As we mention in our book, times were tough during the economic crises of the 70s, yet those conditions often sparked intense bursts of creativity. The fears raised by the ecology lobby about the world’s dwindling resources, compounded by the 1973 oil crisis, inspired designers to recycle inexpensive industrial materials in the home – a movement called high-tech. And the DIY way that punks created music and clothing cheaply out of any equipment or materials at their disposal thrived during the mid-1970s recession.
Punk had much in common with Fluxus, a movement founded in New York in 1961 that made art out of discarded, throwaway materials. Its multidisciplinary approach, encompassing art, dance, film and music, helped to foster a cross-disciplinary art movement that thrived in run-down, recession-hit downtown Manhattan in the 70s.
Three of its prime movers – performance artist and composer Laurie Anderson, choreographer Trisha Brown and the late artist Gordon Matta-Clark – are the subject of the Barbican’s latest show, Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s. Exploring their milieu in New York at a dismally low point in its history – the city was on the brink of bankruptcy, with high rates of crime and unemployment – it will show about 160 works including sculptures, drawings, films, live performances, posters and ephemera.
Why put on this show now? “With the UK going through the recession, people today are interested in the parallels between then and now,” says curator Lydia Yee. “The art produced in New York provides a welcome alternative to the overblown, glossy production values of the past decade – the art of Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami.”
Frequently ephemeral, site-specific and collaboratively created, the downtown artists’ work differed from the recent pop art and minimalist movements, which favoured mechanical processes to make permanent pieces that could be sold in galleries. Broadly speaking, the community valued ideas and the exploration of creative processes over polished objects.
The early 1970s work of Anderson, who moved to New York in 1966, typified this multimedia approach. She moved restlessly between photography, text, sound and street performances engaging with the public. “My art wasn’t about hiding away in a studio,” she remembers. The Barbican will display her photographically recorded project, “Institutional Dream Series” (1972), which saw her sleep in public spaces, then record the location’s effect on her dreams.
Anderson remembers New York then as “dark, dangerous and broke” yet exhilarating: “It was like Paris in the 20s. I was part of a group of artists who worked on each other’s pieces, and boundaries between art forms were loose.”
The district south of Houston Street, soon nicknamed SoHo, had been zoned for manufacturing but factories had been moving out since the 1940s. The artists who colonised it took advantage of working and living in its disused factories for a very low rent, exhibiting work informally in these raw spaces.
By the early 70s, Trisha Brown was a respected performance artist, having studied under the legendary Merce Cunningham. She dispensed with a stage, often performing on rooftops and car parks. She used untrained and trained dancers, invited audiences to participate and encouraged improvisation. In her topsy-turvy world, works appeared to defy gravity: in “Walking on the Wall” (1971), dancers (rigged to a track in the ceiling) pace along a wall as if it were the floor. This will be re-enacted by dancers in the Barbican’s lower-level, double-height gallery, which, says Yee, “echoes the scale of SoHo’s lofts”.“I was inventing choreography outside any existing system or venues for presenting it at that time,” recalls Brown. “SoHo’s urban landscape was ready-made for this.”
Matta-Clark, who studied architecture, is regarded as the ringleader of this scene and many believe it died when he did, in 1978. In 1969, he had designed and built one of the area’s first alternative arts spaces, 98 Greene Street, for art collectors Holly and Horace Solomon. His own dramatic architectural interventions, which entailed cutting parts out of buildings, were political. They highlighted the “imprisonment” of the poor inside New York’s soulless “urban and suburban boxes” and reflected his desire to break down social and economic barriers. The most ambitious, entitled “Splitting” (1974), saw him bisect an entire building. A film of this will be screened at the Barbican.
The early 70s in the US were a time of highly organised political activism. Even so, according to Anderson, most downtown artists weren’t especially political. “We’d protested in the 60s. By the 70s the political beliefs of the counterculture were a given, we’d internalised them.”
But 1960s activism had bred certain attitudes: generosity, anti-materialism and a strong sense of communality. “There was huge camaraderie,” explains Anderson. “We helped each other with plumbing, hanging our shows or lending stuff like videotapes. We had no interest in money and thought those who did were idiots. It was a completely different world.”
However, some believe the downtown scene is similar to today’s art communities in Brooklyn except that, as art historian RoseLee Goldberg, an original member of the downtown scene, says: “They’re paying $3,000 a month, we were paying $200.”
Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s runs from March 3 to May 22 at the Barbican Centre, London