Looking for the Soul of SoHo

Avant-Garde Guru Richard Kostelanetz Goes Off the Map

If this is all beginning to sound like performance art, you're in the right time and place. As Kostelanetz writes, "SoHo was particularly hospitable to the art forms that were new in the 1960s and 1970s: video, holography and book art (aka Artists' Books) among others." Performance art, while hardly new, was one of the most striking hybrids of the period. While so many artists today seem focused on making tangible products, if not profits, the previous generation was bent on tearing down the walls between art and everyday life, or theater and unscripted living. Soho gave them the stage and audience.

Kostelanetz remembers performances by Hannah Wilke, who bared her body in performance and photography, and Tosun Bayrak, who worked with blood, rats, and excrement. Bayrak's pieces inspire some of his most colorful prose. "Recognizing in the early seventies that SoHo itself was an art gallery," he writes, "a Turk named Tosun Bayrak, scarcely young at the time, did radical performance pieces—'actions' they could be called—whose audacity remains unrivaled. When his wife was evicted from a West Broadway building that was sold to a new owner, Bayrak embedded bags of bovine blood and entrails in the walls and ceiling of her loft and replastered them. Inviting people into the loft one Saturday afternoon, he chopped at the walls with an ax to 'free' the gore, so to speak. White pigeons, very much a symbol of peace at the time, were released from beneath the floorboards. This piece he called The Living Loft."

This is, of course, a far cry from Mary Boone's champagne-popping openings of the 1980s and Prada's private-shopping parties of the 1990s. When exactly did the ax fall—or Bayrak's ax get confiscated? As Kostelanetz remembers it, the first sign of commercial growth came relatively early, with the opening of Dean & DeLuca on Prince Street in 1977. He was struck not just by the wealth of gourmet foodstuffs, but also by the long lines of limousines that formed outside.

Kostelanetz: escaping SoHo, artists' colony-turned-"Lipstick emporium"
photo: Brian Kennedy
Kostelanetz: escaping SoHo, artists' colony-turned-"Lipstick emporium"

He didn't, he says, feel a real sense of cataclysmic change until 1985, when a travel magazine asked him to write about the neighborhood. As he reported on the thickening crowds of Saturday tourists, and the spreading web of furniture and clothing stores, he realized that SoHo was less in the market for selling art than in the business of selling taste—"the accoutrements of conspicuous high-class taste." Sure enough, the art galleries would soon decamp for Chelsea, leaving behind what he derisively calls a "lipstick emporium."

There goes the neighborhood. So what about the neighbors? Some, like Robert Rauschenberg and Nam June Paik, hit it big. Others have fled the art world altogether to become, among other things, real estate agents. Others yet, cash poor but rich in property value, continue to paint, perform, or write in a community that has largely moved on to other things. It's the great paradox of the starving artist in SoHo, and reason to think that the Rockaways just may be the next big thing.

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