Reaching outward while looking within


By Stephanie Buhmann

When the New Museum first opened the doors of its SANAA-designed building on the Bowery last December, it was confirmed: Manhattan’s Lower East Side was becoming the offbeat, less commercially driven art-scene-counterpart to Chelsea. Though the New Museum was more “underground” when smaller and when less money was involved, its new high profile as a downtown entity has proven to initiate an incredible pull. Commercial galleries both large, such as the new downtown branches of Lehman Maupin and Salon 94, and small like Sunday or Envoy, have opened in recent years and months, making this neighborhood an art lover’s haven. In February, even the Goethe Institute, situated across the Metropolitan Museum on Fifth Avenue, celebrated the opening of its satellite space for innovative contemporary art. Named simply after its address, Ludlow 38 is the first exhibition venue in this burgeoning scene that is associated with a major foreign cultural institution.

In many ways this progression feels like an homage to the 1980s, when several younger dealers moved deep into Alphabet City, such as the legendary Pat Hearn, whose gallery at one time was on 9th Street and Avenue D. For those, who remember that period, recent developments might indeed prompt a déjà vu. However, one thing is distinctly different now: there is the pronounced presence of money, albeit in chic counter-cultural disguise.

Having lived in the Lower East Side from 1998 to 2002, I have by no means seen the neighborhood’s tougher days, but I do remember a time pre-Hotel on Rivington and when the corner of Houston Street and Ludlow was a nondescript parking lot instead of an apartment building with studios in the $3000s/month. The hipster bars and clubs came first and were followed by elegant restaurants, shops, wine stores, and finally a supermarket in the shape of Whole Foods.

Last year, I went to Orchard Street below Delancey, where the Lower East Side Tenement Museum was founded in 1988. I was surprised to discover a selection of new boutiques, French bistros and probably one of the city’s best coffee shops. As a shop owner shared the rumor that a W Hotel might soon be built in the neighborhood, I fell again for the charming aspect that, despite its gentrification, the Lower East Side preserves the core of its identity. There is a communal sense that prevails here, which is largely instilled by the neighborhood’s unique history. It is also one of the main attractions any young art scene could hope for.

Located east of Soho and south of the East Village, while blending seamlessly into East Chinatown, the Lower East Side has always been known for its cultural eclecticism. As an immigrant, working class neighborhood back in the day, as well as now in its rejuvenated version with a distinct hip factor, the Lower East Side forces its inhabitants to deal with both, minimal space and intimacy. Large Soho lofts and Chelsea-like vast industrial spaces are not characteristic here, where mainly tenement buildings line the blocks.

In addition, this neighborhood was never devoid of commercial establishments. In Soho and Chelsea, art came before the big retailers that tried to piggyback on the neighborhoods’ implicit lifestyle. Walking through the Lower East Side one can enjoy the organic flow of street and cultural life. Galleries are not lined up side by side or stacked in single buildings like livestock in a cattle-car. Here, the viewing of art is woven into the context of daily activities. It is an experience rather known from other cities, such as Berlin or Paris, where one does not merely stumble upon a gallery because it is situated in a cluster. One actually is encouraged to seek out the addresses for the places one longs to visit and meanwhile enjoy the surroundings.

As much influence as the New Museum has had on making the Lower East Side a desirable art destination, it is also likely to influence the exhibition programming in nearby venues. Its fantastic first group exhibition, entitled “Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century,” explores the nature of two- and three-dimensional collage in contemporary art practices and how every-day materials can be simultaneously conversational, engaging, and reflective of our times.

The New Museum looms on the Bowery

Close by at Salon 94 Freemans (1 Freeman Alley) a show of new work by Kerstin Brätsch, Tue Greenfort, and Jordan Wolfson goes along with the overall aesthetic shown on the Bowery. In “Plant Oil Circulation – After Hans Haacke 1969,” Greenfort transforms an oil tank from his own bus and a tangle of pipelines that extend across the gallery floor into an industrial, yet green web, in which water instead of oil is pumped through the network.

At Lisa Cooley (34 Orchard Street), Andy Coolquitt investigates the divide between sculpture and functional domestic objects. Drawing from a collection of found metal pipes and lamps, Coolquitt has created elegant slim sculptures, which exhibit a line drawing quality and also function as light sources that help define the mood of their immediate surroundings.

Jacob Robichaux’s “…bell, string, whistle, cube…” marks this New York based artist’s first solo show. Hosted by Museum 52 (95 Rivington Street), it tells of Robichaux’s ambition to formulate experience and knowledge through abstraction. His paintings, collages and floor-based sculptures reflect his interest in the writings of 19th Century philosopher and Kindergarten inventor Friedrich Froebel, whose belief it was that children discover their self through play.

If the published media can be understood as an adult version of play in that it satisfies our human desire for eclectic stimuli, the show at Ludlow 38 pursues similar ideas in a very different format. The inaugural exhibition, entitled “publish and be damned,” is curated by the Kunstverein München and features a public library consisting of over 300 international publications that has been assembled by the British curators Emily Pethick, Kit Hammonds, and Sarah McCrory since 2004. Critical journals, periodicals, contemporary fanzines, with titles such as Ziggy, Blondiak, and Useless, as well as self-published works by authors, musicians and theorists cover the gallery space. It is a resourceful archive that records some of the voices that flourish outside the commercial and institutional mainstream. As “publish and be damned” is also the title of the fourth international fair of self-publishers that will be held in London this summer, it might also be taken as further proof that things currently found in the Lower East Side have the potential to become global.