420 rip

The Life and Death of Soho’s Gallery Cornerstone

And then came Jeff Koons. On the fertile floor that had seen Seedbed, Koons exhibited "Made in Heaven," explicit depictions of the artist and his then wife, Italian porn star La Cicciolina, re-creating the act of love for a broad audience. Once again, thousands arrived at 420. They packed the streets and the stairwells, too stunned to actually see the show. "It was the first time I saw John F. Kennedy Jr. in the gallery," says Homem. "It was the apotheosis of 420," insists Voice critic Jerry Saltz, who recalls Koons and a slightly embarrassed Leo Castelli posing for a photo-op in the center of the crowd. "After that, the building was never the same."

The bubble burst in 1992. "The faucet was shut off and not a drop was coming out," recalls Spangle. "It is a very New York thing, to raise expectations to the sky, and then when they don't continue to go up, someone must be killed," says Homem. Indeed, the building seemed to have plenty of sacrificial lambs. Castelli, in his mid eighties, had remarried, and his young Italian-born bride, Barbara Bertozzi, was "reorganizing" the gallery. In a nasty situation, Castelli's long-standing directors, Susan and Patty Brundage (who had been with him since the mid 1970s), were ousted, and Spangle was brought back; he later oversaw the move to a smaller, more manageable location on the Upper East Side. At the same time, Germans closed his gallery.

The final phase began in 1997 when Germans and de Knegt tried to lease the ground floor, including the lobby, to Esprit de Corp. The building's remaining shareholders—Castelli, Sonnabend, and Cowles—barred the transaction. The matter wound up in court, and they finally decided to settle it by putting 420 up for sale. The building is now in the hands of real estate developer Greg Manocherian, who is converting four of the five 8000-square-foot floors into two residential condominiums. "We made all those guys a lot of money," says de Knegt, "but there is a Dutch saying, 'When you are born a penny, you cannot grow into a quarter,' and they were never going to see us as anything but the truckers."

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 demise was perhaps inevitable. In the past two years, Leo Castelli and Wouter Germans have died. Emmerich, who merged with Sotheby's in 1998, has closed. John Weber has moved to West 20th Street and Mary Boone will be joining Charles Cowles on West 24th Street. And Sonnabend, with its grand new space beside Dia Center for the Arts, has adopted the high-toned architecture and cold cement floors of Chelsea in the 1990s. A soft spot remains for 420 West Broadway: The Sonnabends have retained the entire third-floor space and will be turning it into their primary residence. But Soho as art mecca seems a thing of the past. As Homem says, "In a way, we moved the gallery to remain in Soho, because to find the Soho of then, you have to look in Chelsea now."

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