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Tina Girouard, experimental artist in 1970s SoHo, dies at 73
A still from Gordon Matta-Clark's Open House, 1972.

by Randy Kennedy

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Tina Girouard, an avant-garde artist from rural Louisiana who played a catalytic role in the 1970s SoHo art scene in New York, helping to found the experimental gallery 112 Greene St. and the artist-run restaurant Food, died April 21 at her home in Cecilia, Louisiana. She was 73.

Amy Bonwell, a niece, said the cause was a stroke.

Arriving in New York City fresh out of college in 1969, Girouard plugged almost immediately into the performance, dance and conceptual-art circles that, fueled by their tumultuous times, were reshaping the art world.

In 1971, for a group show organized by curator Alanna Heiss on a condemned pier beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, Girouard presented “Swept House,” a spartan performance and ephemeral sculpture in which she used a broom to shuffle dust into lines depicting the floor plan of a house.

The work dovetailed with that of other artists at the time — among them Gordon Matta-Clark, Joan Jonas, Vito Acconci and Alan Saret — who were exploring ideas of architecture, the body, community and urban space in the midst of a city rapidly falling into ruin.

Girouard saw such art as a form of radical speech. “We really wanted to change America,” she said in 2010 in an interview with curator Jessamyn Fiore. “Or maybe it’s that we wanted to hold on to the true nature of what we thought America was or should be.”

In addition to performance, Girouard used found and inherited fabrics, wallpaper and floor coverings to create installations, work that came to be part of the renegade mid-1970s movement known as Pattern and Decoration.

And she was among the early adopters of video technology. In “Tape-Video Live,” a 1972 performance at the Leo Castelli Gallery, she and three other dancers played with the spatial and temporal jigsaw combinations of live, live-broadcast and previously recorded dance movements.

Cynthia Marie Girouard was born May 26, 1946, in DeQuincy, Louisiana, in the southwest part of the state, and grew up with five siblings on a rice and cattle farm in an unincorporated community so small that it had no name. Her mother, Yvelle Marie (Theriot) Girouard, was a special-education teacher, and her father, Whitney Lewis Girouard, was a farmer who later taught agricultural engineering.

At the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), Girouard met Dickie Landry, a saxophone player, composer and later a member of the Philip Glass Ensemble, and fell in with a group of musicians who had deep Cajun roots. In a conversation in the art magazine Avalanche in 1973, Girouard said that living around jazz and blues musicians instilled in her a conviction that art was, at its core, collaborative.

In the winter of 1969, she and Landry drove to New York City and soon, along with painter Mary Heilmann, moved into a near-derelict building in Chinatown at 10 Chatham Square. It soon became a bunkhouse for dozens of artists and musicians over a fevered six years.

“We could have struck a match and the whole building would have burned down — it was a dump,” said Landry, who married Girouard in 1971. “But then again, Tina and I had two entire floors for $500. Everything was very revved up. Tina just fed off of that. We all fed off of each other. We ate together and played together and some of us slept together.”

Girouard and other Chatham occupants were among the cross-pollinating members of 112 Greene St., an improvisational art space in SoHo that sculptor Jeffrey Lew and his wife, Rachel Wood, a dancer, opened in 1970, along with Saret and Matta-Clark.

The space hosted exhibitions and performances by an astounding array of emerging artists, including Richard Serra, Spalding Gray, Alice Aycock, Laurie Anderson, Richard Nonas, Chris Burden, Girouard and Matta-Clark, who planted a cherry tree in the basement and forced it to bloom in winter by infrared light. (In 1979, 112 Greene St. became the nonprofit alternative gallery White Columns, which operates today on Horatio Street.)

Girouard joined forces with Matta-Clark, Caroline Goodden and Suzanne Harris to found the restaurant Food in 1971, at Prince and Wooster streets, envisioning it as a kind of culinary performance space and service-industry employment agency for artists.

The restaurant pioneered now-common dining innovations like seasonal ingredients, an open kitchen and an internationally eclectic menu. It served sushi before most New Yorkers knew what that was, advertised as “raw mackerel with wasabi sauce.”

The space lasted not quite three years in its original incarnation, done in partly by its determination to avoid conventionality at all costs. In a short 1972 movie about the restaurant, “Food,” shot partly by Robert Frank, Girouard can be seen rolling and passing a joint in the kitchen as she tries to figure out who will take a Sunday breakfast shift. In an interview with The New York Times in 2007, she said, “We put our hearts and souls and butts into that place.”

Her New York years, however prolific, did not last long. Girouard returned to Louisiana in 1978 and there, with Landry, bought an old general store and moved it to the small town of Cecilia, about 15 miles northeast of Lafayette. After they divorced in 1991, Girouard worked for several years in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, making traditional sequined-and-beaded voodoo flags with Haitian artists.

In addition to her niece Bonwell, she is survived by her siblings Gloria Nell Girouard Bonwell, Barbara Cecile Girouard Martin, Norman Wade Girouard and Jacqueline Anne Girouard and a sister-in-law, Billie Johnson Girouard.

Girouard’s work was included in “With Pleasure: Pattern and Decoration in American Art, 1972-1985,” which opened last fall at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. A recreation of one of her most important performances, “Pinwheel,” from 1977, was presented last year by the Anat Ebgi gallery at Art Basel Miami Beach.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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