During the 1950s and ’60s, artists such as Agnes Martin, Ellsworth Kelly, Lenore Tawney, and Robert Indiana claimed low-rent lofts along a shoreline on the southern tip of Manhattan as studio spaces. On April 14, Houston’s Menil Collection opens the exhibition “Between Land and Sea: Artists of the Coenties Slip” (through August 14). We looked in our archives for this 1974 article in which Stephanie Barron recounts the friendships and artistic practices that flourished on this stretch of New York City waterfront. “In a spirit of generous communalism,” she writes, “they engaged in active and continuing dialogues about ideas, methods and materials—apparently to the benefit of all.” We present the article in full below. —Eds.
Located at the southern tip of Manhattan in the midst of what once was a busy section of the waterfront, Coenties Slip became the home of an important group of painters, sculptors, designers and performers during the 1950s and ‘60s. Those who lived there at some point between 1954 and 1965 (after which most of the buildings were razed), and whose presence contributed to this artistic community, included Charles Hinman, Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Fred Mitchell, James Rosenquist, Delphine Seyrig, Lenore Tawney, Jesse Wilkinson, Ann Wilson, Jack Youngerman and Athos Zacharias. The artists who gathered at the Slip were drawn by its low rents, spacious lofts and river view, as well as––not least––because it was an area entirely dissociated from the locales of Abstract Expressionism, which reigned, with somewhat oppressive exclusivity, further uptown.
This particular area of New York’s waterfront has had a long and varied history. Publicly established in 1699, Coenties Slip was originally a body of water that projected inland as far as Front Street; it served as landing for ships. During the 19th century, the neighborhood of the Slip was the site of warehouses, gas works and ship-chandler shops, relics of which came to figure in the art of a different generation of inhabitants, a century later. By the 1880s the Slip had been filled in, but, though it was no longer actively involved in shipping, its buildings retained a seagoing flavor. American artists of the early 20th century discovered lower Manhattan as a subject for their work, and representations of Coenties Slip in that period can be found in paintings and lithographs by Glen O. Coleman. More modern artists like Stuart Davis also painted the area; Davis’ House and Street, 1931 (Whitney Museum), suggests it much less specifically than Coleman.
None of that artists who rediscovered Coenties Slip in the mid-1950s was native to New York City. Fred Mitchell, a Mississippian, was the first to arrive, after spending three years in Rome. Settling at 26 Water Street in 1951, he soon moved to 128 Front Street, where he fell in love with the view of the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge. By 1954 Mitchell had found a loft at 31 Coenties Slip, and became the first of the group to live on the Slip. In the same year Ellsworth Kelly returned from seven years in Paris, and went to see Mitchell, his only friend in Manhattan. Kelly decided to settle downtown, as well. In August 1954, he found a loft around the corner from the Slip, on Broad Street. He lived there until 1956, when he moved to 3-5 Coenties Slip. There he was visited by Robert Indiana (whom he had met while Indiana was working at an art-supply store on Fifth-Seventh Street). Indiana soon left his Tenth Street studio and moved to the Slip, to number 31. In 1956, too, Jack Youngerman returned to America from Paris. He visited Kelly, who had been a close friend in France. The next year Youngerman also moved to the waterfront, to 27 Coenties Slip, with his wife Delphine Seyrig, the French actress, and their son Duncan. And in 1957 Agnes Martin came back to New York from New Mexico; she was taken to see Kelly and Youngerman by Betty Parsons, who showed all three artists in her gallery. Martin settled at the Slip the same year, at number 27, later moving to 3-5. In 1960, James Rosenquist, a friend of Indiana’s from the art-supply store days, had finally saved enough money from billboard jobs to devote a year to his own painting. Rosenquist took over a loft formerly Martin’s at 3-5. Charles Hinman also came to the Slip in 1960 through his friendship with Rosenquist, whose loft he shared.
Not only were these artists drawn together through their ideas and their appreciation of the Slip area, but also through a continuous struggle to live there. Most of the lifts did not have hot water, heat or kitchens, and it was the Seamen’s Institute, then located on the Slip, that provided a much-needed cafeteria and warm showers. Moreover, from the beginning, the artists were plagued by legal disputes over zoning codes. There were incessant letter-writing campaigns and court appearances, all part of the effort to preserve the small waterfront neighborhood, already threatened and finally doomed by commercial expansion.
Esthetically, there were curiously strong affinities among these artists; almost all were as much apart from the prevailing New York School stylistically as they were geographically. (They were not entirely cut off from art-world territory, however, thanks to the reassuring presence of Barnett Newman, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg on nearby Pearl and Front Streets.) Another point of unification was uptown galleries. Kelly, Youngerman and Martin all showed frequently in the Section Eleven exhibitions at Betty Parsons’ gallery; Parsons, Richard Bellamy of the Hansa and Green galleries and Eleanor Ward of the Stable Gallery, were all early in recognizing the talent that clustered around the Slip.
By the mid-1960s, most of the artists had moved away. (Mitchell was the last, in 1967.) About a decade later, interest in the Coenties Slip group and period was great enough to motivate two recent exhibitions: in January–February 1973, the SoHo gallery, Buecker & Harpsichords, gathered a small group of works by Indiana, Kelly, Martin, Mitchell, Tawney and Youngerman: in January–February of this year, the Whitney Museum Downtown Branch, ironically located in a new office building which stands almost on top of the demolished Coenties Slip, had a larger show, including these artists plus Hinman, Rosenquist and Ann Wilson (who lived at the Slip from 1957 to ’60).
Although it is excessively difficult to trace direct influences within this group of artists, there is no doubt that they were aware of and receptive to each other’s work. In a spirit of generous communalism, they engaged in active and continuing dialogues about ideas, methods and materials––apparently to the benefit of all. Looking at the art produced by the Coenties Slip group, some generalizations may be attempted. First, there was a definite interest on the part of some of the painters––especially Martin, Kelly and Indiana––in experimenting with non-painterly techniques and in making objects. Second, the widespread use of a limited palette, frequently black and white or muted monochromes, in an attempt to resolve problems of form, can be observed––in Youngerman and Rosenquist as well as the above three. Third, there was conscious reference to the visual environment of the Slip in their work by Martin, Kelly, Indiana and Mitchell. And for all the artists the Slip environment––visual, social or artistic––was the scene of an important stage in the maturation of their styles.
Mitchell, the first artist to live at Coenties Slip, could often be found walking around the area, making drawings and watercolors of South street, Jeanette Park or the waterfront. While many of these are fairly representational, most are abstractions based on the environment, as are a number of his vividly colored gestural paintings of the time. Mitchell, of course, was the one Abstract-Expressionist of the group.
Youngerman was also working in a relatively spontaneous, painterly style. In Paris in the early ‘50s he had painted loose abstractions with a heavy palette-knife impasto; his style changed markedly at Coenties Slip, in the direction of more fluid, more transparent brushwork. And, from the traditional easel size of his Paris paintings, Youngerman greatly expanded his scale. 1 He also turned to a limited palette for a time, and he continued his work with figure-ground relationships. Paintings like Big Black, 1959, or Black/White, 1961, emphasize a powerful contrast between two forms––raw, jagged black against stark white. During these years, Youngerman was developing a deceptive, complex kind of pictorial space whose areas of color and shape function alternately in both positive and negative roles.
Three of the women artists on the Slip––Martin, Tawney, Wilson––seem, from the point of view of later developments in the New York art, to have strikingly prefigured two of its major characteristics: the Minimalist organizational scheme of the grid, and the feminist esthetic of craft mediums and techniques. Martin and Tawney, who were close friends, also shared a strong interest in American Indian art; Wilson, like numerous other artists, turned for inspiration to American folk-art sources, particularly quilts.
At Coenties Slip, Tawney made intricately woven hanging sculptures with rope, string, linen, bones and feathers. Many are anthropomorphic; some, like The Path, 1962, even have suggestions of female genital imagery. A series of her drawings of the period propose grids: they are linear and mathematical, many on graph paper.
Wilson worked, and still does, with pieces of patchwork quilts partially painted and arranged in grid-like patterns on stretchers. Some of them incorporate passages from her extensive writings.
For Martin, the basis for her best-known work, the pencilled-grid paintings of the mid-‘60s, was formulated at Coenties Slip. Earlier, she had been working on small canvases placing a few soft, Rothko-like rectangles of color against muted fields. By 1958 she had arrived at a quality of frontality, formality and balance. Her subsequent development of the grid may relate not only to Tawney but also to Ellsworth Kelly (her contacts were mostly with Kelly, Youngerman and Indiana). 2 In Paris, Kelly had made a number of strict grid-structured paintings; though his severity and bright color are unlike Martin’s diffuse tone and linearity, his impersonality of system and execution probably attracted her.
Martin also made a few sculpture-assemblages in 1959–61. Some of these objects are sewn or stitched, and the interest she shared with Tawney in Southwest Indian art is influential on them. Others of Martin’s objects of time are much closer to Indiana’s sculptures (which also incorporate locally found materials): cf. the wooden board and knobs of Martin’s The Garden, 1958, or the wooden and metal pieces of Burning Tree, 1961. Like Indiana, Martin was attracted to the 19th-century detritus that surrounded her, but for different reasons: she was more interested in its visual qualities than its historical associations. Martin’s sculpture was in any case a passing mode. Her objects are not as numerous as Indiana’s, though they are an interesting phase in her evolution.
For Kelly, (as for Youngerman) Coenties Slip provided loft space and other incentives to expand the size of his pictures. The area also suggested new instances of that visual reality he has always used as stimulus for his abstractions. (Kelly drawings from life of fellow artists and friends from the Slip were among the most interesting, and unexpected, inclusions in the Whitney Downtown Branch exhibition.) It was the lower Manhattan waterfront that suggested titles, if not directly subjects, for paintings like Brooklyn Bridge, New York, NY, Manhattan, Atlantic and North River. There are also indirect visual hints of the urban American scene––of billboards, posters, large signs––though Kelly’s evocations of the city are very much less literal than those of, say, Indiana or Rosenquist. Nevertheless, Kelly was responding to New York stimuli in these years. In scale, this work is striking, provocative and, in a sense, public; even more, it is related to the city in its new intensity and visual power.
In Paris Kelly had already fixed on a highly restricted color range, making black-and-white and even all-white works. But it is interesting and perhaps significant that he used black and white for many of his New York works that draw their themes most directly from visual observations of the environment.
Kelly also made his first freestanding sculptures at the Slip. “When I thought of the first piece, I happened to be having breakfast with Agnes Martin in her studio. I made a model for the piece called Pony  from the top of a coffee container we used at breakfast…Another piece was a sketch from an envelope. It still has her name on it. It’s called Gate .” 3
Like many of the Coenties Slip artists, Indiana was dissatisfied with the prevailing gestural painting of New York. A quality of precision appears in his work from this time on. He has acknowledged the important influence of “a painter who was also a great friend, Ellsworth Kelly.” 4 Although he is of course very different from Kelly, a certain formalist intent is clearly at work.
The heavy flavor of Americana at Coenties Slip was particularly crucial to Indiana’s development; it replaced the earlier influences of Scheeler, Demuth, and Hopper. He not only used the allusiveness of place-names in such paintings as The Melville Triptych, 1961, but also physically incorporated into his work bits of the place––timbers, pieces of metal, wooden wheels, alphabet stencils––that he found lying about in abandoned warehouses or his own loft (whose previous tenants were ship chandlers). This stencils––and perhaps the presence of Jasper Johns nearby––inspired his use of words and numbers. (The “sign” paintings from this time are often in black and white, another major example of the reduced palette common at the Slip.) The found objects in Indiana’s assemblages like Ahab, The Marine Works or Mate carry on the theme of the American past that had preoccupied him since his Indiana childhood. Many of his constructions (which he calls “totems” or “herms”) are dedicated to defunct companies that once operated on Coenties Slip.
Rosenquist, too, evolved his mature style there. He was encouraged by artist-neighbors in his transition from a kind of Abstract-Expressionist work in 1958–59 to his new, billboard-derived style, which was soon, of course, to become early Pop. Kelly has spoken of how exciting it was to watch this change. 5 A series of figurative works, unknown for a long time, that Rosenquist took with him to the Slip in 1960, was transitional. His earliest Slip paintings, like Necktie, 1961, present enormous, familiar images, fragmented and juxtaposed at almost unrecognizably close range. His spacious loft on the Slip allowed him, too, to reach toward huge mural scale––a characteristic of his work from the on.
In a way much different from Kelly or Indiana, Rosenquist also chose the limitations of black and white or grisaille in many of his Slip paintings. Interested as what he was in imagery of the commercial world––advertising, newspapers, TV––he felt that gray was the color most readily associated with the communication media; this motivation contrasts with the formal impulses of others of the group who were reducing their own color ranges at the same time.
Though his took completely different form, Rosenquist shared Indiana’s interest in images of American life. He created a contemporary “Americana” with his blown-up cars and planes, popular foods and celebrities. The Coenties Slip atmosphere was clearly seminal to Pop art. For Rosenquist the area was an oasis––a place where he could live and work at developing his own esthetic, surrounded by other serious artists.