By Martica Sawin
A show of large-scale paintings by members of the Blue Mountain Gallery, a leading artists’ cooperative, currently occupies a guest slot at the Westbeth Gallery (55 Bethune Street, near Washington Street) from November 2nd through the 25th.
The New York tradition of artist-run galleries had its start not far from Westbeth, when the Jane Street Gallery opened in 1943. (The space has long been occupied by Bonsignour Cafe, loved in the neighborhood for its high-quality coffee and take-out.) Last spring, NYU’s Grey Art Gallery drew widespread attention to this tradition with “Inventing Downtown,” a sprawling show that focused on the 10th Street cooperatives that flourished in the 1950s and early 1960s. Today, the Blue Mountain Gallery occupies a space at 530 West 25th Street in Chelsea (between 10th and 11th Avenues) adjacent to two other artist-run galleries—Bowery and Prince Street—that moved with it from 121 Wooster Street in SoHo in 2001.
Lacking sufficient space to exhibit large works by all 40 gallery members, Blue Mountain applied for and was awarded one of the coveted time slots in the spacious Westbeth Gallery. Blue Mountain is descended from the Green Mountain Gallery, another West Village start-up that opened at 17 Perry Street in 1968 before either SoHo or Chelsea became art meccas. The goal of its founder, Lucien Day, was to encourage and stimulate the representational tradition. Among the artists included in his exhibitions were: Lois Dodd, Rackstraw Downes, Alex Katz, Yvonne Jacquette, and Rudy Burckhardt. When Day closed Green Mountain in 1979, it became an artist-run gallery under the name ‘Blue Mountain.’
As the show at the Grey Art Gallery demonstrated, a significant role was played by artist-generated galleries operating in cheap lofts and storefronts far removed from 57th Street and Madison Avenue. Although sales were certainly welcomed, exhibitions were selected more on the basis of creative independence than commercial considerations. Stylistic homogeneity was something to be avoided although esthetic compatibility sometimes played a role. The artists attracted to the Jane Street Gallery, for example, shared a devotion to Mondrian and were initially practitioners of geometric abstraction—a formation that stayed with artists like Nell Blaine and Leland Bell when they turned to representation. By contrast, at the Tanager and Hansa galleries that opened on 10th Street in 1952, there was a discernable bias toward figurative painting, alongside courageous breakthroughs in sculpture.
Eventually, many of the artists who had their first exposure in the cooperatives were taken on by commercial galleries. More recently, just as many have stayed in the less-pressured realm of the cooperatives. Unfortunately, with the drastically diminished possibility of press coverage and the obsession with labels, most of today’s gallery-going public prefers sauntering in and out of the ultra-slick spaces at street level to exploring the diverse and often highly personal work from New York’s vast body of dedicated artists on view in less well-traveled quarters. A herd instinct—or fear of making an independent judgment—apparently drives the audience for contemporary art.
It helps to arrive without preconceptions when visiting the Blue Mountain show at Westbeth. (The gallery is accessible from both Bank and Bethune Streets.) That way, each painting speaks for itself rather than being seen in relation to a (non-existent) group ethos, or as part of some imagined hierarchy of size or subject. The heterogeneity that characterizes the work by gallery members is reflective of current artistic diversity. The art here runs the gamut from a meticulously observed and rendered snow-covered landscape, or a dormant city under night skies, to variations on classical themes, or even all-over abstractions made up of hypnotic repetitive detail. If there is a thread of continuity it is in the freedom from dependence on current fashion—and the high standards of the individual artists. Today’s collectors may follow the art fairs around the globe in their private jets, but they could be bypassing genuine treasures on their own doorsteps.