The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever
Longlisted for the National Book Award
The never-before-told story of an obscure little street at the lower tip of Manhattan and the remarkable artists who got their start there.
For just over a decade, from 1956 to 1967, a collection of dilapidated former sail-making warehouses clustered at the lower tip of Manhattan became the quiet epicenter of the art world. Coenties Slip, a dead-end street near the water, was home to a circle of wildly talented and varied artists that included Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, Delphine Seyrig, Lenore Tawney, and Jack Youngerman. As friends and inspirations to one another, they created a unique community for unbridled creative expression and experimentation, and the works they made at the Slip would go on to change the course of American art.
Now, for the first time, Prudence Peiffer pays homage to these artists and the unsung impact their work had on the direction of late twentieth-century art and film. This remarkable biography, as transformative as the artists it illuminates, questions the very concept of a “group” or “movement,” as it spotlights the Slip’s eclectic mix of gender and sexual orientation, abstraction and Pop, experimental film, painting, and sculpture, assemblage and textile works. Brought together not by the tenets of composition or technique, nor by philosophy or politics, the artists cultivated a scene at the Slip defined by a singular spirit of community and place. They drew lasting inspiration from one another, but perhaps even more from where they called home, and the need to preserve the solitude its geography fostered. Despite Coenties Slip’s obscurity, the entire history of Manhattan was inscribed into its cobblestones—one of the first streets and central markets of the new colony, built by enslaved people, with revolutionary meetings at the tavern just down Pearl Street; named by Herman Melville in Moby Dick and site of the boom and bust of the city’s maritime industry; and, in the artists’s own time, a development battleground for Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. The Slip’s history is entwined with that of the artists and their art—eclectic and varied work that was made from the wreckage of the city’s many former lives.
An ambitious and singular account of a time, a place, and a group of extraordinary people, The Slip investigates the importance of community, and makes an argument for how we are shaped by it, and how it in turns shapes our work.
Praise for The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever
"Tenderly researched . . . . The Slip [is filled] with rich art-world anecdotes and respectful gossip . . . . If you wonder why art is migrating to the metaverse, Peiffer’s snapshot of this hinge decade in modern art history should be your first port of call.” — New York Times Book Review
“Things that burn bright and vanish are easily idealized, but in The Slip, the critic Prudence Peiffer opts for a tricky blend of mythmaking and myth-busting [and her] main point . . . is right: Coenties Slip had seedy glamour to spare, but for most of the fifties and sixties it didn’t feel like Manhattan . . . . The true hero is an environment, an atmosphere . . . . [the] book is free of the weightless isms that one usually sees in art histories . . . . Peiffer is a lively storyteller.” — The New Yorker
"Reading The Slip provides a thrill similar to stumbling on hidden treasure in an antique shop. Elegantly wrought, and bristling with unforgettable details, this inspired excavation of a never-before-told chapter in the history of American art is as timeless as it is original. From the serendipity of friendship to the mysterious power of place, Prudence Peiffer brings to vivid life the abstract forces that make it possible for creativity to thrive." — Kate Bolick, author of the New York Times best-selling Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own
"In her marvelous, crisply written The Slip, Prudence Peiffer showcases a cadre of artists who resided along Coenties Slip—now a part of the Financial District near Pearl Street—in the late 1950s and ’60s, decades after the schooners and frigates moved to the Hudson River." — Wall Street Journal
“A vivid and poignant story of a vanished Manhattan, a slip of land and the young artists who worked there, who left their ecstasies, crises, and friendships at that spot, there to be found and held up, in a keen and sympathetic light, by a truly skilled writer.” — Alexander Nemerov, author of Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York
“Prudence Peiffer has brought a singular mix of style and expertise to the story of Coenties Slip, a sliver of land at the tip of Manhattan that became a legendary art-world address. Here, at last, is the definitive history of the Slip—and of bohemia's final years in New York.” — Deborah Solomon, art critic and author
"In Prudence Peiffer's new book about Coenties Slip, it’s hard to decide which is more fascinating, the place she describes or the community of artists she sets in it: Agnes Martin, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana and a crowd of similar talents discovered themselves as artists in that funny little corner of Old New York. Peiffer's wonderful achievement is to show how the community depended for its existence on the place — and that American art would have been utterly different without both." — Blake Gopnik, author of Warhol and contributing critic to the New York Times
“An insightful and wonderful account of how this disparate group supported and inspired each other and how their work at the Slip altered the course of American art.” — Town & Country
"Peiffer seeks out a general audience, performing a cultural history written by a trained art historian. There is a rapid clip to The Slip: a silky tone that is careful to move along its narrative, conscious of keeping its reader. Peiffer is at her best, in fact, when her prose is fast-paced . . . . Delightful." — ArtForum
"Momentous . . . . Peiffer’s account succeeds, in part, because of the intimate scale of its analysis . . . . The Slip . . . allows us to see how the legacy of the Slip figured into postwar abstraction, fiber art, Pop Art, and Minimalism, leaving few developments in American art untouched by the small street’s ocean spray." — Art in America
“Prudence Peiffer . . . has written a splendid group biography that pays homage to an irretrievable era of artistic productivity that still resonates today. The Slip is its own masterpiece.” — AirMail
“An engrossing history . . . . In a precisely detailed, well-contextualized narrative alive with anecdotes, Peiffer considers the dynamic between place and creativity, mutual support and individuality, expertly and insightfully illuminating an underappreciated artistic enclave and its pivotal role in modern art.” — Booklist (starred review)
"Prudence Peiffer’s nonfiction work is not a portrait of an art movement or style, but of a place . . . . Her vivid chapters recount how Ellsworth Kelly made the best of the natural light on the roof of 3–5 Coenties, how the neighboring East River ran through the works of Lenore Tawney and Agnes Martin, and how the fertile milieu led one Robert Clark to reinvent himself as Robert Indiana . . . . The sum is a picture of a community of artists shaped by a place, while actively shaping their own place in a pre-Pop era.” — ArtNet News
"Meticulously researched and lucidly written . . . . The Slip, for all its immersion in a rebuilt past, nevertheless has a hopeful, toolkit feel: you leave wondering how and where such unseen but crucial communities might coalesce in the future." — ArtReview
"But the real challenge [in The Slip] is a literary rather than a scholarly one: How to make location as compelling as character or as dynamic as even the mildest plot point? . . . . In the end, this book, like its subject, provides readers, its temporary lodgers, a solid launchpad from which to imagine how." — BookForum
”An appreciative group biography of a community of artists who lived and worked in cheap lofts and studios on Coenties Slip, at the lower tip of Manhattan, from 1956 to 1967 . . . Besides illuminating the creative work, the author captures the spirit of the “unique microcosm” of the “modest, almost forgotten” Slip . . . . A warm evocation of a unique place and time.” — Kirkus Reviews
“[An] enchanting debut . . . . Peiffer vividly traces the community’s genesis and makes a detailed and persuasive case for its influence on other “alternative models to conventional city life.” It’s a gratifying deep dive into New York City art history.” — Publishers Weekly
“This well-researched monograph is a love letter to a unique time and place. It will likely appeal to readers interested in modern art or New York City history.” — Library Journal
"There is a well-worn conceit that New York is more than just a place but a character in and of itself. When deployed, it runs the risk of over-romanticizing the city and flattening it to the point of abstraction. Under Peiffer’s deft hand, though, this motif is anchored to a clear purpose: to make vivid how the post-industrial landscape of lower Manhattan became the material, sometimes literally, of the artists’ work." — Associated Press
"The rich treasure of this short, three-block long city street is now thoroughly unpacked in Prudence Peiffer's carefully researched new book." — BHS Now