollock had been dead for two years when 1958 began. Barr wished that Abstract Expressionism would be replaced by something, anything. The next great thing hadn’t developed enough to make an impact, despite the popularity of pop, minimalism, and hard-edge painting.
Six visual artists who were at different stages of life and chasing various aesthetic objectives responded to Barr’s challenge with an unlikely spirit of concert in Prudence Peiffer’s sensitively researched group biography, “The Slip.” Ellsworth Kelly, a painter, commands attention with his bold, clean shapes and primary-colored palette. His centennial is being celebrated this year with numerous exhibitions. Jack Youngerman, a painter of shaggy color fields in organic, almost floral forms, is standing next to him. The two were classmates in the same art school. (The book’s strong oral history flavor comes from Peiffer’s primary interviewee, Youngerman, who passed away in 2020.)
The Jersey boy and the Kentuckian moved to the abandoned sail-making lofts of Coenties Slip, an ancient industrial building at the toe of Manhattan, after growing bored in postwar Paris. A true artist colony and some truly epochal art developed there from 1956 to around 1964. Critics have been captivated by that scene for a very long time, but up until now, no narrative history has been done on it.
They were joined in 1957 by Agnes Martin, a watercolor and portrait painter from New Mexico who created obsessive-compulsive grids, bands, and planes, along with Youngerman’s French wife, the stylish actress Delphine Seyrig. Lenore Tawney, a pioneer in textile art and weaving, came from Chicago; James Rosenquist, a billboard painter who combined flashy elements of American commerce into large, glossy landscapes; Robert Indiana, who traveled from his home state of Minnesota via Europe (“To me, Paris meant absolutely nothing”) and whose devotion to poetry doomed his cutesy “LOVE” series of the later 1960s to eclipse the more intriguing assemblages he made in these early years.
The shenanigans reached sitcom levels as the artists discovered their voices in those drafty illegal lofts, filling “The Slip” with insightful art-world anecdotes and respectable rumors. For a year and a half, Martin and Kelly had breakfast every day. After Kelly dumped Indiana, Indiana let his fellow word rebel Cy Twombly use his roomy studio, which upset the insecure Kelly and brought in the budding artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Kelly initially assumed Franz Kline was joking when he praised his first exhibition, but later started crying. Chryssa, a neon art experimenter of Greek descent, and Tawney, it appears, were Martin’s first partners. Both couples had to deal with Martin’s episodes of schizophrenia and everyone’s natural desire for control.
These entrants might be female or homosexual, unlike the macho Abstract Expressionists of the 1940s. Peiffer shines in including so many women in this overwhelmingly male scene, especially on the museum and gallery side. These painters were also capable of painting symbolically, which is a cardinal fault. The seasoned artists Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko parted ways with the gallerist Sidney Janis in 1962 over the exhibition of Rosenquist and Indiana alongside the heretic Andy Warhol in a Pop show.
Peiffer contends that even the Slipmates who weren’t completely Pop were pulled away from things during these heady years in an effort to separate some vestige of their physical reality from their personal abstractions. Kelly came to the realization that, contrary to what Rothko and Pollock had worked so hard to achieve, he could draw shape and color from life as well as the artistic unconscious while peeling an orange on Pier 7. His “Orange Blue” (1957) and “Brooklyn Bridge” series are rather accurate abstractions. Kelly said, “I could take from everything.” “I owned everything,”
This interpretive attitude may be what transforms a book on art into a respectable history of Lower Manhattan. Dutch colonization, industrialization, Whitman and Melville, the maritime boom and crash, and the erection of the enormous Seamen’s Church Institute building on South Street in 1913 are all topics covered in this course. Peiffer’s microscopic concern in the location (“Pearl Street was the first street in the city to get electricity, in 1882, supplied by Thomas Edison’s factory at No. 257”) might raise questions in the minds of formalist readers.
However, it appears that, much like the Giving Tree, the unique character of those old structures served as Indiana’s source of inspiration as well as the community, as he recycled old sailmakers’ stencils and wooden trusses for his whimsical word art. Tawney invited comparisons to lost craft as she wove her elaborate webs from abandoned sail hoists. The high ceilings of the studios allowed Rosenquist to use his renowned scale. In other words, creativity is shaped by the environment. Peiffer provides us with a local’s perspective on art history.