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Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Ninth Street Exhibition--1951

The show's poster, designed and printed by the painter Franz Kline.
Forty-two years ago, 1973, toward the latter part of my first year at teaching art, I organized a community art show in Dodge Park, Beverly, Ohio (a town of about 1,500 in the southeastern part of the state). My eighth grade art students made the posters as a class project in calligraphy. My work and that of my adult students made up the majority of the entries in the show. An art teacher friend judged it and awarded prizes. First price in each category was $25; Best of Show was a check for $50 courtesy of myself and area merchants. The date was in May, the weekend before Memorial Day. It was a lot of work, mostly setting up borrowed display racks, then returning them after the two-day show. Attendance was a bit sparse the first year but improved over the ten-year life of the show. I've always had the feeling that little community art outreach was a major factor it helping me keep my job after a rough first year in the classroom.
Study for Ninth Street, 1951, Franz Kline--one of the few works certain to have been in the show.
60 East Ninth Street, New York, today.
Some twenty-two years earlier, an art gallery owner named Leo Castelli, along with some major figures in the Abstract Expressionist art movement organized a similar show. It wasn't in a park, though today nearby Washington Park annually hosts a similar event. Instead, it was held in a vacant storefront at 60 East Ninth Street in New York City. There are no photos of the exterior from that time (the building was demolished soon after the show closed), but today it's a six-story, red brick apartment co-op (left). Prices start just under half a million to purchase a studio apartment; while rentals start at $2,400 per month. In 1951, two month's rent was for the storefront and basement was $70. Castelli donated another $200 for paint and repairs to turn the place into a venue slightly resembling an art gallery. The show ran for three-weeks. Carefully study of the list of sixty-one artists at the top of Kline's poster (top) reads like a who's who of the New York School, at least a dozen of which should be instantly recognizable by anyone familiar with those hungry artists who gave birth to the controversial new movement.

The Ninth Street Exhibition, photographed by Aaron Siskind.
Yes, that's a Jackson Pollock front and center. (Notice the bare lightbulb.)
The show opened with the obligatory reception on May 21, 1951 (no record as to the wine or cheese). It was a gathering of a number of notable artists, and it was the stepping-out of the post-war New York avant-garde, collectively known as the New York School. The opening of the show was deemed a great success, though there are no records as to sales, which probably means that there weren't any. But that wasn't the point ( was, but a fairly minor one, actually). Mostly the show was aimed at the art critics and New York's high-end art gallery owners. As it turned out, the public was, in general, liking of what they saw. Yet, in spite of the public interest exhibited, there were few galleries that were willing to accept the works of the New York School artists who were unknown to traditional art critics. It was a start, but it was a slow start. As one sympathetic critic put it: "It appeared as though a line had been crossed, a step into a larger art world whose future was bright with possibility." That was most kind of him.

A sort of commencement ceremony for graduating seniors of the New York School.
Art historians, then and now, often compare the 1951 Ninth Street Exhibition to the much more famous (and groundbreaking) 1913 Armory Show. However no huge crowds braved the warm spring weather to look at the predominantly abstract works mounted in the downtrodden storefront on Ninth Street. No former president came around to make fun of the art (as had Teddy Roosevelt at the Armory Show). There was not the same degree of outrage or publicity the Armory show had elicited thirty-eight years before. Modern Art had become about as modern as the parents of most of the artists exhibiting, many of whom were war veterans struggling, as in the case of Pollock, to pay $35. a month rent while deciding whether to put food on the table or paint on their palettes.

She Wolf, 1942, Jackson Pollock.
It's questionable as to whether this one was in the Ninth Street Show.
New York's south of Fourteenth Street art
neighborhood during the 1940s and 50s.
The Cedar Tavern was near Eleventh Street.
At the time Pollock was sharing a nearby fourth floor walk-up with his brother, sister-in-law, and girlfriend, artist Lee Krasner. He was yet to get into his "dripping" mode and was, instead, turning out work such as She Wolf (above) from 1942. He was quite ill-fed and ill-housed, but he had no worries as to the price of beer--fifteen cents at the nearby Cedar Tavern (below). This University Place watering hole was where the New York School held its "classes." Painter Joe Steffanelli claimed, "I learned more about painting in the Cedar Bar than in any art school." In the forties and fifties, still-semi-starving artists like Pollock, de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell and a few others took time from the Abstract Expressionist search for aesthetic truths, both seen and unseen, to hoist a few, get into fistfights, and hoist a few more at the Cedars. De Kooning and his wife, Elaine, used the Cedars to play out their 50-year alcoholic soap opera, while Pollock was eventually banned from the place for ripping the men’s room door off its hinges. Another member of their rowdy group was likewise tossed, for pissing in an ashtray. Raucous as it was, the long, drunken nights at the "Cedar Bar" led to the founding of "The Art Club" (or simply, "The Club") at 39 Eighth Street. And that alcoholic's no-man's-land led to the organization of the first Ninth Street Exhibition little more than a block north (see map). The show continued annually at a different location until 1963.

The moving history of New York's infamous Cedar Tavern.

Some of the lesser-known members of the
Cedar Tavern gang, artists Charlotte Brooks, left,
Jack Tworkov, Mercedes Matter, and James Brooks.


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