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Essay

by Paula Cooper

Published in Foundation for Contemporary Arts' 2010 Grants Booklet


Paula Cooper Gallery opened its doors in October 1968 on the third floor of 96-100 Prince Street, a mostly walk-up loft building in a light manufacturing area that was deserted after four in the afternoon. The first exhibition was a benefit for the Student Mobilization Against the War in Vietnam and Veterans Against the War. Curated by Lucy Lippard and Bob Huot, the benefit was atypical in its aesthetic cohesion. It included works by Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt (his first wall drawing), Dan Flavin and others. Some months later, the gallery was the site of a works in progress rehearsal by Mabou Mines. These two events were manifestations of the future course of the gallery.

Collaboration among artists of various disciplines—visual, music, dance, performance, film—was very much in the air at this time, in large part due to the examples of Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and others. Art was changing and boundaries were melting. It was a period of vastly talented people and of energetic and unselfconscious experimentation. I was so very lucky to be alive and around during this era.

The most valuable thing I had to contribute to all of this was space. With an open mind and much curiosity, the gallery welcomed all of the arts. Soon we were working with a rich variety of artists who performed or whose work was performed. To name a few: Mabou Mines, Philip Glass, Vito Acconci, Dan Graham, Yvonne Rainer, Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, Deborah Hay, Trisha Brown, Pandit Pranath, Robert Kovich, David Gordon, Ben Neill, Hollis Frampton, Bernadette Mayer, Anne Waldman, Michael Snow, Morton Feldman, the SEM Ensemble, Blondell Cummings, Butch Morris, Alvin Lucier, John Cage, Earle Brown, Pauline Oliveros, Barbara Dilley—many of whom were recipients of Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts grants.

Some of these performances were not even for regular audiences. Mabou Mines used the gallery for open rehearsals; Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane presented a work to a certain foundation for a grant (which they received). Vito Acconci was not there in person, but present by telephone. However for most events the audiences were composed of other artists with some non-artist devotees. It was a smaller world and much easier to maneuver. It seems to me that this was a time of more open-minded trust and generosity of spirit; the same spirit that provided the motivation for Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts.

It began in the early 1960s with Happenings—Oldenburg, Kaprow, Whitman et al; dancers Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, Contact Improvisation, Rauschenberg, then “Nine Evenings," Fluxus, Bob Wilson with “Stalin" and “Queen Victoria" at BAM. These artists and performers began to capture the attention of a new and more adventurous public. The ideas, energy, imagination and inventiveness were thrilling and the most important thing in the world to me. It seemed natural to help. Art was the reason for my existence. I had no money, no special artistic gifts, but I had energy, passion and space.

With our move in 1975 to a ground floor space on Wooster Street our benefit and performance activities increased. Chief curator of MoMA Alicia Legg asked if we would be host to a concert by some of the striking New York Philharmonic musicians to benefit the striking PASTA/MoMA* members. This led to the discovery of the exceptionally fine acoustics of the space and the beginning of a ten-year series of informal concerts by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which brought classical music and musicians downtown. Charles Wadsworth commissioned and premiered a piece by Ned Rorem. Yo Yo Ma, Paula Robison, Emmanuel Ax, the Tokyo String Quartet and others played amidst art they'd never dreamed of.

By this time it had become clear that there was a downtown culture or ethic that bound the diverse and often disparate art groups and their members. Literature was not included in our program, though poetry was. (Ironically, writers were the one group who remained apart from the downtown arts scene.)

The introduction of non-stop marathon readings at the gallery over New Year's Eve and day of Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans was made by Jean Rigg, Alison Knowles and others. The reading was done by pairs in 30- to 40-minute segments over at least two full days and nights. The gallery was scattered with bodies lying, leaning or sitting as the ebb and flow of readers shifted through the hours. At one point, John Cage suggested a change to Finnegan's Wake, which lasted for two of the 26 years that the readings took place.

During the early 1970s I joined the board of The Kitchen, which I later administered as President and Chair for roughly fifteen years. The Kitchen, which still exists, was then an open, lively experimental space focused on video, music, dance, performance and film. Mainstays included Rhys Chatham, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Eric Bogosian, Meredith Monk, Arto Lindsay, George Lewis and many others. During the years on Broome Street, The Kitchen was full of vitality, visionary talent, intelligent programming and symbolized endless possibility. During the time that The Kitchen did not have a permanent home, it continued to present productions. Determined and persevering, The Kitchen found a new home in DIA's Robert Whitman building on West 19th Street, where it remains today. Loyal artist supporters Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk and Philip Glass are still on the board.

Artists were not only generous to each other, as witnessed by the gallery's many artists-for-artists benefits, e.g., Bang on a Can, MATA, Steve Kurtz/Critical Art Ensemble, ACT-UP, The Kitchen, Merce Cunningham Dance Company and Foundation for Contemporary Arts, but they were also generous in support of their beliefs. Through the years we had benefit concerts, exhibitions and symposia for organizations that include Amnesty International, Center for Constitutional Rights, War Resisters League, LAMBDA, NARAL, etc.

Looking back on these events, I remember clearly my first experience as a “producer." It was 1965, at Park Place Gallery, a ten-artist cooperative for which I worked as director. Steve Reich premiered “Come Out" and presented other works in two nights of concerts at the gallery. I was very nervous. Ultimately, the gallery was packed with hundreds of people seated on the floor, the audience made up mostly of visual artists, composers, musicians and dancers. It was a great success—with an enthusiastic, joyous audience. I can still hear the music.

Thanks to the Foundation, the music continues.

*Professional and Administrative Staff Association of The Museum of Modern Art

Paula Cooper founded her eponymous gallery in SoHo in 1968. The gallery moved to Chelsea in 1996.

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