“I don’t think most of us thought we could be artists. We just couldn’t stop working,” Nancy Mitchnick said. Nancy was part of a group of artists around Detroit’s Wayne State University in the ‘60s and ‘70s. She was and is a painter. Others created assemblages from whatever flotsam they could find.
Nancy spoke at a recent discussion on what’s become known as Cass Corridor art, Detroit’s first avant garde movement. The panel included critic Vince Carducci, dean of undergrad studies at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, and Tim Van Laar, chair of fine arts at CCS. The conversation, at Detroit’s Simone DeSousa Gallery, kicked off the first of 3 shows of first gen Cass Corridor artists, guest curated by Mitchnick.
For me, the occasion was a homecoming. A chance to see old friends still professionally involved in art, like Valerie and Dennis Parks and Dennis Nawrocki. A chance to reunite with collectors Gayle and Andrew Camden. With Brenda Goodman, an artist long since moved to NY and receiving considerable acclaim (including an honorary doctorate from CCS). It was a chance to recall the excitement once stirred by dashing DIA contemporary art curator Sam Wagstaff and his acolytes, my friends Anne Manoogian Walker and Anne Perron Spivak.
It was a chance to remember…
As a journalist in the early ‘70s, I spent many lunchtimes at the Gertrude Kasle Gallery. There I fell in love with contemporary art. (Read more about Gertrude Kasle’s work here.) The gallery, on the mezzanine of the Fisher Building, was once part of space occupied by Antoine’s, the Saks Fifth Avenue hair salon where I had my hair done for my wedding. The iconic Beaux Arts office structure in mid-Detroit was designed by my great uncle, legendary architect Albert Kahn. (Farbman Group ran the building in recent years, then sold it to a group headed by Peter Cummings, son-in-law of philanthropist/investor Max Fisher, who also once owned it.)
In 1977, Jackie Feigenson took over Gertrude’s space, opening the Feigenson-Rosenstein Gallery (the latter name dropped soon after). Jackie had run the artists’ coop Willis Gallery. (Burton and I and several other couples had hosted dinner parties and visited the Willis en masse for its first exhibit.) Jackie gave up her career as a sculptor because, she said, “there were so many talented artists in Detroit who deserved serious representation.” Jackie was supported by husband Mort, who ran the Faygo Beverage Company. (“Which way did he go? Which way did he go?” Ask anyone who grew up in the D in the 60s: “He went for FAY-GO!”)
In April, ‘77, Burton and I celebrated our 10th anniversary. Seeking to honor the occasion, I visited Jackie’s gallery before its official opening. Walls were hung with strangely beautiful assemblages resembling rabbits, made of wire and rags on weathered wood panels by Michael Luchs. We purchased one. 40 years later, that anniversary gift symbolizes our marriage—tough at times, tender at others, still rewarding. (The first of the 3 Cass Corridor shows at Simone DeSousa this summer, now on display, features Michael Luchs.)
Jackie went on to represent many artists since called “Urban Expressionists.” Burton and I purchased several more pieces. Sadly, cancer claimed my friend. She was determined to make it to my 40th birthday party, and she did. It was the last time Jackie appeared in public. (The gallery was taken over by director, Mary Preston, who ran it—capably–for several more years.)
In 1980, then DIA curator Mary Jane Jacob organized an exhibit, Kick Out the Jams: Detroit’s Cass Corridor 1963-1977. (Named for the song by the MC5, Detroit’s nationally known rock band.) We loaned sculptures by Ellen Phelan and Gordon Newton. I still remember the tears that pricked my eyes on my first visit, knowing works from our home were displayed in one of the world’s great museums.
At the recent discussion, Carducci spoke about the timeliness of art from that period. “The downward slide of Detroit was intensifying, the lid was coming off. The MC5 and the Cass Corridor artists reflected that slide. Detroit was ground zero for the destruction of the working class. It was reverting to a field. The rabbits were coming back.”
Van Laar pointed out the influence of Vietnam. “People were either anxious to avoid the draft or screwed up because they didn’t. The Cass Corridor aesthetic exhibits that rawness.”
After, friends Brenda and Howard Rosenberg, Cara Kazanowski and I visited the hip Detroit Foundation Hotel, just opened, created from an old firehouse across from Cobo Center. Outside: a shiny red old-fashioned firetruck. Inside: cool white tiled bar. They served Collins drinks from Valentine’s Detroit-made gin and marshmallows flavored with Detroit’s Vernors ginger ale.
Cara defected via Lyft. The Rosenbergs and I dined at the London Chop House, which has such history for all of us. Burton took me to the Chop House to celebrate our engagement, 51 years ago. We were part of the (unsuccessful) group to finance the Chop House several years back when Detroit was in the tank. The Rosenbergs threw a party there for Howard’s 70th birthday. It’s now being well run by the Gatzaros family of Detroit restaurateurs. Not only did they seat us in Booth #1, but they agreed to make Pancho burgers, a hamburger slathered with a divine sauce developed decades ago by then LCH Chef Pancho.
For an old Detroit girl, I never dreamed I’d live long enough to witness the renewed energy that’s revitalizing the city. It was a splendid night of nostalgia and optimism. Visually, emotionally and gastronomically.