Women Artists Reflect on How They Helped Shape SoHo
A Smithsonian online event kicks off a new monthly series exploring the pioneering art films and videos made by women
Ingrid Wiegand says that when she gets a patronizing look from a clerk at electronics store these days, “I’ve learned to say, ‘You know, I had a computer back in 1982—probably before you were born.’ And that gets the conversation back where it should be.”
A half-century ago, Wiegand was a pioneering video artist. Some of her work, such as her 15-minute Walking (interstices), reflected her work and life with then-husband Robert Wiegand in the blossoming artists district of New York’s SoHo.
Others, such as the artful mirrored dance in the 7-minute video piece Julie, captured a moment when dancer Julie Finch, wife of celebrated artist Donald Judd, was choreographing work to favorite soul records.
Both works, now held in the collection of the Smithsonian's Archives of the American Art, will be screened in an online event this week that will be followed by a panel discussion featuring both Wiegand and Finch, who both have also been instrumental in helping nurture the burgeoning SoHo artists’ scene and who both continue to be active in helping preserve it today.
“Ingrid Wiegand, Julie Finch: On Loft Life and Space-Making in the 1970s” kicks off a series of monthly events this year under the title “Viewfinder: Women’s Film and Video from the Smithsonian,” organized by curators from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
At a time when the pandemic has caused museums to be closed, relying on video art is a perfect way to share works online, says Josh Franco, the Archives of American Art curator who organized the initial panel and will conduct the online discussion, which also fits in with the Smithsonian’s ongoing American Women’s History Initiative, Because of Her Story.
“The primary goal is to bring time-based media created by women out from the collections of Smithsonian, because that’s what’s built for virtual viewing, which is what we’re doing now,” Franco says. “It’s definitely a Covid-responsive initiative.”
Franco had a special interest in the Wiegands' work since before coming to the Smithsonian, he worked at the Judd Foundation in the famous 1870 cast iron industrial building that became an art studio and is now a museum at 101 Spring Street.
“I always knew Julie had a dance studio on the second floor of Spring Street when she did live there,” Franco says.
“I had been studying at the [Merce] Cunningham studio with the choreographer Trisha Brown and I performed with Deborah Hay and Yvonne Rainer as well,” says Finch. But she had been working on choreography to American soul music on her own.
“I just loved the songs,” she says. “And I had watched tap dancers who were tap dancing to jazz, so I wore shoes which had clunky heels.”
Finch said she had wanted to be a dancer growing up in New Rochelle, New York, “but my mother said I was too tall, when I graduated from high school.”
Instead, she began painting in the style of modernist Marsden Hartley. “Then I got married and stopped painting because doing landscapes in Maine was difficult,” she said. And she returned to dance.
With Judd, they helped turn SoHo, a former industrial site, into an artists’ community. “Don and I bought this building we fell in love with at Spring and Mercer in 1968,” she says. The striking corner building was also a block away from New York planner Robert Moses’ proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway. Approved in 1960, it was fought for most of the decade by community groups and eventually the highway was abandoned.
Finch’s role in opposing the development was to get the name of artists who inhabited the area in order to organize them. She found 73 lofts occupied by artists in the historic area in co-ops and privately owned buildings. Among them were Bob and Ingrid Wiegand, who worked together in the relatively new field of video art.
“We were really interested in it,” Ingrid Wiegand says of the medium. “We fell in love with the technology and got very good at it,” even though, she adds, “it was totally primitive.”
While now the most popular cameras come in pocket phones loaded with effects, cameras had to be lugged around with heavy Portapaks, with edits made on synchronized dual reel-to-reel videotape machines often rough and squiggly.
At the time, Robert Wiegand was an abstract painter of some renown. “I had written short stories and was a Greenwich Village poet, with no recognition, working as a technical writer,” Ingrid Wiegand says.
The two, who met in the artists’ colony of Provincetown, Massachusetts, settled in SoHo when it was quiet and abandoned by the industry that had set up shop there. “We had gotten one of the first lofts for $5,000 when everyone thought we were crazy.”
With video, the couple found a way to be innovative within the technology, conducting a conversation on two monitors in the 1979 piece Face-off and layering five audio tracks in the mesmerizing 1976 Omar is el Uno.
The 1975 Walking (Interstices) provides a glimpse into their private lives, as well as into their work lives, but also involves family life. We see them rising and eating breakfast in the morning, walking through the neighborhood to preschool, the Grand Union and a park, where Wiegand confides to a neighbor, “I’m making a tape that sort of involves my own life.”
But we also see her husband literally painting himself into a corner with his latest large abstract geometric painting, and her observations on video’s limitations in contrasts and editing.
It was out among the neighbors, at the SoHo Playgroup, where Finch and the Wiegands first became acquainted. Finch had been working on some solo dance pieces and they arranged to make a video shoot of her performance to Wilson Pickett’s version of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home” and Otis Redding’s “Just One More Day.” The resulting 1974 Julie has the dancer swirling to a black background, mirrored in a video effect in which the figures seem to intersect in one, and in the other, her single figure seems to radiate outwardly in a video feedback loop.
“That mirror effect was something that was really interesting that a number of video artists were using at the time,” Wiegand says.
Finch, for her part, won’t say if she thought the effect enhanced her own dance. “No comment,” she says, 47 years later. But she adds, “I was totally open to her doing whatever she wanted to do.”
The two women lost connection for decades after the collaboration. “I hadn’t seen her in 30 years,” Wiegand says. And then they met at a public hearing last year speaking against proposed rezoning near SoHo that would allow luxury towers. “She came up to me, and of course I wouldn’t have recognized her,” Wiegand says.
Though neither still lives in SoHo, they are fighting for preservation of the area they helped create, just as they fought the proposed expressway that would have destroyed it half a century ago. And Finch’s former home at 101 Spring St,, has been remade into a kind of museum designed to look exactly like the home and studio she lived in 50 years ago. Judd died in 1994, 16 years after their divorce, when he left to establish a different kind of art colony in Marfa, Texas.
What’s it like to have her former home turned into a museum? “It’s OK,” Finch says. “My kids and I are close now, so I go down and see them if they have an event there, and I’m friendly with the director.” And as for her former husband, she says, “I like Don’s work.”
The panel discussion virtually reuniting Finch and Wiegand coincides with the final days of a major Judd retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art scheduled to close Jan. 9.
Other panel discussions on the roster in the Viewfinder series include Joan Nonas Feb. 4, Zina Saro-Wiwa March 4, Margaret Salmon April 1, Zara Lathan and Iman Uqdah Hameen May 6 and Leslie Thornton June 3.
“Ingrid Wiegand, Julie Finch: On Loft Life and Space-Making in the 1970s,” from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, is scheduled for Jan.7, 2021 at 5:30 p.m. Registration is free.