That was back around 1979, and, fortunately, Sol LeWitt was there to capture it. Although the late artist is best known for his oversize conceptual wall drawings, he was also a prolific street photographer. On the Walls of the Lower East Side is his heretofore mostly unseen work of 666 photographs—snapshots of graffiti art, advertisements, and shop signs in a mix of English, Hebrew, and Chinese that showcased the area’s multiethnic voice.
Now, downtown art curator Adam Shopkorn has brought LeWitt’s work back to life, adding a bit of the old hood to the new. In partnership with Morgans Hotel Group, he mounted 120 vinyl prints of the photos in a gridlike composition along the Mondrian Soho’s Lafayette Street wall. Shopkorn curated the work in collaboration with the Paula Cooper Gallery and LeWitt’s estate. Despite the evolution of this once melting-pot turf, Shopkorn feels the photos remain in tune with the neighborhood today.
“The work is meant to blend in, and that's what it has done. It seems as if it belongs there,” says Shopkorn. “The Mondrian Soho sits on the fringe of Chinatown, Little Italy, and the Lower East Side, and it’s still a somewhat industrial neighborhood where a lot of the signs are evocative of that time period. Public art is about finding spaces that work. With this project, we’re adding history to the neighborhood and taking you back to a different time in New York, when it was a bit dirtier and dangerous.”
Of the portraits, Shopkorn particularly likes an image of Roberto Clemente, the late Puerto Rican baseball player and cultural icon. There’s also an old store sign, “Sol Stein Jewelers,” which to Shopkorn symbolizes LeWitt’s presence on the wall.
“He captured these typical posters that were pasted on doors and political statements that were about the neighborhood, and it was all very passionate at the time,” Shopkorn says. I don’t know if that really happens anymore. New York has been cleaned up and the city doesn't look like that, and there was something beautiful and nostalgic about it. And here we took this perfectly clean white wall and put graffiti on it as an art project. It’s ironic.”
On the Walls of the Lower East Side can be viewed on the Lafayette Street side of the Mondrian Soho, between Grand and Howard Streets.