Recreating the vibrant arts scene of 1970s New York, the Barbican Art Gallery invites you to explore the work of three artists who (amongst many) helped form the Downtown Scene.
The early 1970s was time when art was moving off the plinth, anti-form art was establishing itself and Richard Serra was hurling lead into the corners of rooms. New York as a city was broke, busted and frequently threatening – a set of circumstances which made it ideal to foster the next generation of American artists. In step with sculpture breaking out of the gallery, dance was stepping away from the stage and both moved inevitably towards the newly available and cheap lofts of New York.
Taking the name of the show from the stalwarts of the downtown scene - Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown and Gordon Matta-Clark - the exhibition examines the breadth of influence the three characters had in their respective fields. Featuring sculptures, drawings, photographs, documentation of performances and mixed media works, the exhibition focuses on the intersections between their practices and explores their shared concerns – performance, the body, the urban environment and found spaces. Much of the work on display is concerned with a fetish for the architectural and urban as a rhetorical position within art. The eye in the city is therefore the primary mode of both viewing and documentation as exemplified by Laurie Anderson sleeping semi-rough in a library or on a Coney Island beach, in order to try dreaming in a different way (Institutional Dreams, 1972-73). She also documented her sojourns through rough neighbourhoods in 1973, photographing the faces of men who heckled or harassed her to see how they liked being objectified by her gaze
One of the conspicuous successes of the Barbican show is to extend our knowledge of Gordon Matta-Clark’s work beyond the ubiquitous dissected housing components and make us aware of his contribution to an extended field of drawing and performance works. Before Hirst set up Pharmacy, Karsten Holler attempted the Double Club or Rirkrit Tiravanija hit upon serving rice in the name of art, Matta-Clark had run the successful artist-led restaurant and meeting place Food. Phillip Glass was there, Steve Reich, Joan Jonas, Yvonne Rainer, Claes Oldenburg was performing and Robert Smithson was no doubt writing somewhere in a corner. The restaurant seems to encapsulate the central themes of the exhibition – collaboration, conviviality and the importance of architectural and urban context – or to put it simply “the scene”.
What does not come across in the secure galleries of the well heeled Barbican is that the “scene” was one born out of contingency and uncertainty. In place of a sense of contingency is a pervading sense of nostalgia. Performances are beautifully and stylishly enacted with great seriousness but overseen by serious invigilators with expensively detailed equipment which no doubt cost the equivalent of a New York loft space in 1971. The recreation of Matta-Clark’s Open House, 1972 is also a curious proposition. A shipping container is retro-fitted with a set of doors to create a warren of internal spaces to negotiate but also covered in bizarre recreations of 1970s New York graffiti.
Every day throughout the duration of the Pioneers of the Downtown Scene exhibition visitors to the Barbican can see a series of live performances from the artists behind the show. Starting at 11.30am performances of Planes, Floor of the Forest and Walking on the Wall by Trisha Brown will take place, along side an interpretation of Gordon Matta-Clark's Open House. Performances take place hourly.
-- Mike Tuck
All Images courtesy The Barbican Art Gallery
Images: Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York, 1970s, Barbican Art Gallery, 2011. Trisha Brown, Walking on the Wall, 1971. Photograph, by Felix Clay; Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta- Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York, 1970s, Barbican Art Gallery, 2011. Trisha Brown, Floor of the Forest, 1970. Photograph by Rune, Hellestad; Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s, Barbican Art Gallery, 2011. Trisha Brown, Planes, 1968, Photograph by Rune Hellestad.