How does specificity of place play a role in art, enough to become more figure than ground, less a context than a character? This is one of the larger questions framing art historian Prudence Peiffer’s momentous new survey The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever. The book vividly documents a moment in the 1950s and ’60s when a cast of artists settled, at staggered intervals, in a three-block area around Coenties Slip, a street on Manhattan’s lower tip. Coenties Slip borrowed its name from one of the “slips”—inlets for the docking and repairing of boats—that once cut sharply into New York’s downtown waterfront, facilitating the busy circulation of fish, freight, and sailors between land and sea. While New York’s status as a maritime trading hub lured fleets of boats, it was the skeletal remains of that activity, by then sharply diminished, that drew artists to Coenties Slip. In place of industry, they found vast and vacant loft spaces, cheap to rent, in which they could both work and live (illegally, owing to zoning laws).
Peiffer’s book arrives nearly 50 years after the earliest attempt to honor the Slip: the 1974 exhibition “Nine Artists/Coenties Slip,” organized for an old downtown branch of the Whitney Museum on Water Street nearby. The exhibition showcased lesser-known inhabitants of the Slip, including Fred Mitchell (the first to settle there), Ann Wilson, and Charles Hinman, as well as the area’s luminaries of postwar American art: Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, Lenore Tawney, and Jack Youngerman. The exhibition represented an important salvage operation at the time: by the early ’70s, nearly all the lofts that had housed these artists had been razed to make way for corporate development, demolition having begun not long after the first artists arrived.