420 rip

The Life and Death of Soho’s Gallery Cornerstone

While the crowds were celebrating the opening of Sonnabend's sleek new space on West 22nd Street in May, a few of the champagne-swigging guests took a moment to comment on the sorry state of the gallery's former residence, 420 West Broadway. For almost 30 years, 420 served as Soho's capital of contemporary art, headquarters for Leo Castelli, Ileana Sonnabend, and John Weber, as well as a string of other important dealers. Now it stands empty, with demolition crews tearing out the ghosts of exhibitions past to make way for luxury co-ops.

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 galleries—Paula Cooper, Holly Solomon, Richard Feigen, Ronald Feldman—had 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 York—for public reaction like that."

Public reaction and artistic endeavors continued to collide throughout the '70s at 420; the number of important exhibitions—including Baldessari, Buren, Haake, LeWitt, Nauman, and Ryman—is 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.)

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.

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."

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 Voicecritic 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."

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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