420 rip

The Life and Death of Soho’s Gallery Cornerstone

Perhaps the most notorious use of 420 took place in January 1972 when Sonnabend presented Vito Acconci's Seedbed. Hidden beneath a sloping ramp, the artist lay masturbating, announcing his fantasies to visitors walking above him through speakers in the gallery. According to Homem, Ileana and he heard about Acconci's idea while in Venice. "Everyone was really quite taken aback," says Homem, discussing Sonnabend's decision to stage the show. "But I was very impressed with Ileana's reaction. She's a lady in the sense that her dignity doesn't depend on petty rules. You don't stop being a lady because you show Seedbed."

By 1979, Emmerich had decided to move back uptown and sold his space to Charles Cowles. De Knegt and Germans decided to rent part of the ground floor to a young woman they had met while making deliveries to the Bykert Gallery. The new kid on the block was, of course, Mary Boone. Boone's presence at the prestigious address immediately set off alarms about her ambitions as a dealer. "One of the ways she was judged was that she had the chutzpah to open at 420 at all," say art critic Nancy Princenthal, who worked for Boone briefly in 1978. According to Boone, it was a sound business move. "If you want to do something, you should do something you believe in and you should do it on the top level" is all she says, looking back.

But, for the veteran dealers in the building, Boone was a brisk introduction to the art world of the 1980s. "Mary was the first person in the art world I had ever known intentionally promoting herself, not her artists," says Weber. "It was quite clever and fit into the scheme of things at the time, but no one had ever done that before." Boone rapidly shifted from showing the understated postminimalists she had met at Bykert to the stable that later would be recognized as the art stars of the 1980s: Ross Bleckner, David Salle, Eric Fischl, and Julian Schnabel. Meanwhile, upstairs, Castelli began showing the Italian transavantguardia, including Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, and Francesco Clemente; Weber staged the first U.S. shows of Arte Provera; and Sonnabend threw its weight behind Neo-Geo.

Opening day, September 25, 1971: "The place was in the art world from that point on.’’
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
Opening day, September 25, 1971: "The place was in the art world from that point on.’’

The 1980s brought a new view of 420—more ivory tower than Bastille—with local artists often using the place as a site for guerrilla action. "The building was a focal point, and we knew a lot of people would see it," says artist Jerry Kearns, who participated in a 1974 May Day action. "We intended to send a message about commercialism, mired in minimalist art and decontextualized." For similar reasons, 10 years later, David Wojnarowicz's band, 3 Teens Kill 4, spilled blood and bones down the stairwells at 420 as a metaphor for the growing AIDS crisis. In 1985, the Guerrilla Girls plastered posters across the lobby windows announcing, "These Galleries Show No More Than 10% Women Artists or None at All." As if to underline their point, Castelli had mounted Bruce Nauman's neon sign of a waving penis—erect, limp, erect, limp—outside his second-story window.

But the status of the building as a paradigm of power was already slipping. In 1982, Boone took an additional space across the street in an empty garage owned by Hague. Once she finished renovating 417 West Broadway, a new look had been established—the highly refined polish of the '80s. In contrast to Sonnabend and Castelli, Boone had a finished floor and an off-putting receptionist at the front desk. (In 1984, after annexing 419 West Broadway, Boone finally shut down her 420 space.) It would not be long before Julian Schnabel brushed off Boone and Castelli (who had given him a joint show in '82) for an even bigger megagallery, Pace. And Sonnabend soon found her director, Ealan Wingate, leaving to join art boomer Larry Gagosian.

Meanwhile, 420 itself seemed to be downgrading. Weber, faced with a 300 percent increase in rent upon the expiration of his lease and unhappy with the "carnival atmosphere" on West Broadway, moved his gallery to 142 Greene Street, just above Castelli's annex. Instead of bringing in another commercial gallery, de Knegt rented the fourth floor to 49th Parallel, an exhibition space funded by the Canadian government. His partner, Germans, opened his own gallery, Germans Van Eck, on the ground floor. The gallery soon distinguished itself by showing young Americans—Maureen Connor, Donald Lipski, David Ireland, Heide Fasnacht, Elena Sisto—all exciting, innovative artists, but not art stars.

For the dealers in the building, these shifts were painless, due primarily to the anesthesia of the late-'80s art market. The boom years had begun and spirits could not be higher. "One year, Wouter made so much money he took the entire staff to Jamaica for vacation," says Jennifer Gross, gallery director at Germans Van Eck from 1987 to 1994. Castelli shared shows with younger dealers on the scene, such as Pat Hearn, and barely winced as he watched prices of works he had sold in the 1960s skyrocket at auction. "They all had just experienced the biggest economic boom," relates Morgan Spangle, an employee at Castelli from 1984 to 1990. "Leo once told me he had made more money then than at any other point in his career."

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