Wednesday, 19 November 2008


It was on a cold, snowy evening on 23rd January, 1917 that painters John Sloan and Marcel Duchamp, poet Gertrude Drick, and Provincetown Playhouse actors Alan Russell Mann, Betty Turner, and Charles Ellis slipped through an unlocked door and climbed the spiral staircase to the roof of the Washington Arch.

These six so-called "Arch Conspirators" then spread out blankets, hung Chinese lanterns, tied red balloons to the arch's parapet, sipped tea, shot off cap pistols, and talked until dawn.

At some point during the night, the ringleader, Gertrude Dick, read a proclamation by candlelight into the cold windy night - a declaration of independence for what the Arch Conspirators' somewhat ironically called the "Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square." Social commentator, Luc Sante astutely noted that the slightly comical declaration of January 23rd, 1917 "actually named the thing that all the inhabitants of the Greenwich Village of that time were aiming for, a revolution in more than just a legislative sense, a free territory untrammeled by convention."

While 1917's Declaration of Independence was soon forgotten, Greenwich Village's spirit of rebellion and breaking with the past was very much alive, then and now and it is no understatement to declare that modern American art became deeply rooted in and around Washington Square in the decades after the Arch Conspirators stunt. Artists like Sloan and Glackens were the vanguard of an entire movement of realist painters, including Thomas Hart Benton and Edward Hopper, who painted around Washington Square. Others to follow Duchamp's iconoclastic footsteps, most notably Jackson Pollock and other abstract expressionists.

Please do not think about launching your own bid for a Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square, as nowadays the access door to the west pier of the arch is locked, the spiral stairs secured and the arch roof off limits. But on a chilly January night, 91 years after Drick and her co-conspirators proclaimed the independence of Washington Square, rebellion and artistic expression remain very much a part of the spirit of Greenwich Village.

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