Chryssa: Small White Letters, undated, wood, plaster, acrylic, and glass, 16 by 16⅛ by 33/4 inches; at the Menil Collection. 

 

 

Stories of young, unknown artists living and working in derelict lofts often carry a certain romance, particularly if those artists later achieve critical success. "Between Land and Sea: Artists of the Coenties Slip" highlighted a milieu around which such stories have frequently been spun. The show focused on the work of artists who lived on or near Coenties Slip in the late 1950s, when Cue magazine described the Lower Manhattan area as a "bohemia on the waterfront." Bringing together twenty-seven pieces by Chryssa, Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Lenore Tawney, and Jack Youngerman, curator Michelle White dispensed with nostalgia. Instead, she revealed the shared strategies—intellectual, formal, and material—that these varied artists used to create forms of abstraction that were so original that they were, to borrow a phrase from a statement Martin wrote on Tawney in 1961, "wholly unlooked for." 

In a useful prelude, Kelly's Rouleau Blue (1951) and Youngerman's Rochetaillée (1953) were paired at the show's entrance and demonstrated the two artists' distance from Abstract Expressionism. Both paintings were made in France (where both men spent time on the GI Bill, prior to arriving on the Slip) and use clean, geometric styles to articulate differing patterns of reflected light. The exhibition gained force with a selection of Kelly's early drawings, which were bound to the Slip: he used fragments of newspaper photos depicting the nearby Brooklyn Bridge and ship sails to experiment with shape, and cut out a form he would subsequently render in three dimensions—as the early painted sculpture Gate (1959)—from an envelope bearing Martin's address. Kelly's use of Martin's envelope suggests the intimacy at the heart of the show and the immediacy of his search for a convincing form of abstraction. 

Apart from Martin, the Slip's female artists have remained less acknowledged than their male colleagues. In this regard, "Between Land and Sea" functioned as a welcome corrective to the historical record. Lenore Tawney used differing colors, textures, and thicknesses of linen and silk fibers to produce shadows on the wall in her weaving Seaweed (1961). White displayed the weaving next to Martin's small painting Island No. 1 (1960), showing that these two artists (despite Martin's claims to the contrary) shared various affinities. Chryssa, who didn't live on the Slip but was closely affiliated with the group, also emerged as an artist of interest. Her undated piece Small White Letters, a series of sculptural letters displayed sideways in a square wooden box, alternately appears as a study of the alphabet or a modernist grid, depending on where you stand. Placed nearby, Kelly's 1957 Sculpture Model (Monsanto), which employs double rows of white, wire-hung cardboard shapes, likewise encourages you to move around it to seek different vantage points. 

By underscoring the experimental, contingent nature of this formative moment, "Between Land and Sea" argued that the search for abstraction was an active endeavor on the Slip, pursued by artists who were not yet household names. (We were "virtually unknown," James Rosenquist, who took over Martin's loft in 1960, remembered. "None of us had done much of anything at all.") That was soon to change, but these early efforts prove a fascinating record of the development of abstraction in America.