Monday, January 14, 2008

The Bowery, in memoriam

The New Museum, 235 Bowery

When, in 1976, John Coplans, then the editor of Artforum, asked me to come to New York and be his assistant, my Chicago artist friends acted as if I’d been invited to Oz by the Wizard himself. It was completely inadvertent. I met John at the CAA convention in Chicago, where I was representing The New Art Examiner, and said, “If you ever hear of a job in New York, let me know.” I’d never thought of moving, and even at that moment it didn’t occur to me as a possibility; the words came out of my mouth, true, but probably because I wanted to see what it felt like to say it, and to give the impression of someone who might actually do such a thing, someone much older and more worldly than me. So two weeks later when John called and offered me the job I was completely unprepared, but with my friends egging me on, I called Angels Ribe, an artist from Barcelona who had lived for a time in Chicago, and asked if she knew of a place where I could live. When she said she was looking for a roommate, it seemed ordained. Except that Angels lived on the Bowery. I vaguely remembered the Bowery from one of my few previous trips to New York and asked Barry Holden, who had just come back from visiting Angels, “Aren’t there like bums and stuff there?” “Oh no,” Barry said, “the Bowery’s been gentrified. There are galleries and boutiques all up and down.”

Needless to say it was a bit of a shock when I got out of the taxi from the airport and there were no galleries and boutiques to be seen, and for several months after I assumed they were on a part of the Bowery I hadn’t been to yet. But I adjusted the way humans can--even girls from the suburbs--to armies of cockroaches and stepping over drunken bodies in the foyer. Do I miss it? What? Do I miss the stench, the filth, the crime, and the pathetic display of humanity I saw every day? No. Would I want my kids to live that way? Hardly. However there was something exhilarating about living on that gritty frontier of Manhattan: we felt courageous, like pioneers, we were in it together, and it was home. That last fact was cinched for me only a few days after I moved, when I was walking down Bowery carrying my portfolio and passed two bums, one of whom nudged the other and said, “She’s an artist.” Hardly anyone in Chicago, employed or otherwise, knew what that was.
Photo is by Christopher Dawson, from the New Museum website

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