May 1st, 2008
THE PIONEERS OF SOHO: FORREST MYERS.by Joelle Panisch
Before SoHo was CHANEL, Balthazar, and now Donald Trump, it was Dean Fleming and Paula Cooper and a handful of brave pioneers. It was a community of artists living in a manufacturing neighborhood lined with cobblestone streets, the essence of a gritty downtown New York. It was a 5,000 foot loft for three hundred dollars a month. Genius roamed the streets like the dinosaur roamed the earth. A community grew out of necessity, bonds were formed, inspirations shared and careers launched, It was a machine fueled by creativity, and it’s product was change.
Today change has become common, and shared inspiration rare. The artists who were lucky enough to experience the renaissance look back fondly and speak of the time as a diamond in the rough, which in their lifetime they will never experience again.
I interviewed Forrest “Frosty” Myers via telephone. It was what he preferred. After the highly publicized victory over the city for the preservation of his Houston Street mural, “TheWall,” Myers procured a place in not just art history, but the history of SoHo, past, present and future.
When I tried to get a feel for him from his voice, I was struck that I couldn’t. It was soft and strong, his words were precise yet not overly so. He was detailed and languid and answered my questions in depth, as if they were just pauses in his story he wanted to tell. He sounded like the pictures I’d seen of him. He sounded like his sculptures.
Myers seemed less inclined to talk about his personal work than the era. It was as if the memories of his friends, the art, and the energy between the two are his to own–a work of art in its own right. And when he spoke about old SoHo it was as if he was giving a eulogy to a dear old friend, with loving memories. It seems, to Forrest, that the art renaissance has long since passed.
Forrest Myers: I consider myself a SoHo Pioneer. I came [downtown] in 1962 and they were building the world trade center where I and other artists were living and I actually got run out of there too, they were going to demolish buildings… And so I moved to SoHo and people said why are you going to SoHothere’s nothing there but a bunch of trucks.Well at that time there were a lot of spaces for rent, not only in SoHo, but other places. Artists lived downtown… there were so few artists when I came to New York it was just odd. There were about 400 artists.
Joelle Panisch: Wow. I guess today’s artists really jumped on the bandwagon.
FM: Well, now there are 5,000 artists in my neighborhood here inWilliamsburg. It’s not tenfold. It’s an explosion of artists.
JP: Very true. Where did you first move to in SoHo?
FM: I moved to 458 Broome Street. At the time there was nowhere to eat, there was nowhere to shop. There was a bodega on W. Broadway and there was Fanelli’s bar. That was it. I don’t know when Spring St. Bar came in but that was maybe 1970.
What made SoHo was all of these cheap lofts. A huge loft went for three hundred dollars a month and those were 50 X 100 lofts. And this is pretty interesting. The landlords who had a vacancy needed only one tenant to get insurance. Insurance companies wouldn’t insure vacant buildings, they thought they were vulnerable. So landlords used to use tenants to get insurance.
There were enough artists to be a community; you knew right away you’d see artists on the street. In fact there were so many artists we knew each other and if we didn’t know them by name, we knew them by sight. The society back then, everyone would go to openings because you could get wine and cheese and bread and artists were literally hungry between jobs. But on a part-time job, because the rent was so cheap, you could make it as an artist in New York. And that was huge.
JP: What kind of part-time jobs did have?
FM: They were weird. I drove a truck. I worked in a brainstem factory, which were anatomical models. He hired a bunch of artists ’cause they could paint the brainstems, they knew about casting. He employed about ten people. You know, art delivery, that kind of thing. Believe it or not several artists worked in the museum of Modern Art. They used to hire the artists as guards.
JP: Did you ever do that?
FM: No, I never did, but when I used to go I would recognize all the guards.
JP: I’m surprised there wasn’t a big heist.
FM: Well I think things got more professional after a while. Because of the Vietnam War, there were protests at the museum, and things kind of changed when Tony Shafrazi spray-painted Guernica. Things changed after that.
JP: Around what year did artists start to flock downtown?
FM: It happened right away. I don’t know why artists were coming; it wasn’t just the cheap lofts. I guess when you are coming from out of town you need to know there is a place for you, (otherwise) it’s just too scary. I was told there were hundreds if not thousands of lofts for rent. When I got here my friend said ‘Pick a building. This is all for rent.’ I was coming from San Francisco and there were very few lofts. There were very few artists…
JP: Did you feel stifled before you came here?
FM: Well, yes. You know, San Francisco was lording it over Los Angeles as the cultural center, and my god, they didn’t even have an art museum to show modern art.
JP: When you came [to SoHo] was it dangerous?
FM: Oh, SoHo was dangerous. The reason was it was surrounded by Italian neighborhoods. It was a wasteland. You could get mugged there. People did.
JP: Did you stick together when you went out at night?
FM: Nah, when you saw guys coming you would cross the street. If they crossed the street then you’d run. You kind of learned how to do it. And there were women artists there too. This is before women’s liberation. It was quite a thing to be a women artist in a man’s world–A–and B–be in a loft in such a desolate place.
JP: How did this influence their art?
FM: Well, you know, your art got influenced by other artists. You know, by going to openings. Most of the galleries were uptown. The first gallery downtown was called Park Place and it got its name because it was on Park Place Street and they built the world trade center and tore it down. I was part of that gallery…then we rented a ground floor space on W. Broadway. Paula Cooper was the director of the [Park Place] gallery and so when it disbanded she started her own gallery in SoHo.
JP: How cool.
FM: That’s what gave Leo Castelli the idea, was visiting the Park Place gallery and seeing the shows. It was cutting edge. It was a very special gallery, I could name a lot of people you’d recognize who showed there, from Brice Marden to Mark di Suvero, Sol Lewitt, Steve Reich…Ornette Coleman played music there.
JP: How often did they have shows?
FM: They had a show once a month and the space was big enough. The reason why we got the space is because half the artists were sculptors and getting them into the galleries uptown was horrendous. These were the first ground floor galleries that had double doors big enough. So usually there was a two-man show, a painter and a sculptor.
JP: Did you show there?
FM: I had a couple of shows there. It was a great time. And nothing is going to happen in my lifetime that can compare to this. It was huge. There was just a lot of forces coming together. There were several different disciplines going on at the same time–pop art, abstract expressionism, hard edge in both painting and sculpture, minimalism. These happened and at the same time they were overlapping each other. The discussions and the philosophies that were going around were just amazing for artists.We didn’t have the kind of communication that we have today and the art magazines were pathetic. They were showing 50’s figurative work. Actually they were showing the same kind of art they are showing now. But that was forty years ago…it was a different world. You’d go to a certain opening and your life was changed when you left. The art actually changed the way people saw things.
JP: How did it change the way you saw things?
FM: I saw my first pop art show, my first minimalist show.When I lived in San Francisco for instance you didn’t have the real painting, you saw photographs of paintings. When you came to New York and you went to the Modern you actually saw Jackson Pollock. It just was huge. After I came to New York I quit art school. This was better than any art school.
JP: Was there a political aspect to it?
FM: No. At the time art and politics were separate. You just didn’t mix, you didn’t do that. It was a no no. And then one guy did a piece on the Vietnam War, and he used American flags in SoHo and everybody just hated him. But having said that, later on when the Vietnam War started heating up, then the artists took a stand. They would do posters and they would go to protests. I went to a protest at the Pentagon at the height of the Vietnam War where there were a hundred thousand artists and actually they were thinking they were going to take the Pentagon and flip it on its side, mentally. They actually tried to do that. But you know, it didn’t work.
JP: Was there a lot of drug use?
FM: Oh yeah. Everybody smoked pot. No hard drugs, but a lot of experimental use. Everybody was experimenting with visions.
JP: Were there any outcasts or were all artists included?
FM: Well, at that time it was us against the world. But we also thought we would change the world, and not necessarily political but how people saw stuff. And we wanted everybody to be able to do it. And now that its happened we’re not sure its such a good thing.
JP: Yeah, maybe not.
FM: Yeah, it just watered it down and it just doesn’t have the same kind of integrity that it did back then. And its too easy, anybody can come do it. Well, only a rich nation can do that anyway…it is lesser quality, there is no doubt about it. At the time, we used to fight a lot. Not like today, not as much over politics, but what you believe art is. And you would have arguments where you would fight over them. Back then there would be certain camps–minimal, hard edge, the expressionists. And if you believed in it, it was almost like religion.
JP: When did you start to feel a change?
FM: When the dentists moved in. There was a law that you weren’t supposed to live in a loft unless you were an artist. Dentists, for some reason, figured out that they could do some stuff to qualify.We saw a lot of dentists on the street and then we started hearing rumors that they were becoming painters…that was one sign. It happened very slowly. Well, it changed both slow and fast.
JP: What year did you leave?
FM: Around 73. I did the wall on Houston and Broadway and that was basically the year I moved out of there. That wall was a ten year fight and basically the landmarks saved it. When the advertisers got to my wall the SoHo Alliance basically put their bodies in front of it. And the cities have great lawyers cause they’re sued all the time. I love the wall and it was worth fighting for but there were times when my wife and I were in a room with six lawyers. That was a lot.
JP: One last question, do you have any favorite stories from that time?
FM: I remember seeing SAMO doing his graffiti on the side of buildings. And then he became Basquiat. Most of the stories are too seedy.
JP: Those are the kind I love.
FM: Well…I remember being in a room with five geniuses, and I’m not talking about me. And I remember thinking ‘My god, there is so much genius.’And these are all certifiable geniuses; if I told you the names you would know them and agree with me.
FM: I’m not going to tell you that.