A leftover relic of 1970s art on Mercer Street


Ever notice the 13-story geometric abstract painted on the side of a prewar loft building on West 3rd Street between Mercer Street and Broadway?

It looks like something straight out of the 1970s city, when this part of the Village was a warren of underused loft structures, and landlords didn’t know—or care—what was painted on them.

Here’s the backstory of this curious relic of a less restrictive city. Created in 1970, it was commissioned by a artists’ group called City Walls, Inc. and painted by a cofounder of the group known as Tania.

City Walls apparently went around the city looking for facades to paint, and when they found one, they simply asked the landlord for permission.

GatewaytosohoOf her “three-dimensional” painting of overlapping pyramid shapes, Tania had this to say in a 1971 New York Times article:

“I want to take art out of the museums and galleries. . . . A wall belongs to everybody; it can’t be traded on the art market.”

Could an arts group paint a public wall today? Probably not without paying a hefty fee for the privilege.

City Walls was also responsible for this mural a few blocks south on Houston Street, titled “Gateway to Soho.”

[Photo, right, by Beyond My Ken]

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6 Responses to “A leftover relic of 1970s art on Mercer Street”

  1. Sean Sweeney Says:

    There is more written on this subject in this wonderful blog: http://sohomemory.com/tag/city-walls/

    There one can see that Jason Crum painted an almost identical mural to the one on 7th Street, which graced the SE corner of LaGuardia and Houston in SoHo for almost twenty years.

    However, in the mid-90s, as SoHo/NoHo became more commercialized, sign companies began to put up painted wall signs and billboards along Houston Street from the Bowery to MacDougal Street.

    The companies and the property owners would come before the community board and the Landmarks Preservation Commission for permission to remove several City Wall pieces as well as a few old commercial “ghost” signs that were situated in the SoHo Cast-Iron Historic District, requesting to install crass advertising “murals” in their place.

    The first one to face extinction was Crum’s.

    Efforts to reach Crum in California proved fruitless. I believe he was ill and not very responsive. So, the SoHo community let it slide.

    The Dorothy Gillespie mural on Mercer/Houston was next, and since the request to replace it with an advertising mural was actually proposed by the artists’ coop to pay their building mortgage, Ms. Gillespie graciously agreed to its removal. Incidentally, the mural was installed in 1975 as part of UNESCO’s International Woman’s Year.

    The next to face the iconoclasts in the advertising sign business was Forrest “Frosty” Myers’ “The Wall” on Houston and Broadway.

    However, Frosty has been living nearby in Williamsburg for years, is acclaimed, is still creating, and asked the community group, the SoHo Alliance, for assistance in preserving his artwork.

    Incidentally, besides being showcased in Max’s Kansas City, one of the first, hip downtown scenes in the 60s, another work by Frosty’s was also placed on the moon by the astronauts during the Apollo Program – where it still lies.

    So The Wall had to be saved in SoHo.

    Because the community never fought for, shall we say, “lesser” works, but wanted The Wall saved, the Landmarks Commission agreed that this was an important piece at the “Gateway to SoHo”, and would not permit the landlord to remove it so he could replace it with a huge advertising mural.

    A lengthy Federal lawsuit and appeal followed, with no end in sight.

    Eventually after several years, in a compromise, the landlord agreed to drop his request to destroy The Wall and Landmarks permitted him to place four small billboards at street level.

    As part of the deal, the landlord also agreed to repair and restore The Wall – and maintain it in perpetuity!

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Wonderful link, thanks Sean. I remember those Houston Street murals; my childhood bedroom window looked out at them.

  3. Matthew Grreenbaum Says:

    I knew Tanya – she introduced me to the composer Stefan Wolpe, with whom I studied. They both lived at Wesbeth. I was 15 at the time and never learned much about Tanya, who was fascinating and generous.

  4. pliny Says:

    Tanya had a loft on West Broadway near Broome
    before she went to Westbeth. A very astute lady.
    I was told she was quite a beauty in her day
    who cut a wide swath through the art world of the time.

  5. Matthew Grreenbaum Says:

    She was beautiful when I knew her.

  6. william menking Says:

    Tania (1920, Warsaw, Poland, Tatiana Lewin – 1982, Brooklyn, New York) was a Polish-born, New York based, Jewish American abstract painter, sculptor, collage artist, and painter of city walls.[1] She was known by several different married names over the course of her career (including Tania Pollak, Tania Milicevic, Tania Schreiber, Tania Schreiber-Milicevic, Tania Milicevic-Mills, and Tania Mills), but decided as of 1958 to use simply her first name, Tania. She was active in the New York art world from 1949 to 1982, but is perhaps best known for her 13-story geometric wall painting of 1970, which still stands at the corner of Mercer St. & 3rd St. in Greenwich Village, New York. In 1966, she became a founding member of City Walls, Inc., a non-profit organization that commissioned abstract artists to paint walls around New York City, and which (when consolidated with the Public Arts Council in 1977) would later become the Public Art Fund. (Wikipedia)

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