It was friendlier back then

x12 art in america

When I was in Manhattan a couple weeks ago, I spent a couple hours at Viridian asking Vernita Nemec about her experiences as an artist in the 70s. She talked about how it felt and still feels to be a woman in the art world, and also what life was like for an artist back then. In other words, how has the scene in lower Manhattan changed over the past 40 years. (Long story short, it was friendlier, more informal and ridiculously more affordable. To wit, the young Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith.)

It’s pretty clear, from what she recalled, that walls have arisen between the successful and the struggling that simply didn’t exist back then. Art careers have become more professionalized, compared to a far more bohemian life in the early 70s. A New York artist’s life was less like something involving a career plan than an ongoing exclusive party, but with extremely lax security.

One thing wasn’t better back then: it was far more difficult to be a female artist. Vernita told me she and a friend conceived and organized what has never been recognized as the first all-woman art show in 1969. It was called X to the Twelfth Power: an exhibit of work by a dozen women, with X standing for their obscurity. None of them were known at the time—being a female artist meant, first and foremost, being unknown. By choice. most women artists, at that point, hesitated to identify themselves as women.

“At this point in the last 60s and early 70s most women artists were using only their initials to identify themselves since galleries wanted only men,” she said. I pointed out that there were some extremely well-known female artists, but in her view, they’d had a shot at fame not simply for their talent, but because they were aligned in some way with male artists either stylistically or through a personal relationship. X to the Twelfth Power was held at an organization called Museum, A Project of Living Artists, on Houston and Broadway “back when it was dark and dirty.”

“Silviana Goldsmith, the film-maker, was one of the prime people involved. Most of these women have died. I think there are two or three of us still alive out that group. We don’t have much photography of the show, but I have shots of us all on the roof of my studio. I lived on 11th St. in the East Village. At the time I was doing soft sculpture, figures I hung from the ceiling. We showed in a loft space, 3,000 square feet. There were two galleries in it. One place we met and sat in our folding chairs, planning insurrections, demonstrating against museums and all the things going on in the early 70s. It was a real community that’s missing now. I think it’s coming back, actually. That was 40 years ago, and it seems as if there’s a whole resurgence now of people feeling this need to meet and talk and find a way of connecting with other artists and create their own network. It was easy to connect back then. I was married to a writer at the time and we lived near The Factory, on 4th Ave. and we went to parties there. Near Union Square. After X Twelve, we started a gallery strictly for women. Two years later, A.I.R. formed on Worcester, and a year after that SOHO 20 formed and I was invited to be in that gallery. I came to SOHO 20 in 1973.”

At the building where Museum, A Project of Living Artists was located, artists’ groups like Artworkers Coalition, WAR (Women Artists in Revolution) and others would meet there as well as organize exhibitions and play music- like the artist Alan Suicide. Vernita became friends with dozens of artists who became notable: Carl Andre, Nancy Spero, and Leon Golub, even though the organization was devoted mostly to unknown artists who were trying to “figure out how to get out into the world.” It was easy to rub elbows with nearly anyone in the art world then.

“There was a bar nearby called St. Adrian Company. On a typical night, I would be sitting at the bar, with Carl Andre and Robert Smithson. We just started wandering around, looking for the lights of loft parties, and we would crash parties if the window was lit up or if you heard music. Back then, it was a lifestyle, a social style. You don’t even have bars like that now. We’d go to Max’s Kansas City and it was, “Oh, there’s Robert Morris!” Warhol was there. Lou Reed was there. The MUDD Club used to be near my studio.”

When she was invited to join Soho 20—she’s still involved with the gallery now as an advisor, decades later—it was her first experience at a woman’s cooperative gallery. It was located at 99 Spring St. the block between Mercer and Broadway. And Landmark Gallery, also a cooperative gallery, was nearby.

“People would have lists where all the openings were. Some would get really tanked. Lists for openings. Lists for parties. John Wilcock would be part of the crowd. He would have the best lists. He would know where you could crash the best parties. He’s in California. I went to Greece with him, and Mexico.” (Wilcock was one of the founders of the Village Voice, and created Interview magazine.)

I told Vernita that I’d posted a quote from an interview with Fritz Scholder where he said that when he was starting out, he looked up Andy Warhol in the phone book and simply called him. That’s how he became friends with Warhol. A cold call.

“I can’t imagine something like that happening now,” I said.

“Everyone was more accessible. Larry Poons, Robert Morris, they were teaching at Hunter. Hunter was a Mecca. A lot of their faculty were showing in SoHo. Castelli showed them. You would go there on Saturdays and kind of slip into the back room. If you were in grad school at Hunter you had it made. It was like going to Yale today, but not expensive. You could afford it. Years before that, it was the Art Students League.”

“You said before that if you were a woman, you needed to be connected to a successful male figure in the art world in order to be noticed,” I said.

“O’Keefe. Elaine De Kooning. Frankenthaler. Lee Krasner. I think Louise Bourgeois’ husband was a critic,” she said. “I the early 70s, women couldn’t take out a credit card in their own name. They had to have their husbands co-sign for it. That didn’t change until 1974.”

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