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Detroit's Cass Corridor

Detroit's Cass Corridor - named for the avenue whose full length defines its north and south boundaries, Grand Boulevard and Cass Park, with Woodward Avenue at its east end and the John Lodge Expressway at the west was the scene of the city's most active and stimulating artistic environment from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s. Once consisting of fashionable single family dwellings and apartments for the upper middle class, the Corridor, like most of Detroit's core, over the past 40 years has undergone much social upheaval and general decline.

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Nevertheless, out of the depths of a city's decay emerged a new art which today stands as Detroit's most significant contribution to contemporary American art. Ironically, the peculiar geographical, physical, and social nature of the Cass Corridor proved to be well-suited to fostering Detroit's first significant artists' community.


Excerpts from "Art and the Industrial City," by Dora Apel, in Up from the Streets, Detroit Art from the Duffy Warehouse Collection, ed. Jeffrey Abt, Elaine L. Jacob Gallery, Wayne State University, 2001

It is no accident that the Cass Corridor phenomenon occurred during a time when the younger generations were attempting to reinvent politics, culture, and morality in America in a politically charged era that included the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, the rise of drug guru Timothy Leary, the imagery of war in Vietnam on nightly television, and the killings at Kent State University. Following the anticommunist witch hunts of the McCarthy era, the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, and the disillusionment with conformist suburban mythologies, the powerful sense of community established in the Cass Corridor produced an explosive synergistic energy and intense creative flowering.

The volatility of race relations that shook the country also had a profound effect on Detroit, then the nation's fifth-largest metropolis and automaker to the country. Following the riots in Watts (1964) and Newark (1967), the most violent rebellion of all took place in July 1967 in Detroit. Deeply affected by the civil rights movement of the preceding two decades, the rioters, as historian Sidney Fine notes in his study of the Detroit riots, "signal(ed) to those in power that they must pay attention to the black ghetto and its problems."

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Bordering the campus of Wayne State University was a depressed inner-city neighborhood bisected by Cass Avenue and known as the Cass Corridor. Its population included, by most estimates, some fifty to seventy-five artists working in buildings with studio complexes (such as Old Convention Hall, Common Ground, and the Forsythe Building), storefronts, lofts, basements, and apartments. Many of these artists were instructors, students, or former students in Wayne State University's art department, and some were from the College for Creative Studies. Social life centered on local gathering places and bars such as Cobb's Corner, whose owner, Robert Cobb, supported the local art scene and sometimes traded drinks for art. Cobb owned the Willis Gallery building (the Willis Gallery was a cooperative gallery established in 1971 in a burned-out furniture store), which became the primary exhibition venue for Cass Corridor artists. Cobb rented it out for years at reasonable rates, even trading rent for works of art. Cass Corridor artists developed a pride and affection for their area of the city, fostered by a shared sense of community and a passion for art making.

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The raw aesthetic of Cass Corridor art also seemed most in tune with the conceptual ideas and attitudes of artists such as Eva Hesse, Tony Smith, Mark di Suvero, and Robert Rauschenberg, who used unconventional materials and produced unorthodox assemblages. Cass Corridor artists made particular use of tools such as power saws and drills and alternative materials such as cardboard, aluminum paint, duct tape, cables, bolts, galvanized mesh and screening, and abandoned industrial fixtures. Art was understood to be about "process" as well as objects, and could result in a "purposeful anti-aesthetic, unbeautiful look." Perhaps such efforts might be better described as departures from the conventionally beautiful in the attempt to define a new aesthetic. Art critic Richard Armstrong astutely noted at the time of the Kick Out the Jams exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts that the "tough, gritty" work revealed "an uncommon allegiance to the ideas of advanced abstraction. It is more in touch with its counterparts in downtown Manhattan than might be thought." Corridor artists also used the Detroit Institute of Arts as their coffee shop and were always looking at diverse artistic expression, from the African, Egyptian, and Native American galleries to the works of the abstract expressionists.

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Perhaps the work of Cass Corridor artists in the 1960s and 1970s was not so much an industrial aesthetic as a post-industrial aesthetic. Reviewing an exhibition of work by Twenty-One Detroit Artists at Cranbrook Art Museum in 1979, Marsha Miro observed: "If anything, the art these Detroiters make is post-industrial, created as a negation of the notion that industrial progress means human progress. They pick up industry's pieces and mend them into a new existence as art that has no technological value." What is the relation of this "new existence" to a failed promise of progress? Cass Corridor art seems to embody the latent power of industrial technology, even while subverting it and recognizing its deterioration, which contributed to an era of strife and poverty.

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Today most of the Cass Corridor artists are still working, dispersed throughout the metropolitan Detroit area, New York, or elsewhere around the country. Many retain the dark core and uneasy edge of their early work and the influence of Cass Corridor art can be felt in the labor of succeeding generations of artists, in a city that continues its prolific artistic traditions.

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Photographs by Robert Hensleigh, Florence Neal, Jerry Sadowski and Paul Young.

 

ROBERT SESTOK © 2006 - 2007