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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

Barbican Art Gallery: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s

A new Barbican Art Gallery exhibition takes a look at the pioneering work of Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown and Gordon Matta-Clark - key artists in the New York Downtown scene of the 1970s. Here's my review.

Written by Amelia Gregory

Live Performance Illustration by Jane Young
Floor of the Forest and Trisha Brown. Illustration by Jane Young.

Yesterday I was actually invited to attend a Barbican art gallery media view for the first time, so I feel duty bound to get a blog up about the new exhibition – Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark, Pioneers of the Downtown Scene New York 1970s – as soon as possible.

Pioneers of Downtown Scene-Open House, 1972,
Gordon Matta-Clark. Open House, 1972.

In my mind press views are a chance to relax, hang out, enjoy a near empty gallery at a calm and leisurely pace – but of course it never quite pans out like that. I invariably have a million other things to do, and so it was that I arrived very late, having missed a couple of performance pieces already. I turned a corner past a large graffiti-ed crate to find the famous dancer and choreographer Trisha Brown posing beneath the installation for her famous piece Floor of the Forest, 1970 which features a grid strung with colourful pieces of clothing.

Pioneers of Downtown Scene-Trisha Brown
Pioneers of Downtown Scene-Trisha Brown Floor of the Forest, 1970
Trisha Brown. Floor of the Forest, 1970.

In this piece dancers navigate the equipment, dressing and undressing as they go. Trisha Brown has had a long and illustrious career adapting dance to suit everyday environments, creating seminal performance pieces that took advantage of the rooftops and water towers in Downtown New York.

Pioneers of Downtown Scene-Trisha Brown. Woman Walking Down a Ladder, 1973/2010
Trisha Brown. Woman Walking Down a Ladder, 1973/2010.

Sadly I missed her performance piece, Walking on the Wall, 1971, where dancers hang from the sides of the gallery and stumble and roll across the walls. Trisha’s approach has been extremely formative across the contemporary dance world, and of particular interest to me was the fabulous original costume for The Dance with the Duck’s Head, 1968.

Pioneers of Downtown Scene-The Dance with the Duck's Head, 1968.
Trisha Brown. Costume for The Dance with the Duck’s Head, 1968.

A film of a lithe young Trisha performing in the 1960s is a compelling reminder of her ongoing influence – Trisha Brown turns 75 this year, but she is still extremely active. You will be able to watch three of Trisha Brown’s performances during the exhibition running time, so be sure to check the Barbican website for full details.

Pioneers of Downtown Scene-Laurie Anderson Viophonograph, 1976
Laurie Anderson. Viophonograph, 1976.

Classically trained musician Laurie Anderson also took the tangled Downtown setting as her playground, starting with Institutional Dream Series (1972), documenting her experiments in public sleep and the subsequent dreams that this produced. Before this exhibition I knew Laurie Anderson best for her early 80s rendition of O Superman, which is just part of a huge back catalogue encompassing music and art, often both together.

Pioneers of Downtown Scene-Laurie Anderson The Electric Chair, 1977-78
Laurie Anderson. The Electric Chair, 1977-78.

Downstairs a version of The Electric Chair, 1977-78 has been recreated, an entertaining contraption using light and motion, it squawks and clatters back and forth. She projects 3D light sculptures that talk and creates objects such as the Viophonograph, 1976, which is part violin, part record player.

Pioneers of Downtown Scene-Laurie Anderson. At the Shrink's, 1975/1997
Laurie Anderson. At the Shrink’s, 1975/1997

Much of the upstairs space is taken up with the finer details of these performance pieces, which are intricately documented with maps and writings. Laurie especially is known for combining photographs and writing to explain her process, but I found this section very text heavy and only the most hardcore fans will want to read this in detail.

Pioneers of Downtown Scene-Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson.

Pioneers of Downtown Scene-Gordon Matta-Clark. Splitting 9, 1977
Gordon Matta-Clark. Splitting 9, 1977.

My most interesting discovery was the work of fellow New York architect and artist Gordon Matta-Clark (whose father was the surrealist painter Roberto Matta). He sadly died very young from pancreatic cancer. His Open House, 1972, performance has been re-interpreted by modern dancers in a shipping crate spliced with salvaged walls and doors. Perhaps because this is only a rough facsimile of something that happened long ago I found the work upstairs far more enticing. Gordon worked at the intersection of urban dereliction and disaffection that was blighting much of Downtown New York in the 1970s.

Pioneers of Downtown Scene-Gordon Matta-Clark. Splitting: Four Corners, 1974
Gordon Matta-Clark. Splitting: Four Corners, 1974 (detail)

Pioneers of Downtown Scene-Gordon Matta-Clark.
Gordon Matta-Clark.

He set up Food, a co-operative and alternative gathering space that would no doubt charm a whole host of like-minded people today. I particularly enjoyed reading the catalogued details of what happened in the kitchen – 47 dogs asked to leave, 153 chairs broken, 15 bottles of champagne disappeared. And on the menu? For your delectation used car stew. There will be two reinterpreted Food style dinners on 24th March and 28th April.

Pioneers of Downtown Scene-Gordon Matta-Clark.
Gordon Matta-Clark.

Gordon Matta-Clark spliced urban spaces, cutting apart whole houses and blasting away windows. He reappropriated old glass, recycling it into beautiful brick formations that look almost like precious gemstones, and he worked with abandoned cars to highlight the impoverished underbelly of the city. He was ecologically minded – his drawings and diagrams of trees a glorious twisting organic painterly mess compared with the rigid lines of his more urban based work. In an experiment between architecture, performance and protest he hung out in a tree on International Worker’s Day during 1971 for Tree Dance. If only he had lived longer.

Pioneers of Downtown Scene-Gordon Matta-Clark.
Gordon Matta-Clark.

Pioneers of Downtown Scene-Gordon Matta-Clark. Tree Dance. 1971
Gordon Matta-Clark. Tree Dance, 1971.

The exhibition runs until 22nd May 2011. My full listing is here.

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