Painting the Town Gold
Anthony Haden-Guest says art has a long tradition of turning undesirable quarters into housing hotspots. Who is the next Picasso of property prices?
THE SHABBY FORMER industrial building into which Picasso moved in 1903 was in a nothing district and it was so ramshackle that a high wind would set it swaying and the timbers complaining. Which was why Picasso’s friend, Max Jacob, the poet-painter, durably nicknamed it Le Bateau-Lavoir (the Laundry Boat). Picasso painted the Blue paintings here, and some of the Rose paintings, selling them out of his studio. It was here, too, that he and Braque invented Cubism and here in 1907 that Picasso painted the visceral canvas he called Le Bordel d’Avignon (The Brothel of Avignon).
Braque and Max Jacob also lived in Le Bateau-Lavoir, as did the poet André Salmon, who organised the canvas’s first exhibition and, somewhat to Picasso’s irritation, retitled it Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Others there included Matisse, Derain, Juan Gris, Van Dongen, Modigliani, Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau and… well, the list goes on.
Indeed, the whole of Montmartre became what we would call an Art District — Modernism’s first. But the avant-garde was small and broke, with few collecting it or dealing in it, so the effect of artists on property values — as with London’s more genteel bohemian neighbourhood, Chelsea — was negligible.
Flash forward to post-World War II New York, where an equally broke and almost equally minuscule avant-garde was also moving into an abandoned micro-industrial milieu, in this case the Cast Iron district. What followed is holy writ, in both the art world and real estate. The district was renamed SoHo for South of Houston (Street) as the galleries followed the artists — Paula Cooper being among the first — and glorious years followed, but then the boutiques swept in, the modish lounges, like the Spy Bar, the galleries flogging commercial Neo-Pop, and the boho-de-luxe hotels. The whole while, rentals spiralled giddily upwards.
So to London. Freeze, the show that Damien Hirst organised of the work of his fellow students at Goldsmith’s in 1988 and is generally taken as the start date of the Young British Artist phenomenon, was appropriately located in London’s Docklands.
In 1990 Joshua Compston, an art entrepreneur, hung the YBAs alongside Gilbert and George in the Courtauld. That same year he opened a gallery, Factual Nonsense, in Hoxton in London’s aggressively unfashionable East End. Two summers running he threw a Fete Worse Than Death there — YBAs ran the stalls and Hirst made his first Spin paintings — and Compston’s Hanging Picnic, in which objects by more than 25 artists were hung from the railings of Hoxton Square, was filmed for TV. Restaurants, bars and mini-boho enterprises proliferated. Hoxton was a preview of Manhattan’s Meat Market or — for those who had been around — a flashback to the Kings Road, circa 1969.
Compston was destroyed by drink and drugs and in March 1996 he overdosed on ether, aged 25. His body was carried through Hoxton in a coffin painted by YBAs Gavin Turk and Gary Hume. One of the pallbearers was Jay Jopling who would become his successor.
That being Britain, the infusion of art and the entrepreneurial was lively and inventive, but also unplanned, haphazard. It was in post-perestroika Russia that the SoHo template was applied most methodically. Sofia Trotsenko, the art collector wife of a property magnate, took over 200,000 square feet of a near derelict industrial space behind the Kursk railway station, which included an old winery, an ice house and the Moscow Bavaria brewery, and developed it into a SoHo-style art district, complete with spaces for galleries and other art-related enterprises and artists’ studios.
She named it ‘Winzavod’ as a tribute to its alcoholic origins and swiftly signed up half a dozen of Moscow’s cutting-edge Contemporary art galleries, such as the Aidan Gallery and MA Guelman. A growth process that had taken a quarter of a century in New York was greatly abbreviated in Moscow. In 2010 Trotsenko announced that, thanks to Winzavod, the ‘neighbourhoods became safer and more attractive, tourists came in droves and real estate gained in value’.
SO BACK TO New York. In 1989 Anne-Brigitte Sirois, a 23-year-old blonde Québécoise, arrived by way of Paris to pursue an art career. ‘I had read Slaves of New York,’ she says. ‘I had this idea about SoHo and the bohemian life around it. To me this was what I was coming to. But what I experienced was that ugly SoHo, the West Broadway scene that had degenerated, the commercial galleries and all this late, strange Pop art that wasn’t really Pop art any more.’
She was living in Brooklyn, painting, studying for a degree in painting at Pratt Institute, broke, and supporting herself by teaching ballroom dancing. Her favourite point of connection with the avant-garde was not contaminated SoHo but the Dia Foundation at 548 West 22nd, this being the Manhattan redoubt of the arts foundation set up by Philippa de Menil. Dia supported projects by Donald Judd, Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field and 7000 Oaks by Joseph Beuys, who had planted not just trees but slender fingers of hewn rock on the sidewalks around the foundation.
Meanwhile Sirois, like generations of art students, was wondering whether she could make a living from her work or she would have to take an actual job. She was discussing this with her boyfriend of the time, an investment banker. ‘And this guy said, “Oh, you should go into commercial real estate,”’ Sirois says. ‘And I was so pissed off and disgusted that I broke up with him shortly after that.’
NONETHELESS, SIROIS WAS hanging out on the Dia rooftop one time — the Dia rooftop being a serious art-world hang-out at the time — looking around. ‘And I could see that this was a deserted area. Amazing spaces,’ she says. So it was. The artist Sandro Chia had owned a building on 23rd Street, Julian Schnabel had had a space there and Larry Gagosian had started his first ‘real’ New York gallery in the garage, but Gagosian had been and gone and most of Chelsea’s street spaces were outlets for stuff like auto parts.
‘So at some point I thought, OK, it’s interesting, this idea of real estate,’ Sirois said. She approached it like an art project. ‘I took a gallery guide and I did a very simple fax broadcast to 100 galleries. “Consider Chelsea! Consider an art district! Look at this opportunity.” And I would get responses — people would say, “This is ridiculous! What is this strange letter? Who has this idea? Nobody would ever go to that neighbourhood. It’s windy, it’s ugly, there’s no subway there.”’
Sirois persevered. She sat down with these seasoned old dudes, and just what they were thinking as they were confronted by this cute French blonde, who knew nothing much about property except exactly what she wanted, can be fairly readily imagined.
‘The first break I had was 529 West 20th Street. That building had recently been sold at a bankruptcy auction and it was being marketed as onetenant for the whole building. Maybe it would be storage,’ she says.
But she was promised a deal if she could fill half the building with galleries in advance.
She did so. Chelsea was born. SoHo lumbered into history.
And now Anne-Brigitte Sirois has her own art gallery, splendidly entitled Guided By Invoices. But that will be another story.
Read more by Anthony Haden-Guest
Illustration by Frann Preston-Gannon