I finally got down to the Lower East Side to catch up with the latest art district in New York City. I’ve lived through Greenwich Village (my teens and twenties), Soho (my thirties), Chelsea (my forties), Noho etc. in more recent decades. The area is supposedly the last bastion of affordable gallery and studio space in Manhattan proper although gentrification appears to have won another battle. In addition, an ever-expanding Chinatown has taken over large chunks of the area and while certainly clean and respectable, lacks the colorful grunginess I once loved.
Anyhow, I was told to check out the new epicenter of the New York Art world, my old stomping ground, the Lower East Side. I was informed I wouldn’t recognize it. Truthfully, I didn’t, and I didn’t much like what had taken its place. It was as if all the life had been sucked out of the area; the buildings are mostly the same but the old zest isn’t there. Even the art scene is surprisingly lifeless. The once-crowded streets are now largely empty, even of cars (no reasonably-priced places to park) and the jumble of tacky businesses that gave the area its character is gone. We saw only a few fabric outlets, (a reason for past visits); the antique (junque) stores on Allen Street have disappeared as have the flophouses on the Bowery and their haunted clientele. Only a handful of restaurant equipment stores that once lined the street remain. No more “outlets’ that sell discount bags and name-brand clothing. With few exceptions, gone are the ethnic food stores and restaurants. Even the lively signage that once characterized the area has been cleaned up, with only a few “ghosts” from the past still around. It was obvious, ethnic cleansing of a cultural sort has taken place. I never thought I’d live to say this but the Lower East Side has become “boring” and I still have the photos I took fifty years ago to prove it.
Since the purpose of the trip was not to revisit old haunts but to check out the latest in the New York art scene, I am sad to report that that too was a disappointment. The only reasonably interesting work was at the New Museum on the Bowery. And most of that wasn’t new but done around 25 years ago. The museum featured a multi-floor exhibit by a Chicago/LA eccentric accumulator, Jim Shaw who specializes in collecting amateur art from thrift shops plus some oversized cartoon-y installations of his. On the ground floor was a room full of extremely “anxious” paintings by another Chicago artist (whose name I forget) that dates from the ‘70s. Is this the “New” museum’s idea of cutting edge? Isn’t there anything current they want to show? But, based on what we saw elsewhere in the neighborhood, probably not. The only exciting exhibit we came across was by an Aborigine artist from Australia. Talk of anxious-looking art, these win the prize. Thousands and thousands of tiny dots in radiating patterns, but at least well done and original. We went to a dozen galleries and frankly, I don’t even remember what we saw.
Next we’ll try Brooklyn. Maybe there’s something worthwhile there. One of my sons has an artist friend called Chico MacMurtie who bought an abandoned church in Red Hook where he builds life-size performing robots. They recently played at his wedding.
Now, that sounds interesting!