Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 26, 2018
The Menil Collection Between Land and Sea: Artists of the Coenties Slip Houston: The Menil Collection, 2017.
Menil Collection, Houston, April 14–August 27, 2017
Installation view, Between Land and Sea: Artists of the Coenties Slip, The Menil Collection, April 14–August 27, 2017 (photograph provided by the Menil Collection)

In 1954, Ellsworth Kelly returned from his years in Paris to live and work in New York. By 1956, he settled on the Coenties Slip, at the very bottom of Manhattan, near his friend from Paris the abstract painter Fred Mitchell. Robert Indiana moved up the street later that year. In 1957, Agnes Martin, Lenore Tawney, and Jack Youngerman arrived there through word of mouth. In the early nineteenth century, the Coenties Slip had been one of many inlets of water just wide and long enough to hold docked trading ships on the active waterfront at the turn of the East River. At the time of the artists’ residency, the architecture of the slip appeared much as it had when it was redeveloped after the Great Fire in 1835. The infilled, triangular area of land remained surrounded by the historic manufacturing buildings constructed for dry goods and imports. The inexpensive, large, open lofts overlooked the water and the Brooklyn Bridge could be seen out through the ginkgo trees in Jeanette Park below. The studios doubled as homes although many lacked amenities. Therefore a number of the artists relied on the neighboring Seamen’s Church Institute Building for its showers and cafeteria, which fostered contact with the area’s remaining maritime culture.

The concise but potent exhibition Between Land and Sea: Artists of the Coenties Slip, organized by Michelle White at the Menil Collection, brought together work by Indiana, Kelly, Martin, Tawney, and Youngerman made around the time of their habitation in this distinctive neighborhood, as well as Chryssa, who associated with the group. The installation provided a timely opportunity to reflect on varying selections of artworks by a cohort of artists who have more often been the subjects of monographs and large-scale retrospectives celebrating their individual, seemingly isolated accomplishments. Instead, White orchestrated formal and thematic unity among the artworks to make an argument for the importance of interpersonal connectedness to their work.

The first painting one encountered, Jack Youngerman’s Rochetaillée (1953) hung in the museum foyer preceding the galleries. It is a strikingly long, horizontal, geometric abstraction made during his period in Paris, and its watery blues, verdant greens, and radiant yellows established an appropriate atmosphere for the exhibition ahead. Directly across this hallway, peering back from within the exhibition space, was a painting by Ellsworth Kelly, also made while the artist lived in Paris. Titled Rouleau Blue (1951), it refers to the cylindrical, tall-necked form of Chinese export porcelain vases. Yet in the context of this show the rectangle of unstretched deep blue canvas interrupted by painted white verticals hung like a flag on a ship. From there, the installation moved gracefully around two small galleries, allowing for numerous overlapping conversations among artworks. A peaceful tone was set by the generally muted colors and the many diminutively scaled objects. The first interior space was dedicated to works by Kelly and Martin—paintings, paper collages, and drawings—indexed either to the period before their moves to lower Manhattan or to the development of their visual vocabularies thereafter. Particularly notable was Martin’s Untitled (1955), an example of the artist’s early biomorphic abstract style, honed during her time in New Mexico prior to moving to the slip.

While continuing with the first gallery’s overall color scheme and scale, the second gallery offered works in three dimensions. Those selected for the Menil installation reveal how the artists pursued abstraction and representational reduction while acknowledging geographical specificity, whether in titles or in form. Tawney’s delicate, open-weave textile Seaweed (1960) is a cascade of loosely woven linen and silk mirroring the ebb and flow of brown algae in water. One imagines that, were it shaken, Martin’s playful assemblage The Wave (1963) would create a timid crashing sound as the wooden balls swirled within. The Wave was situated on a platform among additional shadowboxes that were extensions of preexisting painterly or sculptural interests: Kelly’s Sculptural Model (Monsanto) (1957), an exploration of positive and negative space in white, and Tawney’s Seed Puzzle on Three Levels (1966), which incorporates found elements. Martin’s 1959 painting The Book displays a geometric relationship among nestled rectangles. It faced a selection of small paintings by Indiana that feature simple circles and signature type taken from 19th century commercial brass stencils found near his home. Indiana looked to the leaves around Jeanette Park for the central form in Gingko (1959). Noticeably absent, however, were his famous herms, the first of which was made in 1960 from beams collected on the slip.

The first exhibition to present this community of artists, Nine Artists/Coenties Slip, was mounted in 1974 at the downtown branch of the Whitney Museum of American Art, then located a block away from the slip. Initiated by students of the Whitney’s Independent Study Program, their curatorial project was one of recovery and remembrance. In the related catalogue, they documented the dates of residency for all the artists who had lived and worked in this small neighborhood, no matter their subsequent fame: Charles Hinman, Indiana, Kelly, Martin, Mitchell, James Rosenquist, Tawney, Ann Wilson, and Youngerman.

The only other prominent exhibition centered on this group was the 1993 show Coenties Slip at the Pace Gallery, New York. It brought together examples by Indiana, Kelly, Martin, Rosenquist, and Youngerman. Curator Mildred Glimcher presented the work of each artist autonomously in pocketed spaces throughout the gallery. In the exhibition catalogue, she tied the organizing principle of the show to the specific character of the slip as an interstitial space of both land and sea to further overcome the vast stylistic differences among the artists. And Glimcher made much of the isolation of the Coenties Slip in which this circle of artists worked. The deliberate distance from the locus of the social scene of the Abstract Expressionists around Tenth Street allowed for independent artistic development before the onslaught of attention that launched the Coenties Slip artists’ highly successful careers.

Photographs of the cohort taken by Hans Namuth in 1958, on the occasion of Kelly’s participation in the Brussels World’s Fair, appear prominently in the Menil Collection’s exhibition brochure, just as in the Pace Gallery exhibition catalogue and nearly all published discussion about the artists of the slip. Namuth’s images alternate between individual portraits of each artist surrounded by his or her work in the studio and scenes of their daily interactions after emerging from solitary creative work. In the most famous of these images, Martin, Kelly, Indiana, Youngerman, his wife Delphine Seyrig, and their young child Duncan Youngerman enjoy one another’s company on the roof of 3–5 Coenties Slip against the background of the taller buildings farther uptown. In another, they share a group meal. In a third, Kelly and Martin sit together in his loft, serving as a perfect illustration of the commonly retold story of the two sharing a daily breakfast for nearly a year and a half.

These photographs go far in documenting what was so distinctive about this cohort’s life and work at Coenties Slip. They elaborate on the geographical specificity of the place and the camaraderie among the artists to reveal the burgeoning creative momentum in such a fertile period of their careers. They also provoke and seemingly justify biographical interrogation of each and the group as a whole: What were the circumstances that initiated such rigorous artistic advancement in the artists’ respective careers? How did their location foster interpersonal relationships? Just how intimate were the various relationships among them?

As with the previous exhibitions on the artists of the Coenties Slip, the Menil Collection installation presented artworks that reflect on the artists’ geographical specificity. Through the selection and placement of artworks, however, it went further in hypothesizing such closeness among them, all the while refraining from labeling the manner of the relationships among this group of straight, gay, and non-identifying artists. This queer curatorial strategy established the artists as a chosen family with intentional and functional kinship rather than genealogically or biologically predetermined connections. The show began by positioning friends Kelly and Mitchell in the foyer, and then friends Kelly and Martin in the first gallery space, in an iterative display highlighting the development of geometric abstraction. The expressionistic gouaches and paintings by Youngerman, allocated ample space, were placed in the second gallery across from the works by Indiana, with whom he ran a short-lived art school, the Coenties Slip Workshop, in 1957. Along the back wall of the same gallery, works by Martin, Chryssa, and Tawney were intermingled, suggesting their possibly intimate communions. Still, the inclusion of pre- and proto-Pop works by Chryssa is a marked choice, given that she never resided on the slip, but the nature of her relationship with Martin is the subject of speculation. White might have also included other examples by Coenties Slip residents: the geometric paintings of Charles Hinman, James Rosenquist’s painted pastiches of popular advertisements, or the quilted sculptures of Ann Wilson. Nevertheless, rather than drawing direct lines among the artists, Between Land and Sea beneficially allowed the complexity and mutability of sexual identity in midcentury America to resonate among the placid artworks.

Lauren Rosenblum
PhD student, Graduate Center, City University of New York