Coenties Slip, originally an artificial inlet in the East River for the loading and unloading of ships that was land-filled in 1835, is a historic street in Lower Manhattan, New York City, in the heart of the Financial District. It runs southeast from Pearl Street to South Street, a distance of two blocks (585.6 feet). The one block portion between Pearl Street and Water Street carries vehicular traffic, while the remaining section is a pedestrian street.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, this was the heart of New York. The city's earliest publishing houses were here, as were its theaters, and such writers as Melville, Whitman and Poe walked the streets. Although the neighborhood went on to become the financial district, as recently as 30 years ago it was still making cultural history: it was home to some of America's most distinguished and radical living artists.
Around 1955, while Abstract Expressionism was flourishing uptown, a number of younger painters and sculptors interested in a very different kind of art lived and worked in deserted sailmaking lofts at Coenties Slip, a filled-in deep-water inlet that had once been the city's main landing place for wooden ships.
There, for a decade, they made art that not only prefigured the Pop and the Minimalism of the late 1960's, but also pioneered the use of nontraditional media like fabric collage and weaving that became so important to the feminist art of the 1970's.
These artists, including Agnes Martin, Jack Youngerman, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, and Lenore Tawney, Fred Mitchell, Charles Hinman and Ann Wilson, never constituted an art movement.
Nonetheless, they shared interactions and influences. The effect of Ms. Tawney's weaving on Ms. Martin's painting, for example, has been recognized by critics, and it is Ms. Martin who, one morning over breakfast, suggested the idea for Mr. Kelly's first sculpture, based on the form of a bent coffee-can lid. (They both lived at 3-5 Coenties Slip, one of the few original buildings still standing.) But on the whole, each of the artists pursued an individual path, treasuring independence, not only from New York School painting but from one another as well.
What really bound them together was how and where they lived. They were the first community of New York artists to live in industrial spaces. The lofts, though spartan, were cheap. (An average rent was $50 a month.) Few had kitchens or hot water, and there were constant threats of eviction. The rewards, however, were great: silence at night, abundant light during the day, unobstructed views of the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge, and a pervasive sense of place and history.
For Mr. Kelly and Mr. Youngerman, returning to the United States after years in France, the open skies and streets paved with stone blocks that had been ships' ballast no doubt softened the culture shock of shifting from Old World to New.
Just as Mr. Kelly used the shapes of Parisian architecture in his earlier paintings, on view in Washington, the grand arches of the Brooklyn Bridge soon appeared, highly abstracted, in his New York work.
Ms. Martin and Mr. Indiana related to the history of the locale in a particularly intimate way. Both were deeply interested in the American experience as something immediate and poetic, and they embedded the waterfront in their work.
In their lofts they found actual relics of the old seafaring days: nautical equipment, shipbuilding materials, iron wheels, charts and ledgers. One of the earliest works in Ms. Martin's Whitney retrospective is a wall sculpture made of planks pierced with rusted iron boat spikes set in a grid formation. Mr. Indiana incorporated antique objects into his assemblages, and the words that became signature elements in his art were created with 19th-century metal stencils he found in his loft.
There was also a shared sense of freedom -- several of the Slip artists have remarked upon it -- about living between land and sea, and at the point where an American past and an energetically progressive present met in an uncertain balance. In crucial ways, that balance didn't hold.
One by one, many of the old buildings were knocked down; the artists eventually moved out of the area, the last leaving in 1967.
The restoration of the South Street Seaport in the 80's, which turned old shops into boutiques, brought heavy pedestrian traffic to the area on weekends. And although a row of attached buildings survives on the Slip as part of the landmark block that includes Fraunces Tavern, the special charms that were still present just a quarter-century ago are gone.
Or almost gone. On a winter afternoon on the Slip, when the wind is strong and redolent of the sea, you can still get a sense of the place where some of this country's finest artists produced work that altered the course of American art. But since that time, America and its art -- and the city itself -- have continued to change.
When Lenore Tawney speaks of first coming to the Slip "to seek a barer life, closer to reality, without all the things that clutter and fill our lives," one cannot help but wonder where in New York she would find an equivalent place today. And when Ann Wilson writes of the years she spent there as "a sweet time, an innocent time, of people thinking a lot, concentrating on their work with no political distraction," one understands that the Coenties Slip days are now truly history.