How a forgotten New York street made art history

From left: Delphine Seyrig, Robert Indiana, Duncan Youngerman, Ellsworth Kelly, Orange, Jack Youngerman, and Agnes Martin on the roof of 3-5 Coenties Slip, New York, 1958. Photo: Hans Namuth.

The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever. By Prudence Peiffer. HarperCollins, 2023. 432 pages. 

WITH ITS DUTCH NAME, uneven cobblestones, and salt-kissed air, the inlet known as the Coenties Slip is situated adjacent to the East River’s waterfront, not far from the largely empty offices of Wall Street and the urban mall of South Street Seaport, on the fringes of that commercial core today referred to as “FiDi.” From the mid-nineteenth century to the time of World War I, Coenties Slip was a lively and tawdry enclave, populated by a bustling mix of sailors, dockworkers, and other working-class people employed by the maritime and shipping industries. The area became a source of inspiration to writers such as Hart Crane, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman. It was, during the 1950s and ’60s, one of the last points of access to a premodern New York, with a long and illustrious three-hundred-year history as a working port, with its entwined maritime enterprises and pleasures: the cottage industries of sailcloth and rope production, ship-related warehouses and stables, saloons and bordellos. By midcentury, all that was left were abandoned factory buildings with high ceilings and beautiful natural light, available as lofts and cold-water flats for young artists in search of cheap rent, abundant space, and a historically rich ambiance in which to pursue their fledgling careers.

From the socially and politically explosive decade between roughly 1957 to 1967, the street was home to an ambitious and talented group of transplants who sought artistic fortune in New York. These included Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, Lenore Tawney, Jack Youngerman and his wife, the French actress Delphine Seyrig. Prudence Peiffer’s The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever offers a convivial “group biography” of this artistic circle, giving voice to a cultural dialogue about semi-communal living, artistic process, and the lost spirit of bohemian New York.

An elevated railway at Coenties Slip, New York, 1884. Photo: Otto Herschan.

An elevated railway at Coenties Slip, New York, 1884. Photo: Otto Herschan.

Like Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women (2018), Peiffer seeks out a general audience, performing a cultural history written by a trained art historian. There is a rapid clip to The Slip: a silky tone that is careful to move along its narrative, conscious of keeping its reader. Peiffer is at her best, in fact, when her prose is fast-paced. She is a novelistic writer, offering a multifaceted framework with individuated sections on each protagonist as they reach their fey Manhattan destination (“Arrivals”); flourish, coming of age artistically (“Getting to Work”); and eventually take leave of the Slip (“Departures”). Peiffer is a consummate researcher, and she offers a delightful cultural history of the Slip, enlivening their work through their daily habits and routines in the now-disappeared neighborhood itself: for instance, the “mountains of sausages” left over from late night parties hosted by Seyrig and Youngerman, or Robert Indiana’s recollection of Agnes Martin as “a walking Stein seminar,” given her spontaneous recitations of Gertrude Stein’s erotic poetry.

Ellsworth Kelly, Coenties Slip, 1957, postcard collage, 3 1⁄2 x 5 1⁄2".

Ellsworth Kelly, Coenties Slip, 1957, postcard collage, 3 1⁄2 x 5 1⁄2″.

The Coenties Slip crowd is by no means new. Their art is, at this point, classic: A work by each—and often, whole series and print suites—is held in virtually every major American collecting museum. (The one exception to this is Tawney, who, despite being depicted as the most worldly and sophisticated of the Slip’s artists, also worked in a medium that was met with the most bias. Her sculptural works in fiber never received the same scholarly attention, museological recognition, or critical inquiry as her painter peers.) With the exception of “Between Land and Sea: Artists of the Coenties Slip” (2017), curated by Michelle White at Houston’s Menil Collection, and a 1993 Pace Gallery exhibition prior to that, these artists have largely been examined piecemeal. Now that all the key players are deceased, these range from memorial tributes, such as Glenstone’s “Ellsworth Kelly at 100” (2023–24); to overdue retrospectives, “Lenore Tawney: Mirror of the Universe” (2019), held at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, twelve years after Tawney’s death; to monographic books like Suzanne Hudson’s Agnes Martin: Night Sea (2017), a one-work intensive on Agnes Martin, and Michael Lobel’s social history James Rosenquist: Pop Art, Politics, and History in the 1960s (2009).

Peiffer’s book suggests that the enduring significance of these artists might well lie in their loosely introverted collectivity—a group with strong affinities, never cohering into a formal movement. She brings them to life in a way that their individual works on the hallowed walls of Anytown Encyclopedic Museum, USA, cannot; that is, she reminds us that these were real people, often self-made or from modest means, who struggled, fucked, cried, and loved.

Ellsworth Kelly at his Coenties Slip studio, New York, 1961. Photo: Fritz Goro/Ellsworth Kelly Studio.

Ellsworth Kelly at his Coenties Slip studio, New York, 1961. Photo: Fritz Goro/Ellsworth Kelly Studio.

The sheer fact that roughly half of them were queer is the best revisionist history: Take Ellsworth Kelly, one of the most prominent figures in the book. For those of us unmoved by his apolitical, monochromatic canvases made during the turbulence of the 1960s, his story is moving nonetheless: a gay World War II veteran who spent six difficult years in Paris, only to return to the US on the cusp of a breakthrough in the abstraction he disassociates from the invented, or mentally conjured, image, instead using only flattened renderings of what he sees before him in the world. Peiffer’s biographical portrait becomes a way to rescue Kelly’s shaped canvases from the clutches of dry Minimalist theories involving the so-called “eradication of subjectivity” (Yve-Alain Bois), and instead leans into her subject’s charm, intellect, and charisma, situating him within a group of like-minded queers (Indiana, Martin, Tawney) and bohemians (Rosenquist, Seyrig, Youngerman).

Still, the question arises: Has the moment of celebration for a generation of white, midcentury abstractionists—albeit formidable ones—passed? At times, the author seems to take for granted the immense privilege she documents, with dealers (Castelli, Karp, Feigen, Parsons, Sonnabend), collectors (the Tremaines, Count Panza), curators (Dorothy Miller, Walter Hopps) and critics (James Schuyler, Gene Swenson, Jill Johnston) incessantly coming-and-going, slipping in and out of the Slip artists’ studios. All this activity is documented rather breathlessly, and the surfeit of anecdote reads like an imperious and impermeable fortress, where the heavy steel doors were firmly shut, locking out the women and artists of color. The former, received few, if any, studio visits, owing to widespread sexism. The latter, barred by systemic racism, would have likely had difficulty securing a lease, let alone becoming a part of a coterie such as Coenties Slip. Throughout the book, New York’s clubby art world is on full display, with only an occasional, barely critical aside about “a newly lucrative and quickly metabolizing gallery system.” This system was not only raced and gendered, but reflected an assumed media hierarchy with abstract painting at its summit. 

Lenore Tawney in her Coenties Slip studio, New York, 1958. Photo: David Attie.

Lenore Tawney in her Coenties Slip studio, New York, 1958. Photo: David Attie.

Peiffer divides her time, attention, and empathy fairly evenly between her chosen artists, but despite the steady page counts, we remain painfully aware of the utter lack of parity in their gendered receptions. Certainly, the two women Peiffer includes, Martin and Tawney (and Seyrig makes three, never quite decoupled from Youngerman), received the recognition they deserved only posthumously. In the last third of her book, Peiffer observes, “At this point [1963], every Slip artist but Agnes Martin and Lenore Tawney had had a significant showing at MoMA.” Chryssa and Ann Wilson, also Coenties Slip residents at various times, play even more minor “friend” roles. These are artists who were formative peers to Martin and Tawney both, yet have remain largely unknown to a non–New York audience (Chryssa was recently lauded with a Dia Beacon retrospective). Wilson, in particular, made spectacular quilt paintings, and was clearly interviewed for this volume, as she is quoted several times, but unfortunately did not merit inclusion as one of the protagonists, perhaps because she was slightly younger (a student of Youngerman, she was also as the last living artist of this scene, having passed away away earlier this year) and ultimately defected to the downtown performance scene of the early 1960s. 

Agnes Martin in her Coenties Slip studio, New York, 1960. Photo: Alexander Liberman/J. Paul Getty Trust/Getty Research Institute.

Agnes Martin in her Coenties Slip studio, New York, 1960. Photo: Alexander Liberman/J. Paul Getty Trust/Getty Research Institute.

The tension between academic rigor and commercial appeal is on full display in this volume, which, for this reviewer, falls short of conjuring a truly satisfying analysis on behalf of the Slip. (There are also pages of notes that would have been better as footnotes, rather than as back matter with lead-in phrases.) One frustration is that the book does not commit to the larger social histories it seeks to include, compressing rather than complicating its account of the greed and grift of the midcentury art market and its vast gender disparities. We could have learned more, for example, about what independent wage earning looked like for women in the period, and the single-sexed rooming houses into which they were historically channeled. Such a backdrop would have lessened the strangeness, say, of Martin’s perceived loner status.

Nonetheless, The Slip is a meditative discussion of place, pondering the role of survival, unity, and most importantly, the chosen identity of “artist,” which at midcentury constituted its own coming out experience, a resolute turning away from mainstream America. A thoughtful afterword, titled “Collective Solitude” is perhaps the best section of the book. Intervening in the text’s own inclinations toward nostalgia and the romantic rituals of shared placemaking, it rejects the utopian ideal of collectivity in favor of a sensibility familiar to parents of toddlers—the “parallel play” endemic to small children, who play side by side, but not quite together.

Jenni Sorkin is professor of the history of art and architecture and affiliate faculty in feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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