City as stage

A city whose living immediacy is so urgent that when I am in it I lose all sense of the past
Kenneth Tynan

‘New York in the early 70s was Paris in the 20s’, said the artist Laurie Anderson. Despite being poised on the brink of financial collapse, the city became the centre for an explosion of creative activity. At its heart was the downtown district of SoHo, with its dingy basements, empty warehouses, rundown lofts and bars. 1969 was the year that Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, and the Woodstock music festival was held. New frontiers, both physical and psychological, were opening up and questions relating to the notion of gender, race, public and private space, came to the fore. The city became an arena in which to challenge all kinds of received notions. For the expression of these concepts, a new range of media was being explored – in particular, video, photography and performance. Collaboration and exchange of ideas between artists, dancers and musicians was common. In contrast to the impersonal and socially disengaged approach of Minimalism, these artists sought to reclaim biographical content, taking their art out into the real world, and allowing the urban environment to shape it. 

Curated by Donna De Salvo, a senior curator at Tate Modern.

Questioning identity

In the context of the feminist movement, which arose in the late 1960s, a number of women artists rejected the benchmarks imposed by a predominantly male art establishment. Hannah Wilke intended to create ‘specifically female’ art. For her performance Super T-Art, staged at the Kitchen, she stripped, presenting her body in poses that suggested both religious imagery and eroticism. She documented the performance in a series of photographs.

Oozing across the gallery floor, Lynda Benglis’s slick of latex, titled Contraband, can also be read as a feminist gesture. It has many qualities that encapsulate ideas of femininity – flowing lines, colour, organic shapes – and at the same time masculine connotations of the marking-out of territory, as the slick invades the gallery space. 

Questions of identity became a preoccupation for Adrian Piper, as critic Maurice Berger wrote: ‘She could no longer reconcile the socially removed, elitist mind games of Minimalist and Conceptual art with the fact that as an African American woman she faced constant discrimination both within and outside the art world.’ In her radical performance Food for the Spirit, she turned the focus on her own body, photographed naked in front of a mirror. Like many performances and ‘happenings’ of the time, it took place in a New York loft as an alternative to that bastion of white, liberal activity, the art gallery. 


The city sometimes became the literal subject matter for artists during this period. Trained as an architect, Gordon Matta-Clark used empty warehouses and buildings destined for demolition as his raw material. In what he called his ‘cuttings’, he literally carved out sections of buildings. In this way, he revealed their hidden construction and provided new ways of perceiving space. He made Bingo by removing the facade of a house, section by section.

Anarchitecture, a group that included Gordon Matta-Clark, Laurie Anderson, and Jene Highstein sought an ‘alternative’ architectural language. Their 1974 group exhibition featured photographs and drawings of neglected urban features, the ‘voids, gaps, left-over spaces, places that were not developed’. 

The Urban Stage

‘Each day, I pick out a different person, at random, in the street, any location: I follow that person as long as I can …’ To performance artist Vito Acconci, the city offered a protective cloak of anonymity and the possibility for chance encounters. In one of his most notorious works Seedbed, he hid beneath a wooden ramp in the Sonnabend Gallery and masturbated while talking to the visitors walking above. 

The fabric of the city, its streets and downtown warehouses were often the backdrop for performances. Trisha Brown, a founder member of the influential Judson Dance Theatre, used the Manhattan skyline as a stage for her performance Roof Piece. The availability of video and film-making equipment allowed artists to document their actions and reach a wider audience. In the 1970s, artists such as Mary Miss also began siting their works, without invitation, in public areas around the city. In 1973, for example, she created a wooden sculpture in a wintry urban landfill along the Hudson River in Manhattan. 

Alternative spaces

The experimental artwork being made downtown exposed the limitations of the commercial art system. Low rents in SoHo allowed younger, less established artists, to turn vacated manufacturing premises into raw art spaces. For artists, dancers, musicians, filmmakers and poets alike, these were places to socialise, and to work without constraints. 

In 1970 Jeffrey Lew opened the lower floors of 112 Greene St. to local artists known and unknown. Lew stated, ‘most galleries won’t even let you put a scratch in the floor, here you can dig a hole in it.’ Food, a restaurant established by Gordon Matta-Clark and Caroline Goodden in 1971, offered artists a meeting point, a performance space, and often a wage. Its menu boasted everything from fish chowder to ‘used car stew’.