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Back in 1971, when the building first opened as a gallery showcase, Soho was still a thing of the future. Castelli, André Emmerich, and Dwan (where John Weber served as gallery director) were renting storage space from Hague Art Deliveries up on West 108th Street, and when the city planned to raze the warehouse to make way for public housing, Hague owners Frits de Knegt and Wouter F. Germans
went looking for an alternative location. They turned up a paper warehouse, No. 420, on a bleak stretch of West Broadway. In a move considered quite innovative, Hague, Castelli, and Emmerich arranged to buy the building as a co-op. Under the name of the 420 West Broadway Corporation, they paid $275,000 and divided up the five-story building into three equal shares. Hague took over the basement and ground floor as an art-storage facility and rented the fourth floor to John Weber after Virginia Dwan decided to retire. Castelli moved into the second floor and rented the third to his former wife, Ileana Sonnabend. André Emmerich landed on the top floor.
Castelli was familiar with Soho because his former director, Ivan Karp, had already opened a space on West Broadway in 1968. A few other galleriesPaula Cooper, Holly Solomon, Richard Feigen, Ronald Feldmanhad also opened nearby, but the neighborhood was barely civilized.
"We were worried because we all came from uptown and this was a big risk for us," says Weber. Recalling the night of the first opening party in September 1971, he explains, "Everyone put out wine and cheese and stood around, nervous that no one would be there." Weber looked out the window before opening his doors and was astonished to see a crowd so thick it blocked traffic. "I think we clocked in 12,000 people that opening day, everything was gone in 12 seconds," he continues, "and the place was in the art world from that point on."
Opening day, Sonnabend stole the spotlight with a little-known duo from Great Britain who went by the name of Gilbert & George. As The Singing Sculpture, the two stood on a table and, for four hours, repeatedly lip-synched the English dancehall tune "Underneath the Arches" in a "dandy" send-up of high art. By the end of the evening, both they and the gallery were public sensations. "Gilbert & George was an explosion," according to Antonio Homem, Sonnabend's gallery director since 1968, who remembers his amusement when What's My Line? called to invite the artists to appear on the show (they declined). "Everybody in the art world came to see it, but also everybody in the whole city," he says, "which is the reason we came to New Yorkfor public reaction like that."
Public reaction and artistic endeavors continued to collide throughout the '70s at 420; the number of important exhibitionsincluding Baldessari, Buren, Haake, LeWitt, Nauman, and Rymanis too extensive to list here and already fills volumes of art-history books. "It was a moment when commercial galleries were taking more risks, and a lot of artists did not have something to sell," says Exit Art's Jeanette Ingberman, one of a generation that was inspired to open alternative spaces in the 1980s based on these experiences. "The rooms were never really finished, and the aesthetic of the space was a really strong part of the work," explains performance-art historian Roselee Goldberg. "It changed how we think of a gallery, because now they looked like everybody's loft, not the world of the collector or the overcooked architect."
Castelli's couch, always open to visitors, was emblematic of the period, as was the welcoming presence of Nick Sheidy at Sonnabend's front desk. "Leo had a way of extending his generosity," Richard Serra says. "Only he could bring the art world to a new geographical location and open it to a new architectural space."
Not every artist was in love with the architecture of the spaces at 420. "I always called it the clothing rack because the ceilings were so low and the pipes cut off the top of the paintings," says James Rosenquist. To accommodate outsize works by artists like Serra and Rosenquist, Castelli opened another Soho gallery, 142 Greene Street, as an annex in 1980.
Behind the scenes, however, de Knegt and Germans continued to play important roles, managing the building, overseeing deliveries, and guarding the freight elevator. While Germans often played conciliator, stories abound about de Knegt's temper and stringent rules. "Someone walked through the front door with a small Sol LeWitt and Frits went through the roof," recalls one building employee from that time. (But de Knegt couldn't stop Jannis Kounellis from bringing a horse up the freight elevator each day during the course of his 1975 Sonnabend show.)