“The Slip,” Reviewed: The Street That Shaped Agnes Martin and Ellsworth Kelly

Has anyone bothered to thank Pepsi for its crucial little role in American culture? The year was 1947, and a young Mississippi artist named Fred Mitchell was trying to expand his horizons. He entered one of his paintings in a contest and won a cash prize of fifteen hundred dollars—close to twenty grand today—courtesy of the sponsor, the Pepsi-Cola Company. Mitchell used his winnings to sail to Europe, where he spent the next three years meeting artists and inhaling modernism. When he returned to the States, he settled in a half-empty building on a street near the southern tip of Manhattan and invited one of his new buddies, the painter Ellsworth Kelly, to join him.

The street was Coenties Slip (pronounced “co-en-tees”), and during the next decade or so it became a bright, teeming hothouse of the New York avant-garde. The fibre artist Lenore Tawney moved into 27 Coenties Slip in 1957, the same year that Kelly persuaded the actress Delphine Seyrig and her husband, the painter Jack Youngerman, to live in the same building. Kelly also helped recruit Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, and Robert Clark, who hadn’t yet changed his surname to Indiana, let alone scattered “LOVE” sculptures across the planet. By the mid-sixties, you could have filled a first-rate museum with the work of Slip artists alone: abstract paintings by Kelly, Martin, and Youngerman, weavings by Tawney, assemblages by Indiana. Hanging in the lobby, one of Rosenquist’s Pop canvases, starring a mound of spaghetti or (did he know?) a Pepsi logo.

There were times when life on the Slip must have felt like the kind of cornball bio-pic in which someone famous pops up every thirty seconds. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were minutes away. Frank O’Hara would drop by. In 1964, Andy Warhol shot a film in one of the buildings. In spite of attention from glossies such as Esquire, the area was never overrun by hangers-on—there was always a community but never really a scene. It helped, probably, that many of the buildings lacked reliable lighting, plumbing, or heating. (Harder to hang on when it’s freezing inside.) Artists loved the enormous rooms as much as the cheap rents, but by the late sixties most of the buildings had been demolished for high-rises—a bang in lieu of the usual gentrified whimper. Go there today and your reward is a grassless park, and an Insomnia Cookies around the corner.

Things that burn bright and vanish are easily idealized, but in “The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever” (Harper), the critic Prudence Peiffer opts for a tricky blend of mythmaking and myth-busting. Like many recent chroniclers of mid-century New York, she snubs the household names, so that we hear barely a peep from Warhol, Rauschenberg, or Johns, and even less from Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, or Philip Guston. One reason the Slip’s residents were overlooked, Peiffer suggests, was that they shared no obvious brand or style; their identity was having no identity. None of them plays the lead in her book, but neither does the crew as a whole. The true hero is an environment, an atmosphere—in the parlance of our times, a vibe.

Like Wall Street and Santa Claus, Coenties Slip owes its long history to seventeenth-century Dutch settlers. For hundreds of years, it was an economic hub where fishmongers sold cod, sailors chugged grog, and ships loaded and unloaded cargo. (The roomy lofts that proved so useful to artists were designed for sail-making.) Walt Whitman knew the area, and Herman Melville gives it a shout-out in the first chapter of “Moby-Dick”: “Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries.” Peiffer cites passages like this to argue that young, wayward artists thrived on the Slip because it was “a liminal place,” “at once center and edge”—close to the action but removed enough to breathe.

I’m not sure this is so special—New York is full of center-edge neighborhoods, and the history of its art scene is largely a matter of the edges becoming more (and ultimately too) central. Peiffer’s main point, though, is right: Coenties Slip had seedy glamour to spare, but for most of the fifties and sixties it didn’t feel like Manhattan. The buildings were stubby and decrepit, and in some of them feral cats outnumbered humans; one real-estate developer complained that the area turned into a ghost town after 5 p.m. Because its lofts were commercially zoned, anyone who slept there at night was breaking the law, though landlords were happy to look the other way. If a building inspector came knocking, Seyrig and Youngerman could grab a set of slatted doors that they had found on the street, hide their bed behind them, and pretend to be decent, law-abiding business owners.

For Slip artists, the street was a rec room, a grocery store, and, above all, a supply shop. Most of the people in this book are scavengers—besides doors, things they find in the neighborhood include barrels, quilts, chairs, chains, gas heaters, newspaper plates, brass stencils, wheels, and old slabs of wood, which both Indiana and Martin turned into sculptures. (Martin used them for furniture, too.) Peiffer’s book is free of the weightless isms that one usually sees in art histories. Every page is lousy with stuff, as if Coenties Slip were an islet to which mounds of debris drifted from the mainland of New York. When its residents talk about “leaving Manhattan” to go home, you see what they mean.

They lived below Fourteenth Street, but they were never pillars of the downtown art scene. Tenth Street, where Pollock and the leading Abstract Expressionist painters of the era drank and gabbed, might as well have been Canada. “One of the things we were very conscious of,” Youngerman later said, “was the fact that we all knew that we weren’t part of the de Kooning/Pollock legacy in art.” He was talking about something both broader and narrower than Abstract Expressionism: art as gruff male ego, epitomized by the famous Hans Namuth photographs of Pollock bobbing like a middleweight and hurling paint like a pitcher. Slip artists, many of them gay, and many of them women, were proud to scorn this model. The irony, as Peiffer and others have noted, is that Abstract Expressionism was never the brawny sport that Pollock made it seem. No matter. If artists didn’t have rivals to renounce, they’d have one less reason to make art.

In fact, “The Slip” leaves you with the suspicion that renunciation is the jet pack of art history. It’s not enough to have talent and vision; if you want to be great, you need grudges, fallings-out—the pettier the better. Ellsworth Kelly was in his early thirties and a minor hit with New York gallerists when he began an affair with his neighbor Robert Indiana. Kelly had spent time in Europe, soaking up Matisse, and his abstract canvases from the fifties have some of the Frenchman’s bright, taut simplicity. Indiana was younger, less established, and insecure about his style. What could possibly go wrong?

For much of their time together, the two artists swapped ideas without caring too much about credit. Kelly, Indiana later recalled, was prone to “long discourses” on color and encouraged him to explore vivid, hard-edged abstraction. You can see this influence in “The Sweet Mystery” (1959-62), a tribute to the yellow leaves of nearby ginkgo trees. It could almost be a Kelly painting, save for the blue stencilled letters that spell out the title; ripped from a love song, they mark one of Indiana’s first works bearing words. Kelly, for his part, began to fool around with letters. In “New York, NY,” one of his most arrestingly offbeat paintings, a big white “N” melts into a big white “Y” to make something halfway between abstraction and representation, Pop and Minimalism—a fine example of the promiscuous mixture that was the Slip’s house style.

After the breakup came the usual revisionist histories and awkward division of assets. Indiana’s immediate reaction was to make a word painting called “FUCK”—a warmup, in a way, for his “LOVE” sculptures. (The “U” in the painting, like the “O” in the sculptures, is tilted.) Kelly despised it, and it’s not hard to imagine Indiana burrowing deeper into word art as a way of twisting the knife. He revisited some of his abstract paintings and added letters; other canvases he painted over completely. Kelly returned to pure abstraction and never dabbled in words again. Falling in love has inspired its fair share of art, but next to falling out of love it’s a blip.

“You did have a college fund, but then we decided to have one picture professionally framed.”

Cartoon by Ellis Rosen and Asher Perlman

Even when the antagonisms aren’t so obvious, “The Slip” is defined as much by sticks as it is by carrots: its characters may not be able to explain what they do, but they’re clear on what they’re trying to avoid. Agnes Martin was nearing fifty when she moved to Coenties Slip, having spent most of the previous decade painting rich, dreamy abstractions in the Southwest. With her new address came a great emptying out of her imagery—unlike most of her neighbors, she wasn’t ashamed to call herself an Abstract Expressionist, but her paintings resemble Pollock’s as much as a murmur resembles a squawk. “The Dark River” (1961) is a quietly overwhelming work, precisely because it doesn’t spill its guts straight away. What at first looks like a lifeless brown grid begins to vibrate; thin lines stammer their way from one side of the canvas to the other. Soon you have the sense of talking with someone who is trying very hard not to burst into tears.

Every ensemble drama has a few standouts, and Martin is one of “The Slip” ’s. Peiffer calls her the “den mother” of the neighborhood, renowned for her blueberry muffins, but mental illness held her back: she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent much of 1962 in Bellevue. As though taking cues from “The Dark River,” Peiffer doesn’t strain for pathos in these chapters, so you can’t help but feel some. Lenore Tawney paid Martin’s medical bills and bought her art, both to support a worthy cause and to stop Martin from destroying it. Why Tawney felt compelled to do this—whether the two women were lovers, friends, friendly rivals, or some combination—is never explained and, at this point, probably inexplicable. (Martin died in 2004, Tawney in 2007.) There are times when the uncertainty works to “The Slip” ’s advantage. In 1963, Martin wrote Tawney a letter that began, “I am not going to be able to tell you anything really. You have made this day the turning point in my life.” Knowing what she was thanking Tawney for would spoil things: unspecified, the words wash over their whole tense relationship with something like what Philip Larkin called “an enormous yes.”

The turning point in Tawney’s life, or at least in her career, came shortly before she moved to Coenties Slip. She began experimenting with a looser kind of weaving, in which the usual layer of vertical threads (the warp) stretched from top to bottom, while some of the horizontal threads (the weft) curved, stopped halfway, or never began in the first place. The main downside of open-warp weaving, as it’s known, is its delicacy—without the extra material, it’s liable to sag—but in Tawney’s hands weakness became virtue. “Seaweed” (1961), one of her most striking creations, is mostly empty space, yet there’s something weirdly resilient about it. Yellowish squiggles of linen and silk veer one way, then another, not with a grand “Because I say so” but with a serene “Why not this?” If Martin clung movingly to the grid, Tawney did doughnuts all over it.

What did any of this have to do with the Slip itself? “Place,” Peiffer declares in her introduction, “is an undervalued determinant in creative output.” That’s a funny claim for an art critic to make—it would be hard to discuss postwar American painting without mentioning the Cedar Tavern or Tenth Street, and this book is only the latest entry in the neglected-creative-community subgenre of biography. (Aficionados might try Maggie Doherty’s “The Equivalents” or Mary Gabriel’s “Ninth Street Women.”) “The Slip,” though, goes all in on the conceit. Coenties Slip didn’t merely put artists in touch with artists; it offered cavernous rooms and interesting plants and sea breezes, and they’re all presented so winsomely that you may wonder how any non-Slip resident managed to do anything at all.

I read these pages with delight and foreboding: delight because Peiffer is a lively storyteller armed with oodles of great material; foreboding because whenever a writer starts making solemn generalizations about place I start rubbing my temples. Peiffer’s favorite generalization is a concept that she dubs “collective solitude.” Most labels simplify; this one is so broad that it’s impossible to argue with. Artists benefit from living near other artists, since they can share ideas, materials, studio space, gallery connections, and so on. Artists also benefit from being alone when they feel like being alone. That’s about it. Peiffer appears to think that collective solitude was particularly useful for the young, ambitious artists of Coenties Slip, when it seems fairer to say that it’s useful to anyone who wants to paint without dying of loneliness.

The vagueness of this theory allows her to take a Panglossian view of things. What happened in the Slip’s buildings happened because of the Slip’s buildings, though you could build a reasonable case for “despite,” unless you pretend that it’s easy to make great art in a home without hot water. This is a tactile book, but its sensations skew smooth and gentle. In James Rosenquist’s memoirs, he recalls visiting Indiana’s building and encountering a mind-altering stink, which turned out to belong to a dead body. The episode is nowhere to be found in “The Slip” ’s perfumed pages. In what may be its most telling passage, however, Peiffer notes that Youngerman did much of his painting at night, since he and Seyrig couldn’t afford a babysitter, and adds, “There’s something comforting about being the only one awake creating as your family sleeps below.” Something exhausting, too, I would bet. All for the best, though, in the best of all neighborhoods.

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