Bringing Down the House

A Historical Art Space Falls to the Disney of Downtown, NYU

In 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, artist/curator Jon Hendricks arrived to do his alternative service as a conscientious objector. He reopened the gallery, giving shows to such groundbreakers as Carolee Schneemann, Meredith Monk, and Ono. One of the Destruction Art events he curated became a legend in certain circles. Out in the courtyard, Hermann Nitsch performed a quasi-religious ritual over a dead lamb, Lil Picard burned images of war, and Bici Forbes invited spectators to hack at a block of ice surrounded by raw eggs. Ralph Ortiz promised one of his ritual chicken slaughters, but someone "liberated" the birds. Then, everyone moved into the church for Charlotte Moorman's performance of Nam June Paik's One for Violin. Moorman was to raise a violin slowly over her head, then smash it. But on that night, a spectator tried to stop her and she smashed him over the head.

Small destructions—art destructions—can be interfered with. The one set in motion by the Disney of Downtown, NYU, probably can't be.

In situ: Ralph Lewis (top), Barry Rowell, and Catherine Porter of the Peculiar Works Project
photo: Robin Holland
In situ: Ralph Lewis (top), Barry Rowell, and Catherine Porter of the Peculiar Works Project

A quick tour through Judson House with Ralph Lewis, Catherine Porter, and Barry Rowell of Peculiar Works makes it clear why the church felt it had a choice here between gut renovation and plain old gut. The building still has gas lamp fixtures in the upper hallways, narrow stairways, inadequate electricity, and troubled plumbing. It's a firetrap.

Trying to address the crisis around runaway kids back in the '60s, Judson housed them here on the third floor, and the kids trashed the rooms, which haven't been used since. The graffiti's as legible as yesterday's news. "Death Is Out There," reads one profundity.

Porter says of the last hurrah PWP plans for Judson House: "We're approaching it as a celebration of the legacy, but the sadness is undeniable."

Tour reservations: 212-529-3626, ext. 4

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