The New York City Street that Changed American Art Forever

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday February 29, 2024


A well-researched and well-written book that tells a lively history of New York through the lives and work of its artists is something to cheer. With The Slip: The New York City Street that Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Pfeiffer (Harper 2023), we get an inside view of the lives of six artists at various stages of their careers, who settled into raw Georgian buildings on the five-block long Coenties Slip and thrived in these well-lit, cheap, illegal, unheated, mostly column-free spaces between 1956 and 1964.

They are: Ellsworth Kelly, who gave us Color Field painting; his art school friend, Jack Youngerman, whose interviews with the author imbue the book with a sense of being there; Agnes Martin, whose signature gridded abstractions gave art a new visual language; James Rosenquist, a sign painter by trade whose mural-size paintings of mundane subjects were a running commentary on American consumerism; Robert Indiana, whose work beyond Love is well-explored here; and the pioneering textile artist Leonore Tawney, who changed the nature of loom weaving to create soft sculptures unlike anything seen before. Above: James Rosenquist, F-111 (detail). Below: Ellsworth Kelly in his Coenties Slip studio, 1961.Credit: Fritz Goro/Ellsworth Kelly Studio.


The Slip, for short, was isolated enough from the city’s uptown art world that the artists living there spoke of “leaving Manhattan’ on returning home from events. They enjoyed what Pfeiffer calls a “collective solitude”—a state in which they were free from distractions but close enough to prevent a feeling of loneliness. Kelly and Martin, for example, had breakfast together for a year and a half. The men who had no running water were able to get a hot shower and a five-cent breakfast at the Seamans Church Institute, a 17-story hostel for merchant seamen two blocks away.

Other than a few eateries, such as Sloppy Louie’s, a local diner and some bars, there wasn’t much to do. This, together with the light bouncing off the harbor and the history of the seafaring environs, gave the artists a sense of place they could draw from in their work. In fact, this is the place where the art that ended the grip that Abstract Expressionism had held on the New York art establishment—and that had given American Art a global presence that was even supported by the US government as a foil against Communism, was finally superceded by a new vision. Left: Lenore Tawney, Seed Circle, 1967 

Against this well-drawn social and political tableau, Pfeiffer opens doors into the lives of these six—and various others connected through gallery and museum associations, including Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, more established artists who lived a few blocks away on South Street. The legendary art dealer Sidney Janis also took an interest: in 1962 he exhibited Rosenquist and Indiana along with Andy Warhol in a Pop Art show that caused some of his stable of Ab Ex artists to decamp—signaling the start of a new view that included figurative art, one of the foundations of Pop Art, but derived and presented in radical new forms.

I was having such a good time reading The Slip that I ran over to MoMA yesterday to see Rosenquist’s three-wall mural painting, F-111 (top). In the fourth-floor collection galleries there are also works by Indiana, Johns, and Rauschenberg that figure in the book. In the first floor North Gallery is Agnes Martin’s Friendship (left), which is specifically discussed by Pfeiffer. Photos of MoMA collections art, ©Peggy Roalf except as noted



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