Has anyone bothered to thank Pepsi for its crucial little role in American culture? The year was 1947, and a young Mississippi artist named Fred Mitchell was trying to expand his horizons. He entered one of his paintings in a contest and won a cash prize of fifteen hundred dollars—close to twenty grand today—courtesy of the sponsor, the Pepsi-Cola Company. Mitchell used his winnings to sail to Europe, where he spent the next three years meeting artists and inhaling modernism. When he returned to the States, he settled in a half-empty building on a street near the southern tip of Manhattan and invited one of his new buddies, the painter Ellsworth Kelly, to join him.
The street was Coenties Slip (pronounced “co-en-tees”), and during the next decade or so it became a bright, teeming hothouse of the New York avant-garde. The fibre artist Lenore Tawney moved into 27 Coenties Slip in 1957, the same year that Kelly persuaded the actress Delphine Seyrig and her husband, the painter Jack Youngerman, to live in the same building. Kelly also helped recruit Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, and Robert Clark, who hadn’t yet changed his surname to Indiana, let alone scattered “LOVE” sculptures across the planet. By the mid-sixties, you could have filled a first-rate museum with the work of Slip artists alone: abstract paintings by Kelly, Martin, and Youngerman, weavings by Tawney, assemblages by Indiana. Hanging in the lobby, one of Rosenquist’s Pop canvases, starring a mound of spaghetti or (did he know?) a Pepsi logo.