January 13, 2006
Who Needs a White Cube These Days?
By ROBERTA SMITH
WHAT is art?" may be the art world's most relentlessly asked question. But a more pertinent one right now is, "What is an art gallery?"
It is heard often these days, and within it lies another question: do galleries have to run or look the way they do? How inevitable is the repeating cycle of solo and group exhibitions and the steady movement of artworks from galleries to museums, auction houses and collectors' homes? How can you slow, expose or disrupt the delivery mechanism - maybe even avoid it altogether occasionally - to reassert art as a process and a mind-set rather than a product?
With their changing exhibitions and precarious finances, galleries are by definition fluid forms, under constant revision. But lately the gallery model has seemed even more in flux than usual. More young dealers, artists and people who are both (or neither) are thinking outside the white cube. Other galleries are trying to brake their ascent to establishment status by interrupting the flow of monthly shows and finished objects, substituting a monthlong presentation of short exhibitions and even shorter performances.
Some established dealers turn their spaces over not to independent curators but to other dealers. As Mary Boone, queen of the 1980's art scene, explains on Artforum.com, she commissioned Jose Freire, who owns Team Gallery in Chelsea, to organize two group shows in her 57th Street space because she was interested in "giving my old career new life." But the real new life may be coming from further down the food chain, from individuals and groups who often operate in the gap between traditional galleries and alternative spaces. Their vocabulary - "transparency," "modes of attention" and "the rhetoric of display" are often tossed about - suggests a reaction against the art-as-product orientation habitually ascribed to the Chelsea scene. But they also benefit, themselves, from the surplus of disposable income that flows through the gallery system.
There are precedents for the latest round of what might be called deviant or alternative galleries. One is 112 Greene Street, the freewheeling artist-run exhibition space of early SoHo. Another was American Fine Arts, the sometimes anarchic gallery that Colin de Land and his artists oversaw on Wooster Street in SoHo, and then in Chelsea until his death in 2003.
A more recent precedent is the Wrong Gallery, created by the artist Maurizio Cattelan and the independent curators Ali Subotnick and Massimiliano Gioni. It opened on West 20th Street in 2002, in a one-foot-deep doorway behind a glass door identical to the one leading into the adjacent Andrew Kreps Gallery. Modestly but memorably, Wrong demonstrated that it was possible both to parody a gallery and function as one, giving numerous artists mini-debuts.
The 20th Street doorways (there was briefly a two-feet-deep annex) have closed, but Wrong will participate in this year's Whitney Biennial, and began an extended stay at Tate Modern in London in December. The Wrong Gallery creators are currently in Berlin organizing the Berlin Biennial for March: as part of the show, they have created Gagosian Gallery, Berlin, a real gallery that so far has put on four exhibitions. Any resemblance to the real Gagosian Gallery, or the Guggenheim Berlin, is not coincidental.
One oft-cited precedent is still active in New York: Gavin Brown, who stirred up the gallery form in the mid-1990's by opening a bar called Passerby nearly inside his gallery on West 15th Street. (They shared restrooms.) Two years ago Mr. Brown relocated his main gallery to Greenwich and Leroy Streets, maintaining Passerby (run with a partner) and keeping his old gallery as an intermittent off-site project space. The Leroy Street space is beginning the new year with a series of one-week shows, starting with "Sonic the Warhol," a film by Oliver Payne and Nick Relph that combines video game faces with a visit to the zoo: everyone gets a mask, and the music, by Brian DeGraw, is terrific.
Subversion and Survival
In some ways, Michele Maccarone has strayed furthest from the white cube. The three-story building she opened on the east end of Canal Street in 2001 is barely renovated, and she has allowed it to be regularly torn up, top to bottom, by artists showing there. But Ms. Maccarone is in other ways an old-style gallerist, who seems to have almost single-handedly willed her challenging project into existence while always striving to meet the demands of her artists.
Her current exhibition, the overstocked debut of Nate Lowman, demonstrates the way all galleries fluctuate between subversion and business as usual, if only to survive. In the show, titled "The End and Other American Pastimes," Mr. Lowman continues to develop his down-and-out excursions into collage, graffiti and appropriation. The work feels original in some places - especially a painting technique that suggests velvety silkscreens - and tried-and-Warholian in others, like the series of paintings of blown-up fake bullet holes, which take up a great deal of wall space throughout the building.
In contrast to nearly everything about Maccarone except its funky space, there is Reena Spaulings, a two-year-old gallery, (now on winter hiatus) headed by a nonexistent person, that happened largely by accident. In a small storefront on Grand Street, overseen by Emily Sundblad, a Norwegian artist, and John Kelsey, an American critic, the operation has provided an adamant reminder that a gallery is a social organism - even a kind of family - that combines aspects of living room and studio.
The space, part of the housing complex where Ms. Sundblad lives, was initially rented to create a business address that would beef up her visa application, and grew from there. The Reenas, as they are sometimes called, left in place a delicate pipe scaffolding from the store's days as a dress shop; it now serves as a brilliant device to disrupt the gaze and usually helps pull even the most shambling exhibition together.
The store was initially used, unnamed, as a meeting place, performance space and screening room. The fictional name came later, as did more organized exhibitions, but the unfinished air persists. Eventually, Ms. Sundblad and Mr. Kelsey started making art as Reena Spaulings, and she, as it were, has been invited to the 2006 Whitney Biennial, as has Josh Smith, a Spaulings artist.
Making It Transparent
While the use of a fictive character undermines the myth of the all-powerful art dealer, there is also a certain coyness to it. In contrast, at Orchard, the intellectually inclined new collective gallery that opened on Orchard Street last spring, total transparency is the goal. It is self-evident in a design that involves exposed wall studs and a desk that is actually a picnic table; it is also evident in the decision-making process.
At Orchard everything is hashed out by the collective's 11 members, which also tends to expose the secret emotional life of galleries, where ambition, idealism and vulnerability intersect and conflict. A debate about building storage shelves, which would hide things (diminishing transparency) but make life easier, was fierce. The members are still hashing out whether the gallery should stage solo shows.
Members are the artists Moyra Davey, Andrea Fraser, Gareth James, Christian Philipp-Müller (all formerly of American Fine Arts), Nicolas Guagnini, R. H. Quaytman, Karin Schneider and Jason Simon, as well as Rhea Anastas, an art historian ; Jeff Preiss, a cinematographer and artist; and John Yancy Jr., a computer programmer.
Mr. James has organized the gallery's current exhibition, "Painters Without Paintings and Paintings Without Painters," a feisty but rather beautiful assembly of mostly two-dimensional work that attacks and celebrates painting, or more precisely pictoriality, from all different angles.
The show includes a luminous Mondrianesque wall painting by the Scottish artist Lucy McKenzie; works by J. St. Bernard, a fictive artist who many believe was initiated by Colin de Land as well as Reena Spaulings; and one of Daniel Buren's striped-awninglike paintings, from 1972. History is also recalled in a wonderful homage to Cézanne from the often sardonic Jutta Koether and in works by Simon Bedwell and John Russell, two former members of the art collective Bank, which operated a studio/gallery in London in the 1990's.
Nothing for Sale
The gallery form has almost nothing to do with Scorched Earth, although in some ways it is the most white and boxy of the spaces below Grand Street. Around the corner from Orchard on Ludlow Street, it was cooked up by Mr. James and the artists Cheyney Thompson (who has two works in the Orchard show) and Sam Lewitt. It is a yearlong consideration of drawing in all its permutations, present and historic, and was inspired partly by frustration with the medium's current market popularity.
Its founders call Scorched Earth an editorial office whose chief goal is the publication of a magazine, not exhibitions. With purposeful disregard for usual periodical practice, its first and only 12 issues will be worked on over the next year and then published all at once.
Further liberties are being taken with the gallery form at the Martha Rosler Library, a tiny storefront resembling a used bookstore, where nothing is for sale. Crammed into creaky shelves are about 6,000 books owned by the artist eminence Martha Rosler - on art, architecture, science fiction, poetry, history and beyond - that form a kind of portrait of the artist's mind. Anyone can come in, browse, read and even photocopy a few pages - free.
This functioning bibliographic tribute has been organized by the artists Julieta Aranda and Anton Vidokle, owners of e-Flux, a digital information service whose clients include about 400 art galleries and institutions worldwide. Their first project in the space was a free video rental, 500 videotapes by 250 artists, that ran for six months.
Mr. Vidokle calls the library "a useful resource that doesn't have any commercial motivation" and cites as inspiration the former artist-run SoHo restaurant FOOD, an offshoot of 112 Greene Street, where diners paid what they could.
Easier Said Than Done
It is difficult to be a full-service gallery and maintain a high degree of deviation for long. Friedrich Petzel, who took over the Printed Matter space next to his gallery on West 22nd Street, spoke in September of using it without benefit of a white-box redo or a set schedule. But by December, both were nearly in place, Mr. Petzel said, largely because of pressure from his artists.
When Andrew Kreps lost the lease to his 20th Street space last summer, he moved temporarily to a raw three-floor wedge of a building on 21st Street. While also staging solo shows, he enlisted one artist, Matt Keegan, to organize two excellent group shows, and another, Fia Backstrom, to set up a series of events, "Herd Instinct 360°," on the subject of community (the last of which, a panel, is on Jan. 22). The current exhibitions, of work by Roe Ethridge and Adam Putnam, are well worth visiting, but the space is also notable on its own. As downtown Manhattan and its art world both barrel ahead real estate-wise, it feels a bit like a relic from another time or place.
By March Mr. Kreps should be ensconced on West 22nd Street in the gallery previously occupied by D'Amelio Terras, which is relocating to larger quarters on the block. "I'm tired of roughing it," Mr. Kreps said, noting his current building's iffy heat.
Daniel Reich, another Chelsea dealer, has opened a second space at a place that so far seems inured to gentrification: the Chelsea Hotel. Called Daniel Reich temp., it will reopen in March with a group show organized by Nick Mauss.
But even the folks at Reena Spaulings admit that their artists want big careers and that they were impressed by the activities of deliberate, rather than accidental art dealers while participating in the Liste art fair in Basel, Switzerland, last spring. At Orchard, an invitation from Extra City, a fair starting in Antwerp, Belgium, is under consideration.
Dealers regularly move up the food chain, beyond "starter" galleries; witness the seven who just graduated to sleek ground-floor spaces on far West 27th Street in Chelsea. For those who want to start really small, the Wrong Gallery (in concert with Cerealart Inc.) is issuing a multiple: a 1:6 scale miniature version of its original door and doorway titled "Now Everyone Can Be a Dealer."