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Books and Culture

James Panero
Art and Urban Density
Loren Munk’s work celebrates New York’s ever-changing art scene.
2 December 2011

When you’re considering the history of a great city, the history of its art deserves special attention. Recently, a gallery exhibition on Manhattan’s Lower East Side provided a unique visualization of the way art gets woven into the New York fabric.

Loren Munk, the artist behind “Location, Location, Location: Mapping the New York Art World,” which showed at Lesley Heller Gallery in September and October, is a Brooklyn-based painter who studies the effects of urban geography on artistic development. Believing that art is as much a social practice as a solitary one, Munk creates paintings made up of colorful, detail-laden maps and flow charts with thousands of data points indicating the placement of artist studios, the addresses of galleries, and the location of art critics within the urban grid. Munk’s information comes out of his own archival research as well as access to a community of artist friends. The look of the paintings, along with the selection and spelling of artists’ names included in them, is idiosyncratic. Yet the complexity of the networks that Munk constructs, often painted over many years, makes a compelling visual argument: that urban density plays a key role in artistic innovation.

In several paintings, Munk focuses on one of New York’s “arts” neighborhoods, often no more than 10 blocks square. In Soho Map (2005–06), he identifies the studios of nearly 100 artists—including Richard Serra, Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Thornton Willis, and Peter Pinchback—along with the addresses of almost as many galleries. Soho Map shows this neighborhood at its most concentrated, a time in the 1980s when the area had become the focus of the art world. In fact, Munk identifies one building in the middle of his map, 420 West Broadway, as “the center of the center of the art world universe.”

The rise of Soho was a phenomenon of the 1960s and 1970s, when artists disregarded fire and zoning codes to carve up studio and living spaces out of derelict cast-iron factory buildings. From their large-scale studios emerged large works—Stella’s monumental canvases and Judd’s walk-through minimalist sculptures. Today, the names of the galleries on Soho Map might be familiar, but not their addresses. In the 1990s, nearly all went out of business or relocated northwest to Chelsea and the art world’s newest retail hub between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, now centered around 25th Street. Just as the galleries departed, most of the artist pioneers on Munk’s map have since cashed out on the gentrification they started and sold their studios as multimillion-dollar lofts. A documentation of this recent history, Soho Map reminds us of how so much “big” art once emerged from such a small section of New York—and how little comes out of it today.

Munk’s other maps track similar neighborhood movements. In The Bowery and the New Lower East Side (2008–10), Munk paints a note into the work that explains: “During the nascent phase of Minimal and Conceptual Art, a coterie of artists living close to each other on or near the Bowery (several of whom also worked at the Museum of Modern Art) began to form. They were identified by Irving Sandler in ‘American Art of the 1960s’ as the Bowery Boys.” In Village of the Damned (2004–05), Munk follows “the rise and fall of an art scene,” as he calls it, in the East Village between 1981 and 1987. “Rise and fall” is something you see repeated in each of these neighborhoods. One cause of the changing fortunes of arts areas may be economic: artists are independent manufacturers often willing to trade safety and convenience for cheaper rents and bigger spaces. It’s commonly argued that artists become victims of their own gentrification, getting priced out of the neighborhoods they’ve made attractive to others. But Munk’s paintings suggest another explanation: that artists are drawn together by density itself. The laws of economics might suggest that artists spread out in relation to the price of real estate; instead, they come together even as prices rise. They seek out neighborhoods with a rising concentration of other artists and a low number of non-artists, and they move in flocks as those density numbers change.

A century ago in Paris, the life of the bohemian was far harder than in today’s New York, yet artists from around the world still went there to live and work. They followed migratory patterns similar to those that Munk finds in New York. In Paris, artists’ flats had no heat or hot water. The problem of pestilence and disease was a fact of everyday life. “Poverty was a luxury,” said the playwright Jean Cocteau of his neighborhood of Montparnasse. Still, artists crowded not just into Paris but even into certain neighborhoods and, if they could, specific buildings. In Montmartre, north of the city center, the Bateau-Lavoir—a low-slung building that resembled the laundry boats used along the Seine—became the studio residence of Picasso in 1904 and the meeting place of the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, the playwright Max Jacob, and the critic André Salmon. Yet by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, the picturesque charms of Montmartre had flooded the neighborhood with tourists and pleasure-seekers.

Once the Nord-Sud Metro opened in 1910, Montparnasse to the south quickly replaced Montmartre as the new artist hub. Here a studio building known as La Ruche, literally “the hive,” became the center of artistic activity, with 200 artist beds tucked into apartment studios arranged in the round housing Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine, Jacques Lipchitz, Alexander Archipenko, Ossip Zadkine, Amedeo Modigliani, and Ardengo Soffici. Picasso himself, a Spanish transplant with a keen understanding of the way geography aids artistic innovation, relocated to Montparnasse in 1912.

It would be a mistake, however, to attribute artistic innovation to a few brilliant loners in a garret. Rather, it was the thousands of artists living and working next to one another in these two packed neighborhoods in Paris that sparked the rapid development of modern art there. “To a greater extent than any time since the Renaissance,” wrote the historian Roger Shattuck of Paris at the turn of the century, “painters, writers, and musicians lived and worked together and tried their hands at each other’s arts in an atmosphere of perpetual collaboration.”

The same holds true in Munk’s New York, where artistic movements and schools waxed and waned within specific neighborhoods. The history includes the “Tenth Street Touch,” as one critic called it, of 1950s New York, and the subsequent rise and fall of the Bowery in the 1960s, Soho in the 1970s, and the East Village in the 1980s. These days, we see the changing fortunes of Brooklyn enclaves like Williamsburg, which Munk, writing for the Brooklyn Rail, recently declared “over. . . . The inevitable move east on the L line by artists seeking cheaper studio and living space has birthed Bushwick/Ridgewood, which amounts to Williamsburg 2.0.”

Density accelerates the spread of information. Artists seek out highly concentrated areas for the same reason that other innovators do. In 1890, the economist Sir Alfred Marshall first recognized that in cities, ideas are simply “in the air.” He saw how the interactions of city dwellers have a unique effect on innovation. These interactions were a direct result of urban density, where people live and work in close proximity. Greater density translates into a higher chance of unplanned encounters and conversations, whether on the street, across the studio hallway, or in the gossip of restaurants and cafés and gallery openings. These encounters, known as dynamic externalities, take place at no cost and result in the phenomenon of spillover. In exchange for struggling in the crowded city, the poorest artist can be enriched by the ideas circulating for free.

The vibrancy of New York’s current arts neighborhoods—Chelsea and the Lower East Side with their galleries and East Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Gowanus with their sprawl of studio lofts—suggests that Marshall’s spillover effect continues, even as artists connect through the newer networks of social media. Artists move and settle in tight patterns—always outside the controls of central planning and, in fact, usually under the radar of existing housing codes (“Loft Laws” are after-the-fact forms of legislation used to legalize the artists already residing in manufacturing zones).

It’s worth noting that Munk himself, as part of his artistic project, has become something of a new-media phenomenon. When not painting his maps, Munk films the openings of gallery exhibitions and has posted over 500 of them to YouTube under what he calls “The James Kalm Report.” Recently he has also cast a skeptical lens on the Occupy Wall Street protests and posted them to his page of more immediate reporting, “James Kalm Rough Cuts.” Each of these videos, which can attract viewers in the thousands, has exposed New York’s gallery shows to a wide audience while creating an invaluable archive for future Loren Munks. Biking from one exhibition to the next, Munk demonstrates how new media merely supplement, rather than replace, the brick-and mortar-experience of artists packed into the city’s grid. The title of Munk’s recent exhibition says it all: if you want to be an artist, or for that matter any kind of innovator, “location” still matters most.

James Panero is the managing editor of the New Criterion.

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