Laurie Anderson

A photograph of Laurie Anderson performing "United States, Part II" in 1980 at the Kitchen in New York City. It's part of an extensive archive acquired by the Getty Research Institute that documents experimental visual and performing art at the Kitchen from 1971 to 1999. (Paula Court / The Kitchen Archive 1971-1999 / Getty Research Institute Los Angeles)

“Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side” has served as a pithy invitation to explore Manhattan’s avant-garde arts scene since 1972, when Lou Reed had a hit record intoning the refrain.

But "take a tram ride up a Los Angeles hillside" seems increasingly like the most useful advice for scholars and curators interested in delving deeply into the history of the New York arts underground.

The Getty Research Institute announced Thursday that it is absorbing yet another chunk of New York City's experimental-arts patrimony: a huge archive documenting the first three decades of work created at the Kitchen, a space in lower Manhattan that since 1971 has been a leading incubator of new developments in visual art, performance art, and contemporary music and dance.

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Materials from the Kitchen began arriving at the Getty this week, with more shipments to come over the next two years. The acquisition – for an undisclosed sum paid to the still-busy Kitchen -- includes 5,410 videotapes, more than 600 audio recordings, 246 original posters and enough photographs and papers to occupy 131 feet of shelf space.  

“Many prominent artists created their most formative and influential work at the Kitchen,” said the Getty’s written announcement of  the acquisition, which went on to present a long list that includes Laurie Anderson, Karole Armitage, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Philip Glass, Karen Finley, Mike Kelley, Bill T. Jones, Robert Mapplethorpe, Christian Marclay, Nam June Paik, Cindy Sherman, Bill Viola and Robert Wilson, “among many others.”

Those “others” in the mixture of established and emerging figures seen at the Kitchen from 1971 through 1999, the years the Getty's material covers, include Eric Bogosian, Trisha Brown, Richard Foreman, Tim Miller, Meredith Monk and the Wooster Group on the dance and performance side, visual artist Barbara Kruger, and Glenn Branca, Brian Eno, Steve Reich and John Zorn among the musicians. The Beastie Boys, Fab 5 Freddy, Sonic Youth and Talking Heads were among the emerging pop music acts who stepped into the Kitchen’s mix during the archived era.

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“This is one of the best performance collections in the world,” said Glenn Phillips, the Getty Research Institute curator who has overseen the acquisition. “They were showing some of the best dancers and musicians and experimental artists from multiple genres, and documented just about everything that happened. I don’t know anything like it, such a complete record that’s so uniformly excellent.”

The remarkable thing, he said, is that while archives of experimental arts venues typically reflect a brief hot streak, this one extends through decades.

The Kitchen’s diversity can readily be seen in its programming ledger, Phillips said. On May 5, 1972, it presented the New York Dolls, legendary for their influence on glam rock, punk rock and the deployment of androgyny as a pop gesture. The following evening the Kitchen offered computer-generated works by artists who’d been using equipment from Bell Laboratories.

On the video art side, Phillips said, tapes from the Kitchen, which began as a showcase for experimental video artists, but soon branched into other genres, will complement the trove of more than 3,000 videotapes the Getty received in 2005 from the Long Beach Museum of Art, which could no longer afford storage and upkeep of one of the world’s first museum collections of video art.

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Re-housing the history of a relatively low-budget Manhattan arts cradle such as the Kitchen at the palatial Getty Center has its paradoxical side, acknowledged Phillips and Tim Griffin, the Kitchen’s director.

“I don’t think Mr. Getty would have set foot inside the Kitchen,” Phillips said of the oil tycoon who died in 1976, leaving a bequest that turned the J. Paul Getty Trust into the world’s richest visual art institution. Getty’s own taste in art ran to Greek and Roman antiquities, Old Master paintings and French decorative arts from the 1600s and 1700s. “In a way the [Kitchen] artists are having the last laugh here.”

Leaving aside such ironies, the Getty curator and Kitchen director say it makes a great deal of practical sense to place the Kitchen’s patrimony with the Getty -- which had a $5.34-billion investment portfolio in mid-2012, a figure that probably has benefited considerably from the long stock market surge that has lifted the S&P 500 index 35% since then.

They said the record of the Kitchen’s activities through 1999 will now reside alongside strong complementary Getty holdings, making the  Kitchen material even more readily useful to scholars tracing the development of individual artists or broader themes and movements. 

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Unlike the Kitchen, where annual budgets typically have been less than $2 million and none of the dozen full-time staff members focus exclusively on what’s in the vaults, the Getty, which spent $278.6 million in 2011-12,  has the resources to give the archive optimal care and boost its accessibility by more easily expediting loans to other institutions that may want to borrow videos, recordings, photographs and papers for their exhibitions.

Phillips said the Getty’s first task will be cataloging all the new material so researchers can easily find what they’re looking for. “I can say with a pretty high degree of certainty we’ll be exhibiting, presenting and potentially publishing the material,” he said, but “it’s too early to say” what the specific approaches might be.