SoHo's Art History

Today’s SoHo may be more about cosmopolitan luxury and style than urban grit, but the neighborhood will always evoke the artistic cool of 1960s and ’70s New York, when its 19th-century cast-iron buildings provided huge open spaces in which avant-garde artists could work and live. The light and spaciousness of those industrial lofts not only helped establish the neighborhood as the center of the contemporary art world, but also led to the coining of the term “the SoHo effect,” which refers to the influence of artists and creative pioneers who effectively transform neighborhoods from forgotten to fashionable.

In the 1960s, the SoHo area of New York was zoned exclusively for industrial and commercial use. With the city economy in crisis, the area was also nearly abandoned. For New York’s artists and nonconformists, however, obstacles like no or very limited garbage pickup and police services paled in comparison to the draw of studio space with huge windows, high ceilings, and city views at prices of a now-unimaginable $2 per foot. Artists like Alison Knowles, Donald Judd, Maya Lin, Gordon Matta-Clark, Cindy Sherman, and James Rosenquist eventually began living in their SoHo studios, an approach that was soon adopted by other creatives like Philip Glass, Twyla Tharp, and Meredith Monk.

The Fluxhouse Cooperatives pioneered by George Maciunas were one of the first SoHo residential projects that would prove to be key to the growth of the SoHo art scene. Maciunas, founder of the Fluxus movement, took advantage of depressed pricing in the area that had resulted from a planned expressway to buy 80-82 Wooster Street in 1967 and establish it as an early artists’ cooperative living space. He did this despite, and in some ways because, of the fact that residential occupancy of the area was illegal at the time. Maciunas asserted that when one makes a desired outcome into a reality, legal and cultural authorities are forced to adapt. In addition to real estate, he tried his hand at early food-buying co-ops, workshops, and theaters. Within a couple of years, however, poor financial planning led to the demise of the Fluxhouse Cooperatives, leaving individual resident-shareholders to fend for themselves. Nonetheless, Maciunas’s projects and the Fluxus philosophy of integrating life and art are still considered conceptually and practically innovative.

The influx of residents that brought to life Maciunas’s vision ultimately effected a 1971 change in zoning laws to allow artists to legally take up residence in SoHo. Non-artists already in residence were grandfathered in, the only exception to the artists-only zoning resolution. But the neighborhood still lacked amenities and very basic services. Accordingly, Matta-Clark along with artist Carol Goodden established FOOD, an artist-run restaurant/ongoing dinner party/food performance space. Some of the meals at FOOD, like Matta-Clark’s bone-based dinner, were as much performance as meal; others, like Louisiana musician Robert Prado’s Cajun cooking, featured solid, quality fare. Donald Judd, Robert Rauschenberg, and John Cage all cooked for FOOD, which not only served as a community hub but also pioneered innovations that are now considered common but were countercultural in the early 1970s. FOOD established the use of an open kitchen to allow diners to better realize the laborious and creative aspects of their food’s preparation; used fresh and seasonal ingredients in keeping with an emphasis on craft and material; was one of the first restaurants in New York to serve vegetarian food; and, at the suggestion of Hisachika Takahashi, a jeweler and assistant to Rauschenberg, even served sushi.

Soon gallery owners like Paula Cooper and Leo Castelli followed the artists they represented into the area, and by the 1980s SoHo was the center of the superstar art world. Basquiat, Warhol, and Lichtenstein were part of the scene, as was graffiti artist Keith Haring, who attended the School of Visual Arts. A mural Haring created as a student was found during construction work in 2002 in a space formerly owned by the SVA and is now part of a private residence. Other artifacts of the period include Richard Haas’s cast-iron mural at 112 Prince Street, Francoise Schein’s “Subway Map Floating on a New York Sidewalk” at 110 Greene St (The SoHo Building), Ken Hiratsuka’s sidewalk art at Broadway and Prince, Forrest Myers’s “The Wall/Gateway to SoHo” at Broadway and Houston—and, of course, the Judd Foundation at 101 Spring Street, the permanent installation and preserved residence of Donald Judd. In 1968, Judd purchased the building, now the only intact single-use cast-iron building remaining in the area.

Today’s condos for sale in New York address the same impetus that drew Judd and Maciunas to SoHo in the first place: the need for residential space in the midst of a great and inspiring city. While the 1971 SoHo zoning law had become largely unenforced by the 1980s, the 1982 Loft Law established safety codes and rent control for residential tenants of formerly commercial buildings that soon brought new residents to the area. It wasn’t until 2005, however, that original residential construction was allowed in SoHo. Today, thoughtful new buildings like the towers of 70 Charlton consciously reflect the surrounding architecture while updating the residential possibilities of one of New York’s most unique neighborhoods to 21st-century standards.