The Third Space and Art: How cafés and bars shaped the look of modern art

The development of the individual depends on meeting people from different walks of life, and getting to know them. There are two liquids going for us: coffee and alcohol bring people together.

Ray Oldenburg, 2016.

The Third Space and Art:

How cafés and bars shaped the look of modern art
By Constanza Ontiveros Valdés

Some of modern art’s greatest movements emerged next to a cup of coffee, a pint of beer, or a glass of absinthe. In light of this, scholars have increasingly acknowledged the important role informal gathering settings, also known as third spaces, have for creative thinking. Unfortunately, due to the self-centered and productivity-obsessed nature of contemporary societies, the social function these spaces once had seems to be fading away. In this post, we mention some of the emblematic spots where Western artists got together to revolutionize art. Hopefully, this will make us all remember community building is crucial in every type of creative endeavor.

Why is the concept of third space important for art making?

In diverse books, including The Great Good Place (1989) and Celebrating the Third Place (2000), urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg defined third spaces as the public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact in diverse ways to what they do in their homes (first space) or work (second space). The celebrated author argued that these spaces, such as bars, coffee shops and one may add art classes or cultural gatherings of different sorts, are crucial to the vitality of public life and that historically they should be analyzed through this theoretical framework. “It’s the regulars that make a place,” Oldenburg once said. Following Oldenburg’s views, art scholars have recently uncovered how the regular gatherings different groups of artists had in cafes, cabarets, brasseries, and bars during the 19th and 20th centuries resulted in groundbreaking innovation. Let’s look at some emblematic third spaces in Paris, Zurich, and New York, some of which are still open.

How café Paris life contributed to the emergence of modern art

There was a time when cafés were the quintessential third space. In France, cafés, which were a mixture of coffee shops and bars, multiplied during the 19th century. While many intellectuals spent more time drinking in Paris cafés than working in their studios in what nowadays would be considered “procrastinating,” it was there that exchanging ideas about their work resulted in the emergence of radical art forms. As stated in this interesting grad school thesis [1], one of the first cafés to play host to the intellectual crowd was Le Divan Lepelletier. Here members of the Romantic movement and also artists pursuing the Realist style, like Courbet, frequently gathered and engaged in heated arguments which inspired their respective styles. Other emblematic spots across Paris were Le Brasserie Andler, Les Brasserie des Martyrs, and Café Tortoni.

Without a doubt, cafés were also instrumental in the emergence of Impressionism. Before this painting style became popular in the late 19th century, artists like Manet and Degas regularly gathered at Café Guerbois and Café de la Nouvelle Athène. At the same time, cafés became a recurring subject matter for the Impressionists and also turned into incipient art galleries as the works of seminal painters like Monet were often seen in many bourgeois cafés.

In the following years, café life continued to be pivotal for the city’s cultural life. As proof of this, around 1913 the Café de Flore, located in St. Germain-Des-Prés saw Apollinaire and his group of Surrealist friends, which included André Breton and Aragon, set down their Surrealist Manifesto. The spot was also frequented by other forward thinkers of their time like Picasso and Simone de Beauvoir. Café de Flore[2] is still open to this date. Over time its art deco walls have witnessed the comings and goings of intellectuals, artists, filmmakers, and, more recently, tourists.

A Zurich cabaret that saw the birth of Dadaism

In the early 20th century Cabaret Voltaire, a briefly lived part cabaret part café located in Zurich saw the emergence of the radical art movement known as Dadaism. Cabaret Voltaire’s story begins with the start of World War I, when Hugo Ball, a German theater director, and philosopher, launched this hybrid third space in July 1916. The term Dadaism was coined here and was used to describe a movement that brought together Cubism, Futurism, and Expressionism; and spanned everything from sculpting, photography, performance art, and painting. Seemingly nothing was out of bounds and drinks flowed at a fast pace among the bohemian crowd that was the regulars of this late-night destination. Entertainment included concerts with typewriters, rakes, and pot covers, dances with African masks, and all sorts of guttural creative expressions.

Shock and provocation were Dada’s main tools. “Every generation of adolescents uses Dada as a device for protest and rebellion,” stated art curator Dieter Buchhart, in an interview[3] with the BBC, adding, “Dada is almost like a religion. Do I believe in Dada? Yes.” Notably, Cabaret Voltaire has been reactivated in the same building where it first began. It now hosts contemporary art programming and also houses a bar.

New York: how Abstract Expressionism flourished in coffee shops and other gathering spots

In the mid-20th century, New York café life and other third spaces were crucial for the birth of Abstract Expressionism. In the late 1930s, New York artists gathered in the Village and later at the Waldorf Cafeteria at the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 8th Street. As referred to in this New York Times article[4],Willem De Kooning and 20 other regulars often discussed their artworks there until the wee hours. However, by the end of the 1940s, the Waldorf Cafeteria’s management was increasingly hostile towards the group which made them look for another location.

Most popular was the Eighth Street Club, or simply “The Club,” a third-floor multipurpose loft established in the fall of 1949. It was social as much as intellectual and turned into the center of the New York art world. This third space hosted panel discussions, visiting speakers, and many parties. Among The Club’s regulars were Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, and Robert Motherwell. It is said that the term Abstract Expressionism was coined there, however, none of the artists wanted to be limited by an aesthetic that included everybody else and they often had heated debates over drinks. “We didn’t mind anything. That’s The Club. And the whole world changed,” sculptor Philip Pavia, one of the Club’s organizers, said about this joint. Next to The Club, Studio 35, and the Cedar Street Tavern were popular among New York’s post-war artists.

As time went by, many other bars, coffee shops, salons, and gathering spots were instrumental in the creative process of all types of artists. The regular clientele and playful mood that characterizes the third space provided a free and light atmosphere where creative expression was fostered and also challenged. Recently, we seem to have lost a grip on the importance of nurturing such spaces in our neighborhoods. It seems that aside from college life, where this type of space is still going strong, as we get older and get swamped in our everyday responsibilities the third space fades into the background as a nice memory. However, as these examples have proven, it is worth revisiting or creating them as they make us take the time to simply stop, listen and talk with others. We should all find our third space…





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