Seventies SoHo: Duncan Hannah Takes Us Back

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Seventies SoHo: Duncan Hannah Takes Us Back

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Painter and Twentieth-Century Boy author Duncan Hannah looks back at ’70s New York—the emerging SoHo art scene, and the people who shaped it.

In the 45 years I have lived in NYC, perhaps no other neighborhood’s personality has changed as much as SoHo’s. I moved there in the fall of 1973 to attend Parsons School of Design, having just turned 21. (These years are chronicled in my diaries, Twentieth Century Boy, published by Vintage Books this month.) My first residence was the towering art-deco One Fifth Avenue, on Eighth Street, which was then used for student housing. My ninth-floor windows looked south over Washington Square Park, with the brand-new World Trade Center looming in the distance like twin phosphorescent robots. I was thrilled to be in Greenwich Village.

I remember one day in particular in 1974. There was a huge blizzard, and the city had ground to a halt. No cars, no pedestrians. I needed art supplies. Being a hearty Minnesotan, I decided to bundle up and walk down Mercer to the red-and-white checked Pearl Paint on Canal. I began my wintry journey, lighting a joint on the way to enhance the fairy tale aspect of a deserted city. The city was silent, muffled by snow, enchanted. The old industrial streets smelled of spices because SoHo was still a hub for imports and exports. It felt mysterious, the kind of exotic backwater where Sherlock Holmes might sniff out a criminal mastermind. Passing the fire escapes, the loading docks, the water towers, the rust, the cast-iron cornices, the chipped industrial paint—it was easy to imagine I was in the 19th century, as there were few sensory giveaways that this was indeed 1974. No boutiques, banks, drug stores. Parked cars hid under heaps of snow. I didn’t pass a soul. Once inside the warmth of Pearl Paint, I wandered the four floors mesmerized by the Day-Glo grease pencils, the small bottles of colored dye, the Japanese brushes, the stencil sets, the sweet-smelling bricks of Plasticine. I gave myself permission to get anything that caught my eye and loaded up, hoping for miracles back in my studio.

I exited back into the white-out, then stopped at Fanelli’s on Prince, ordered a cheeseburger and a beer, and looked around at the framed discolored 1920s boxing photos on the nicotine-yellow walls. The bartender was a skinny guy in his 80s who looked like he just stepped out of a Warner Brothers gangster movie—slick-backed hair, chewing on a matchstick. There were a couple of locals reading the paper and smoking at the bar. It could have been a hundred years ago. This is what I wanted from NYC, a sense of history, some authenticity. Manhattan as time-machine. I had escaped suburbia!

The NYC galleries had begun to leave Madison Avenue and 57th Street and popping up in SoHo, where they could get more space for lower rent. They featured the flavors of the time. Minimalism, color-field painting, hard-edged abstraction, conceptualism. The SoHo painters were mostly serious men who acted tough and titled their paintings things like “Little Mack Truck.” They wore blue jeans and construction boots. They had ponytails trailing down their denim shirt collars. They listened to Blood on the Tracks and Ornette Coleman. They talked about Donald Judd and the latest mumbo-jumbo in Art Forum.  

Saturdays were for openings on West Broadway, to people-watch and lap up the cheap white wine that was served. Warhol would often be visible in blue jeans, blue blazer, and rep-tie with a stack of Interview magazines under his arm that he would sign with a black magic marker and give out for free. A drag queen and performance artist named Stephen Varble would have created an outrageous costume related to the top show he was going to. Another guy named Richard Gallo would wear a black leather S&M mask and black mesh bodysuit that revealed his bodybuilder perfection (and genitalia). Collagist Ray Johnson often loitered on the sidewalk, taking in the freak parade and commenting hilariously on who’s who. Rene Ricard, Gerard Malanga, Robert Mapplethorpe, David Hockney, Henry Geldzahler, Alex Katz, and Brice Marden could be spotted milling about in Leo Castelli’s Gallery in the “chic” 420 West Broadway. It was still a relatively small scene, and very few expected to get rich by being an artist. New York was broke, and that kept it pure in a way. For us youths who spent our nights in CBGB’s, it was “our” bohemia. Glamour was uptown, we were safe downtown.

This was all before the next wave of neo-expressionists made their big splash at Mary Boone and other like-minded galleries in the early ’80s. I, too, showed in SoHo from 1983 onwards, proud that I had arrived as a professional artist. We would never have imagined that the fashion world would move in; the neighborhood was too gritty. There was nowhere to eat save the Broome Street Bar and a handful of others. Now those distinctions have blurred, and as one thing replaces another, I barely recognize my old stomping ground. The galleries moved next to Chelsea, and now even farther afield. But that’s the thing about NYC. It’s the Empire City, always in flux. The only constant is change. And Fanelli’s.

WORDS Duncan Hannah

PHOTOGRAPHY Fernando Natalici; Bobby Miller 

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