Art and Space: Park Place and the beginning of the Paula Cooper Gallery

October 17, 2006 - March 14, 2007

The Park Place Group coalesced in New York in 1963. The original members—Anthony Magar, Mark di Suvero, Forrest Myers, Tamara Melcher, Robert Grosvenor, Leo Valledor, Dean Fleming, Peter Forakis, and Edwin Ruda—were mostly from the West Coast, only Grosvenor and Ruda were Easterners. The name, Park Place, came from a location. Dean Fleming found cheap studios at 79 Park Place, in downtown Manhattan on the west side. Valledor explained the arrangement, “I took the third floor and Frosty [Forrest Myers] took the bottom floor and Dean took the floor in between. And I had the lease on the top floor and we decided to turn that into a gallery space or a place to show.”

It was informal. No schedules. No openings. As Ruda recalled, “Whenever someone had finished a piece, or a few of us had finished a piece, we would borrow a truck from a mutual friend, help each other very cooperatively...So we had an ongoing little show there, so you could see the mutual influence just grows.”

While there was no common denominator for every member of the group, the work was non-figurative and geometric, with smooth surfaces and hard edges. They also shared a passion for large-scale sculpture and paintings, a kind of mind-blowing bigness that had never been seen before. Robert Grosvenor’s gravity-defying sculpture—painted steel and fiberglass structures suspended from the —ceilings were twenty to thirty feet long.

Fleming spoke about the dislocating, disorienting and ultimately transformative power of these big pieces; it made humans realize that there was “a transcendent nature and a multiplicity, and that they themselves are capable of this change inside their own psyches.” For Ruda, the works were “not illustrations of ideas,” they were “part of the emotional content of the 60s”—new technology and materials, “far-out” optical play, and the science-fiction-like investigation of new spatial dimensions in the cosmos. Clearly the tiny interiors of the uptown galleries could not accommodate this work.

When the lease at Park Place expired in the spring of 1964, Dean Fleming, with the help of di Suvero and Myers, spearheaded a plan to underwrite a new space for the group. They asked five collectors—Vera and Albert List, John D. Murchison, Allen Guiberson, Virginia Dwan Kondratief, and the J. Patrick Lannan Foundation—to pay a set sum each year to the new Park Place Gallery in exchange for one work by each of the artists each year. They made a two-year agreement. The works were chosen through mutual agreement. Because sculpture materials and fabrication was so expensive, the collectors were also asked to pay these costs.

The new gallery at 542 West Broadway was incorporated on October 10, 1965, as Park Place, The Gallery of Art Research, Inc., a name that underscored a spirit of experimentation and discovery. John Gibson was the first director, Paula Cooper served as the president of the corporation, and Jane Umanoff was vice president. Then in May 1966, when Gibson’s services were terminated, Cooper became the director and president. The gallery closed on July 31, 1967. Though it was a good plan, the backers’ money never fully covered the costs of running the gallery, and in the end, as Ruda observed, the artists “all grew reluctant to give away five pieces annually in exchange for gallery expenses.”

Despite the financial shortfall, Park Place succeeded on other levels. The exhibitions were ground-breaking, the artists got big commissions, and were invited to show as a group at MIT, the Lannan Foundation in Palm Beach, and elsewhere. As a non-profit co-op, the gallery also sponsored invitational shows with Carl Andre, Robert Smithson, Sol LeWitt and others, held musical performances, and screened experimental films. But the artists had bigger dreams. They wanted a four or five-story building that was a communal center—a studio space where artists could pool materials, share expensive equipment, organize exhibitions, have meetings, poetry readings, and other performances. For instance, Leo Valledor envisioned a place that had a paint shop, complete with a color lab, spray booth and baking oven; a film shop for experimental filmmaking; a sound studio for recording sessions; as well as an electronics shop, a tool shop, a plastic shop, and a centrally located room, “in which total environmental conditions could be controlled and projected upon.” Others wanted “idea exchange seminars” with architects, engineers, builders, mathematicians, and physicists; or to explore the possibilities of public art, including “visual events” in parks, artist-designed billboards for cities and highways, and non-objective posters in the subways.

Park Place could not be all things to all artists. When it closed, Paula Cooper took some of the best ideas from the co-op and opened the Paula Cooper Gallery at 96 Prince Street. It was the first gallery in SoHo, then an industrial slum so foreign to the art trade that it was known as “Hell’s Hundred Acres.” Her spacious 5,000-square-ft. loft allowed for art with a public orientation to be shown in a gallery context. Like Park Place, exhibits evolved with the changing of individual works, not on a strict monthly basis, and she also opened her space to special events by artists in other media, such as new music, poetry, and film.

Many in the original Park Place group came to the Paula Cooper Gallery including Forrest Myers and Ed Ruda, as well as Robert Grosvenor and Mark di Suvero (who are both currently represented by Paula Cooper). The opening of her gallery marked a new space for art and a new kind of art dealer, who lived and worked with artists. In 1969, Peter Schjeldahl noted, “The Cooper is, if you will, an “activist’gallery, aiming to reflect and influence the actual production of new art as much as its acceptance by critics and collectors. It makes available a fuller experience of art as it is evolving than do any number of gleaming uptown emporiums.”

In 2007, Paula Cooper turned over to the Archives of American Art the extant records of Park Place Gallery, dating from 1966 to 1967, and the early records of the Paula Cooper Gallery in its first location at 96 Prince Street, from 1968 to 1973.

The records document the Park Place enterprise and the early years of the Paula Cooper Gallery. They illuminate some of the ideas that are central to the history of art in the 1960s?unconventional materials, new ways of experiencing art, and the space-age embrace of science and technology. We honor Paula Cooper for her contributions to the American art world and for her gift to the Archives.

-Liza Kirwin 

The author wishes to thank Ona Nowina-Sapinski, William McNaught, Joan Lord, Laura MacCarthy, and Emily Taub for their assistance with this essay.

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