Idealism, commercialism rub shoulders; Major hotbed of American art -- N.Y.'s SoHo

New York's SoHo area is the major hotbed of American art, the place where many of our most advanced and original artistic ideas first take root, are nourished, and are given every opportunity to grow.

It is also the place where the highest idealism and the most crass commercialism rub shoulders -- often in the same gallery, where being spoken of as "The coming new artist" is infinitely better than being president of the United States. And also where, unfortunately, some of the most bizarre, self-serving, and trivial objects are lauded to the skies as major works of art.

Geographically, SoHo is that area in Manhattan that extends south of Houston Street to Canal Street, and is bracketed on the west by Sullivan Street, and on the east by Broadway. It consists mainly of old warehouses and dilapidated store-fronts converted into expansive studio lofts for artists, spacious galleries, boutiques, and restaurants of all sorts, and a few novelty stores.

Commercial jobbers maintain businesses there, so it is as common to see trucks loading and unloading material as it is to see two painters carrying a 12 -foot canvas down the street between them.

In appearance, SoHo is ugly and barren, without parks and trees, and resembles a decaying industrial neigborhood much more than an important cultural center. Yet that is precisely what SoHo is -- and has been for a little over a decade.

A significant number of America's most important and influential galleries -- including Mary Boone, Leo Castellani, O. K. Harris, Nancy Hoffman, Max Hutchinson, Louis K. Meisel, Holly Solomon, Sonnabend, WardNasse, Washburn, and John Weber -- are located there. A large number of this country's best and most promising artists work there and call it home.

Before 1970, however, SoHo had been a dying neighborhood with little to recommend it except for a great deal of space for which very little rental was being asked. But since space was exactly what both the uptown dealers and an increasing number of artists needed, SoHo rapidly found itself becoming a community of galleries and studio lofts. And prices, naturally, skyrocketed.

But no matter. Space was what counted. Dealers discovered that their new SoHo galleries could accommodate several times as much art as could their old galleries on 57th Street or Madison Avenue. And the artist found that the space that had at one time housed a small factory, or had served as a warehouse storage area, could, with a little work, be converted into a spacious studio, as well as into comfortable living quarters.

By the mid-1970s, SoHo had become a way of life for hundreds of artists and dozens of dealers -- and had become famous as them place to see the most exciting and important new art.

Because it still has (and generally deserves) that reputation -- although new hotbeds of creativity have spread north and south of SoHo proper, and 57th Street has regained much of its old glory) -- I make it a point to visit SoHo at least every other week. I stay down there until I've seen every show that's just opened, or any I missed before and until I've visited any private artist's loft to which I've been invited. It makes for a full day, but almost always an exhilarating one. My most recent excursion to SoHo, however, was an exception.

The day started out auspiciously enough with a visit to the Syria gallery on Broome Street to see what that excellent print publisher has been up to, and to take another look at Robert Rauschenberg's recent suite of prints, "Arcanum I-XIII." These are gentler and subtler than most of his other geographic work, and have a richness and an intimacy about them that more than compensates for their relative lack of order. The other prints on view, especially those by Sharpio and Ott -- and two of Natkin's -- are also excellent.

I liked Bill Drew's and Rod Carswell's twoman show at the Josef Gallery, Ilan Averbuch's extraordinarily powerful wood and stone sculture at Visual Arts Gallery, and Jeffrey Brosk's room-sized construction "Hemingway's Wall" at the Max Hutchinson Gallery. Brosk, a sculptor and painter with an architectural degree, knows how to be powerful and discreet at the same time.

At the Jack Gallery I was pleased to find a rarity among exhibitions: a selection of almost 100 drawings by Jean Cocteau. Although somewhat derivative of Picasso's drawings, these light-hearted and sprightly linear works nevertheless succeed as highly imaginative decorative pieces.

The Washburn Gallery's installation of paintings and sculpture by Ilya Bolotowsky, Leon Polk Smith, and Jack Youngerman was stunning -- and of particular interest because it included Bolotowsky's 1980 reconstruction of his 1936 WPA mural for the Williamsburg Housing Project.

The group show at Nancy Hoffman Gallery was generally excellent -- something which could not be said about the Semaphore Gallery's 13-artist invitational exhibition, "The Anxious Figure." Even the inclusion of Alice Neel and Mimi Gross could not save this fiasco.

From that point on, my day in SoHo went steadily downhill. Altogether too much of the work on view struck me as derivative, empty, or commercial. Hilo Chen's floral watercolors at Louis K. Meisel are no more art because they are large and photographically precise than they would be if they were snapshots taken in someone's flower garden.And J. E. Newman's paint fabrications would still be cute even if they were hanging (for some odd reason) in the Metropolitan Museum.

Even The Drawing Center, that regular bastion of quality, had nothing of real quality or interest in its current exhibition of drawings by 11 emerging artists. And Donald Judd's huge piece at Leo Castelli, while impressive, seemed to belong to another age.

So it went. Julian Schnable, one of today's most talked-about newer artists, was represented by a large and silly painting at Mary Boone. And yet it was the object of a great deal of awed and hushed attention the first time I saw it -- as indeed it was when I went back to see if it was really as silly as I had thought.(It was).

I only hope the rest of the SoHo season will be better. Judging from its advance scheduling, it should be. To date, however, the best new things I've seen this season have been Gregory Amenoff's paintings at the Robert Miller Gallery on upper Fifth Avenue, and Gaylen Hansen's marvelously witty oils at the Monique Knowlton Gallery on East 71st Street. Both are remarkable painters. Interestingly enough, the Monique Knowlton Gallery is moving to SoHo in a few months.

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