Art on the Block
Originally published in the Brooklyn Rail’s February 2014 Issue. ◊◊
With its enormous title and ambition, Art on the Block: Tracking the New York Art World from SoHo to the Bowery, Bushwick and Beyond is the latest demonstration of introspection and nostalgia regarding the migration patterns of New York art neighborhoods. Ann Fensterstock, a historian-cum-collector who served on multiple committees and boards at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, orchestrates this undertaking. Her work is backed up by what sounds like an appropriately elephantine amount of work: Art on the Block relies on 500 interviews with art world figureheads and years of archival research. The book aspires to be an elaborately annotated cartography of Manhattan and Brooklyn in the past six decades, animated by personal anecdotes and footnoted with the relevant politics.
The surprising slenderness of the volume, however, is a portent of its pacing and depth. In fewer than 250 pages from that first chapter to the epilogue, Fensterstock’s tour of faces and places is more of a merciless sprint. The book’s very stylish maps of Manhattan and Brooklyn’s neighborhoods don’t bear street names, making it hard for someone less than rapidly fluent in New York’s geography to follow Fensterstock’s fairly specific addresses. The chapters’ subheadings are further obfuscations—entitled, for example, “Everyman Everywhere” or “Multiplicity, Momentum and Making Friends” or “Regeneration”—that frustrate one’s need to refer quickly to passages in order to grasp continuity in a text so driven by names and dates.
As a book at least somewhat about art and artists, Art on the Block is sparing in its discussion of both these subjects. In fact, artists often appear as wooden items in lists. Willem de Kooning is introduced to us in a peripheral glance as the producer of “strange, angular, mostly black-and-white compositions [ … ] priced only in the hundreds of dollars.” A bit later, Robert Rauschenberg “was making paintings that seemed to depict absolutely nothing at all.” Only infrequently does an artist merit more than two sentences at once, and this breeziness leaves to the dust anyone not primed with mental image banks of modern and contemporary art history. Fensterstock does demonstrate a knack for memorable phrasing (“Pollock’s dribbled skeins,” “the appropriationist audacity of Sherrie Levine”)—the kind of wit one could parrot at cocktail parties. It is unfortunate that this appears throughout the book in fatiguing density, which does not give space for her considerable wit to make its impact.
The most vivid personalities in Fensterstock’s accounts belong to gallerists and dealers, which is perhaps to be expected given the impressive number populating her acknowledgements. We are given access to many intimacies of Paula Cooper’s career, including her visionary taste and the tender age at which she moved to New York (she was 22). We are offered endearing facts about Sidney Janis’s first enterprise in a shirt company popular with Southerners, Holly Solomon’s ambitions as a performer, and Ivan Karp’s associations with his gallery name (“I felt O.K. Harris was a tough, American name that sounded like that of a riverboat gambler.”) We are told who split rent, partnered up, and poached ideas. The luxurious details afforded the dealers make us even more aware of the impoverished prose tossed to artists. In fact, dealers are even given primacy as the defining characters in neighborhoods, eras, and art movements:
At this point, one has to wonder whom the book is intended to entice or educate. The dust jacket copy cheerfully suggests that “this is a must-read for both art enthusiasts and anyone with a passion for New York City,” but the text is not as innocently general or as introductory as this. The imbalance of authorial attention suggests that the narrative may have been borne by a market-driven undertow, or emerged solely from a commercial perspective. It could be a worthy roadmap for collectors or enterprises looking for a quickie on who’s who and what’s generally where. The rest of us may feel better served in the volumes of its formidable bibliography.
The publication of Art on the Block inevitably punctuates one of the most introspective years for New York art communities, one in which many were contemplating their geographical vulnerability to future storms like Hurricane Sandy. Certain devastation silences neighborhood rivalry, envy, and distinctions. In her epilogue, Fensterstock acknowledges the fragility of her own scholarship in a tactful gesture. She writes, “By the end of that first day, many of the organizing principles of the New York contemporary art world that had evolved over the half century of its existence—many of them described in the opening pages of this book—were suddenly in question.” Unfortunately, she doesn’t apply this thoughtfulness toward further consideration of whether the New York City of these pages accommodates the gravity of uncertainty, or escapes the inconsequence of neighborhood tribalism. We are left to fend for ourselves with nothing but a glibly parsed map.