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When art ruled SoHo

Frieze Projects is paying tribute to the artist-run 1970s restaurant Food

Gordon Matta-Clark in Food

Food, the famous creative SoHo clubhouse started by the artists Gordon Matta-Clark and Carol Goodden, proved to be the little artist-run restaurant that could. A feeding, boozing and conviviality-as-art-performance spot that was open from 1971 to 1974, the once-modest canteen has evolved into full-blown legend. In contrast with today’s Rome-on-the-Hudson, its scrappy tale channels the loft-dwelling version of Romulus and Remus.

The original downtown artists’ lunch-counter—Frieze Projects is honouring the venue this week with a special tribute organised by the curator Cecilia Alemani—was described in print in New York magazine in January 1973. That review read breezily: “FOOD, 127 Prince Street (corner Wooster Street, one block east of West Broadway, no phone yet), is a restaurant commune founded and operated by seven artists who live and work in the SoHo area. The culinary responsibilities are shared by Carol Goodden (soups and menu planning), Gordon Matta-Clark (everything), Robert Prado (soups, stews and gumbos), Suzy Harris (vegetables), Tina Girouard (Cajun cuisine), Anne Marshall (dinners) and Rachel Lew (guest dinners and factotum).” Few other accounts, then or now, grasp the jaunty amateurism and inspired energy that must have animated the place.

Although Matta-Clark’s name is the one most closely associated with Food, the enterprise proved to be a collaborative project with many parents. A natural outgrowth of the activities of a hungry crew of young artists that included Jeffrey Lew, Vito Acconci, Trisha Brown, Richard Nonas, Alan Saret, Yvonne Rainier and Philip Glass, Food became—along with another artist-occupied building in Chinatown’s Chatham Square and the gang’s famous DIY gallery at 112 Greene Street—a seedbed for innovative living, urban pioneering and artistic experimentation. The painter Mary Heilman fondly remembers the multi-disciplinary activities of the downtown artists as “a kind of separatist community”. The fact was, just a few blocks up from Houston Street, the city quickly turned either buttoned-up conventional (by day) or frighteningly feral (by night).

New York in the 1970s was “Fear City”: a dirty, dangerous, “Taxi Driver”-like version of its Bloomberg-era, bike-laned self. Famously bankrupt and written off by one US president—a celebrated New York Post headline read “Ford to City: Drop Dead”—the city experienced a massive population outflow and a steady manufacturing decline starting in the 1960s. Less than a decade later, the blight around the area called Hell’s Hundred Acres (SoHo’s previous handle) proved a beacon of opportunity for artists from all over. As recounted by Jessamyn Fiore, co-director of the Gordon Matta-Clark estate and author of the brilliant 112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970-1974): “New York was a failed city. There was high crime, garbage strikes and massive problems with infrastructure. Conversely, urban decay created this neighbourhood where artists came together to experiment wildly.”

A hole in the heart of the city that was nearly bulldozed to make way for the Lower Manhattan Expressway, SoHo (short for South of Houston Street) provided an unmatched opportunity for artists to create their own environment. “When I got there, it was anything but a shopping centre,” says Andy Grundberg, a young poet and college friend of Matta-Clark’s who eventually settled into a role as photography critic for the New York Times. “It was illegal to live in SoHo [because at the time the area was zoned for commercial, not residential, occupancy], but the spaces were so appealing that many of the younger, poorer, more desperate artists, like me, flocked down there.”

A scene that established few boundaries between visual artists, dancers, designers, writers, musicians and chefs, SoHo in the early 1970s drew inspiration from a free-flowing, largely improvised interdisciplinarity that has gradually disappeared from view in New York. An era that saw installations by Matta-Clark overlap with performances by the Philip Glass Ensemble, the Mabou Mines theatre troupe and Laurie Anderson, the loft age in SoHo arrived at its sturdiest ideas, as well as at its most important physical addresses, more or less spontaneously.

For the crowd at Food and 112 Greene Street, personal relationships were everything. They led to conversations, art-making, fun and the frequent jobbing that made all the rest possible (accounts of the time are peppered with references to part-time electrical, construction and restaurant work). As Grundberg tells it, SoHo in the 1970s also meant “winging it” to replace the decayed neighbourhood’s missing parts. “Besides Fanelli’s Bar and a bodega on Grand Street, there was nowhere to go,” Grundberg recalls. “Food basically sprung out of necessity—people needed a place to eat.” In an interview in Fiore’s book, Food co-founder Carol Goodden describes the interrelated nature of early SoHo even more explicitly: “112 Greene Street and Food were like brother and sister: everyone who worked and lived at 112 also worked and ate at Food. It was just like everybody’s kitchen.”

The dealer Paula Cooper’s memories of the Prince Street block where she launched her eponymous gallery are equally communal. “Everyone was quite close then and people were excited to do things together,” she says. Arriving there in 1968—several years before other commercial spaces such as Leo Castelli, Richard Feigen and Andre Emmerich—Cooper chose scrappy SoHo over the more traditional gallery neighbourhoods of East 10th Street, Midtown and Madison Avenue. Asked why she chose to cross over Houston Street, she responds: “I went to studios in SoHo all the time. I wanted to be where the artists were. Also, like them, I didn’t have a penny.”

By the mid-1990s, the “mallification” of the neighbourhood was complete, and many of the galleries decamped to Chelsea. Still, the brief, generous, generative history of the scene is best captured in the elliptical voice of Tina Girouard, one of Food’s original artist-instigators, who responded to my attempt at an interview with this email haiku: “SoHo was hollow, ready for demo for the new expressway. Rats desert a sinking ship. Artists jump on the ship, give life.”

Dark days: New York in the 1970s

December 1971: Francesco Vincent Serpico, a New York City police officer,

testifies before the Knapp Commission, an appointed five-member panel charged with investigating police corruption. He is the first officer in the history of the New York City Police Department to step forward to report and testify about systemic corruption amounting to millions of dollars.

October 1972: The song “American City Suite” by Cashman & West peaks at number 27 in the charts. With lyrics such as “a junkie steals, a mayor deals/who knows what's coming next”, the song chronicles, not so allegorically, the decline of New York City.

April 1973: The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the mammoth World Trade Center takes place in Lower Manhattan. The complex’s twin towers displace hundreds of commercial and industrial tenants, small businesses and around 100 residents. Conceived by the governor of New York, David Rockefeller, and built at a cost of $900m by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the towers become the world's tallest buildings. They lose that distinction to Chicago’s Sears Tower less than a year later.

December 1973: The northbound lanes of the old West Side Elevated Highway between Little West 12th Street and Gansevoort Street (now home to the High Line and the Standard Hotel) collapse under the weight of a dump truck carrying more than 30 tonnes of asphalt for ongoing repairs. A four-door sedan follows the truck through the hole. Miraculously, neither driver is seriously hurt.

A temporary restaurant in tribute to Food will be open at Frieze New York


Dealer Paula Cooper at her gallery in what was then known as “Hell’s Hundred Acres” in 1971
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Comments

19 Nov 13
21:15 CET

ROBERT LOSICK, PHILADELPHIA,PA

(Food) had the best healthy and delicious soups, sandwiches, hot and cold entrees, and I ran a restaurant myself with fresh food at reasonable prices. - this was the best and way too short lived

9 May 13
20:17 CET

WAYNE SNELLEN, BRICK

There is no mention in the article of the original owners of Food, Fritz Lohman and Charles Leslie, who were instrumental in establishing the first GLBTQ art museum in the world, The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, also in Soho.

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