'Paper City' Is Urban Abstraction and Tribute to Artist's Lost Tribeca

Jean Holabird installs her "Paper City" in a West Broadway window of 60 Hudson Street, the former Western Union Building. The building's management makes the window available to artist's for temporary exhibits. Photo: Mike Sterling

Dec. 23, 2019

Fifty brightly painted “towers,” from a few inches to 7 feet tall, look out onto West Broadway from a window in Tribeca’s former Western Union Building. Above them, a bit incongruently, hang stars with the names of vanished Tribeca haunts, precious memories for the show’s artist, Jean Holabird.

The installation, “Paper City,” gives viewers a look into Holabird’s compulsion (her word) for transforming two-dimensional watercolors into three-dimensional structures infused with a mélange of colors and shapes. It’s a lot to pack into this tiny (8 by14 feet) window showcase. But there was still room for another side of the artist’s psyche, a longing for the Tribeca that once was. Thus, each of the 31 stars is named for a meaningful part of a past shared by her and many others who fondly recall the neighborhood of yesterday.

Holabird, who moved into her Warren Street loft in 1975, was a denizen of the bars and clubs frequented by Tribeca’s pioneering artists of the 70s. “I was thinking about the people who would know those places,” she said in an interview. “It was a little cry out to my people. The ones who know what I’m talking about. And the ones who don’t know? They can ask.”

One of the hanging stars she will keep after the show comes down memorializes the Mudd Club, a nightclub that operated on White Street from 1978 to 1983. “It was dark and sweaty and dance-y and boozy and smoky and wonderful. And everybody knew each other,” Holabird recalled. “That’s what I really miss. Everybody knowing each other in the neighborhood.”

There are stars for other local clubs and watering holes of Holabird’s past: Barnabus Rex, Liquor Store Bar, and Yaffa’s, to name a few. But also restaurants (Socrates, Capsouto Freres, Riverrun, etc.) and stores (Food Emporium, Bell Bates, Pearl Paint, Cheese of All Nations). The idea for memorializing them came to her when she ran into Yvonne Fox, whose pet supply store, Dudley’s Paw, was forced to close earlier this year.

“I said I sure miss Dudley’s Paw. And then I thought, I miss so much.”

Holabird has been a regular at the Odeon, cater-corner to her current installation, “since the day it opened” (and even before that, when it was the Towers Cafeteria). “It looks the same,” she said, “so I get comfort from that. I sit in the corner and people like to hear stories of old Tribeca.” 

“Now,” she added, “when I sit in a corner and someone says, ‘What’s your work like?’ I say, ‘Go across the street and look at the window.”

Holabird’s “Paper City” comes from years of sketching and painting buildings in her notebooks, inspired by their reflected surfaces and juxtapositions of shadow and light. After doing a flat painting, she folds and cuts the paper, turning it into a freestanding tower. Her idea for the show came to her after returning to her apartment following a two-year gut renovation of the building by the landlord, and unpacking the dozens of paper structures. “I saw the window and said, ‘Hmm, somewhere to put them, at least.

More than that, Holabird said, “I did the window because I wanted to see what it would look like. And I think for a lot of us artists, that’s what motivates us. All psychology aside, that’s the main driving force. What would it look like.”

“Paper City” can be seen any time until the end of January, on the West Broadway side of 60 Hudson Street, near Worth Street.