Either / Or

John Haber
in New York City

P.S. 1: The Reopening

Is there any alternative? As a question about the art world, it sounds downright silly. No one I know pretends to cope with the choices out there. Were I an artist, I would hardly know where to go for rejections first. As a part-time critic, I never claim to keep up. All right, Hilton Kramer and Robert Hughes can, but they know before bothering to look how decadent it all became after we beat the Germans.

Yet the ideal of an alternative space, a refuge for artists outside the system, remains alive. It will so long as art teases me to keep pace. It has to, so long as the art scene issues rejections as ready made as a Duchamp. The new courtyard entrance (MoMA PS1, 1999)

Art needs every rebellion it can get against the Whitney Biennial. It deserves every dissent from the Met's solemn procession of aging modern British painters. It should not think about museum practices even long enough to make them its subject. It could use a few reminders that the bogey of "the art world" need never frighten anyone.

With the reopening of P.S. 1, New York has more than a spectacular alternative space. It has the occasion for a visionary rethinking of what an alternative space can be. It is also the occasion for some fine solo exhibitions, including installations by Pedro Cabrita Reis, Robert Wogan, John Coplans, and Marina Abramovic

Trashing the art institution

The P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center occupies a former Queens schoolhouse—and an entire city block. In its first life, this musty, red-brick building really did go by the name P.S. 1. (Hey, in life as in art someone has to be first.) Joe Mascheck, a critic and art historian, thinks his grandmother may have attended. Conservatives should be pleased, however outrageous the art: one school, at least, has been privatized.

What makes for an alternative space? I have a short answer handy. At its best, P.S. 1 has me saying, "I have seen what the Whitney Biennial should be—and never will." It goes about creating that vision of a "greater New York" consciously. Yet my search for a fuller definition began almost at the end of my visit, on the top floor, with an actual alternative.

As usual, I took the easy way first—or so it seemed. Pedro Cabrita Reis creates a forest out of the remains of P.S. 1. Looping from ceiling to floor and back again, filling an entire room, garbage bags of dark plastic impede the way. Linked end to end, the tightly wrapped green tubes could evoke branches blown to earth by the wild autumn winds. The room has some windows for illumination, but nothing more. The bags contain shredded paper, perhaps the stuff of countless final exams.

At first I tried to step over and between them. In a museum, one does not touch the art. It did not take long, though, before I understood that the straight way was lost. I started kicking strands aside and using my hands to pull them apart. As the room seemed to grow ever longer and longer, I felt like Dante in his dark woods of the soul, savage and dense, only far more relaxed.

By the time I caught the elevator at the far end, I had attained nothing one could measure, merely the chance to keep exploring. I had grown perhaps a tiny bit more at home with the refuse of childhood, an arts institution, and the creative work.

Virtual light

That elevator leads to the roof, where Julian Schnabel shows off his new (and not unconvincing) dedication to serious art. There, too, a damp alcove holds a work by Richard Serra, more modest by far than Serra's walls and prop pieces. Some years back, before P.S. 1 closed for renovations, Serra cut a channel of severe metal into the stone floor. Perhaps it connects the lesser-known artists below to the past.

First, though, I had to return to the door opposite Reis's, to check out an alternative. A guard warned that Robert Wogan's installation would scare me, and it did. Climbing a fragile ladder, I entered a completely dark corridor, with barely room for myself and no more. After just a few feet, I had to reverse direction and start over, so that others already inside could leave. I had a good wait: nine of them must have emerged.

It gets worse. The ceiling slopes lower and lower, pressing ever more tightly in. Maybe I had entered the proper chute for all that trash in the room before. And then I saw a floating, grey square, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

I emerged into a smallish chamber, exhaled for an unnaturally long time, and turned to see, no, not a window, but a video. The hand-held camera carries the eye down the corridors below, as jerky as ordinary walking and as hesitant as an encounter with art. I could not tell if virtual reality were stumbling into the building's past or foretelling the rest of my afternoon.

I left the same way I entered, but far more calmly. The walls that once pressed so hard now lend support—like the steel plates and cinderblocks that Carl Andre once laid for me on the floor, like the churches that once functioned simultaneously as art, symbolism, and a civic space. Again I had gained nothing more tangible than a chance to touch the work. I had wrestled with the space with my own two hands. I had experienced the arts institution as a metaphor, as in the hospital wards of Ilya Kabakov, quite as much as the art. After another breath, I was set to wander where I had begun.

Alternatives to what?

All art offers alternatives. I mean the work and the lives it contains, as well as the space in which it lives, a space of endless reconstruction.

From Vermeer's carefully constructed interiors to de Kooning's open networks of paint, every work invites one to enter an alternative space. I mean any earthwork fully as much as the Sistine Madonna's or a video's theater of illusion. I mean David Smith sculpture nestled in office parks as much as Barbara Kruger's mocking of corporate culture. Kruger is less at home than Smith among blue-color types rather than merchandisers anyway.

Capitalism likes to claim that the market thrives on alternatives, and galleries come and go faster than ever before. Geographically and metaphorically, they extend in a new direction every year, into New York neighborhoods and half-abandoned factory districts. Soho, the East Village, Chelsea—each in turn briefly was an alternative space, between art institutions and exile. Meanwhile museums extend, too, into citywide or global empires.

Sometimes, galleries create alternatives in another sense, a space between art as commerce and art as something more. With Dumbo or Wiliamsburg in Brooklyn, say, or SoFa in San Jose, a divide between unheralded studios and borderline galleries hardly exists. In Soho now, a distinction between art and upscale home design gets fuzzier still. Call it furniture's revenge, long after it first got hard to tell art from the wall fixtures.

Museums juggle their own confusing alternatives. Somehow, the Met must attract larger and larger crowds while upholding its elite image. (Philippe de Montebello and his slim, European suits no doubt contribute to both.) Somehow, it must grasp hold of and preserve this undefinable thing called tradition while documenting departures. With flamboyant new wings and branches abroad, museums have become more like competing empires than some art world.

Just to speak of an art world is to fall guilty of an idealization. Does the leftist critic or the auction house do more to sustain belief in this institution? Does the young careerist or the older artist in museum collections with art "not for sale"? I no longer know for sure.

Alternatives and choices

Art, in other words, is replete with alternatives—too often, alternatives without real choices. An alternative space is about making alternatives explicit and creating choices. It is about seeing art's metaphors and everyday spaces within the same physical reality.

Like works of art, an alternative space must embrace the unpredictability of a fiction. Like a gallery, it has to take risks and to work between the demands of financial support and a mission. Like a museum, it should create its own special public. Unlike all of them, it can stop believing in the art world. Alternatives might well then appear of themselves.

It takes ambition. An artist cooperative, however necessary, cannot do it all. Neither can, say, the New Museum, where the curator has so strong an agenda. Both are out to replace the art world, and both seem relatively narrow to me.

I said I wanted what the Biennial should hold but never will. The never seems to me fully as important as the should. A cooperative focuses on the never. The New Museum, say, has an awful lot of shoulds. Like any small institutions, they have to choose between diverse curators and a set purpose, when I wish I could have both.

Talking back

If I am sincere about alternatives, I can hardly privilege the top floor. I chose to describe Reis and Wogan because they show what is going on throughout the building, sometimes more stunningly. But they supply a revealing and pretty good start.

First, they respond to the space and to each other. Throughout P.S. 1, one senses just that complexity of call and response.

Richard Artschwager and Lucio Pozzi, for instance, disperse panels amid the hallways. In each, the two colors divide along a straight line, which follows lines of the original hall paint. For one artist the line runs horizontally, for the other vertically. As site-specific art goes, one artist's installation would come off lame without the other's, and each alone is easy enough to overlook. Together, they force one, floor plan in hand, to seek out alternatives.

Next, Reis and Wogan juxtapose their history with an institution's. Similarly, many artists paint right on the walls of two stairwells. They must accept the crumbling fabric of concrete and plaster. They have to paint large. The change of scale allows Stephen Ellis's brushy work more fun than I had seen it before.

Jackie Winsor gets a different kind of juxtaposition. She has a good-sized room to herself, ample space for her dense constructions of rope and wood. Where else could the ambitions of the career retrospective coexist with the funkiness of old walls and low windows?

Between generations

Reis and Wogan sit comfortably as well alongside an older generation of artists, like Serra. Three floors below, Robert Rauschenberg shares a room with four young New Yorkers, all of them new to me. He donated his recent painting for the building's reopening.

All told, P.S. 1 mixes generations and countries. In contrast, museums will typically take a stand on big draws or art of today, with little in between. I was happy to see Rachel Whiteread, the English artist, down the hall from Americans new to me. Robert Ryman shares a boiler room with Matt Mullican. Balanced between Mullican's emblems and the basement squalor, Ryman's white panels have rarely looked as rich in substance, color, and texture.

In fact, Reis and Wogan do not try too hard to represent tradition or the cutting edge, and neither does P.S. 1. The Chapman brothers' adolescent raunchiness could almost have wandered into one room by mistake.

A much-admired installation from before the renovation stays. At dusk in fair weather, James Turrell converts light from the sky into something seemingly as solid as a canvas. I have not seen it in the building's latest incarnation, by itself enough to lure me to return.

Last, Reis and Wogan risk scaring someone if it means an interchange between art and the world. When the Whitney Biennial took the offensive route back in 1993, one mostly recalled the anger and not the work.

P.S. 1 has a more interesting way of offending. It has shared unisex bathrooms, and Mike Bidlo wallpapers one with a reproduction of Duchamp's Fountain. I think of Bidlo as, well, too conceptual for words, but I love this one. It places Duchamp's anti-art, signed R. Mutt, next to the conceptual art it spawned. It cites the brute presence of Duchamp's urinal, its embarrassment to art, and the pretended anonymity of its creator. And then comes one's own embarrassment and anonymity when the opposite sex wanders in.

Physical and emotional dangers

Obviously, anything on the order of P.S. 1 has to go wrong a good part of the time. Moreover, I have no reason to expect that things will continue to go right. More often than not, failures stem from precisely the kinds of alternatives I have outlined.

One of my favorite painters, for instance, tries too hard to fit in. David Reed relies on big, dry brushwork to confuse the distinction between expression and a photographic negative. Here, his small panel on the roof looks like a sketch for a larger one that he should forget about making. I can live without mentioning a good deal else. Yet part of the annoyance—and much of the fun—amounts to hunting for it all with the extensive, well-prepared floor plan. I only wish I had a less boring way to list more.

I have to allow myself two other mentions, John Coplans and Marina Abramovic. I saved the best for last. Both require the gigantic rooms that only an alternative space can supply. Both pass on dangers, physical and emotional, that no museum could accept.

Coplans, known as a critic and the founding editor of Artforum, risks exposing himself as an artist. Painstakingly, inch by square inch, he photographs his own naked body up close. He has twisted it to abstraction, like famous shot by Man Ray of a female rear end, while documenting the pathos of aging. Ironically, just when confessional art has become so estheticized, estheticism has rarely looked so discomforting.

Abramovic knows suffering and its repetition in performance. Here she transforms an airy, light-filled room into a terrifying prison. Brick and the high ceiling only add intimations of forgotten tortures. One encounters it from the main floor looking down, like a guard overlooking a cell he may never enter and from which no one will ever escape. Political art takes on allusiveness and physical immediacy rarely encountered in Postmodernism.

Downstairs, one has no trouble getting in despite the warning signs. Take them seriously. They do not bother to mention a tempting row of ladders that runs up toward the windows. Knife blades have replaced the rungs of one ladder. Heat and ice brand the rungs of two others. A final ladder appears harmless, and I can say no more.

Beyond the fringe

P.S. 1 succeeds so well now, because it has not always had so much chutzpah. It opened in 1976 as Project Studios 1, flagship of the Institute for Art and Urban Resources. Remarkably, Alanna Heiss still runs the show (a statement that must be sadly modified in 2009 and when MoMA celebrates forty years of P.S. 1 in 2016). For a gallery or museum director, that represents a long commitment to alternatives in art. How many artists, for that matter, have persevered with so little visibility?

Heiss has quite a track record now for funding art in unusual locations. I remember fondly her show a couple of summers ago, under the Brooklyn Bridge. At about the same time as P.S. 1, Heiss started the Clocktower down in Tribeca.

From geography alone, each site announced her place barely on the fringe. Not everyone would walk all the way to the Clocktower, but from Soho one can see it. Similarly, for too many New Yorkers, Queens sounds so déclassé. When I lived there, friends asked if I had a place near Kennedy Airport. Yet Long Island City lies closer to midtown than the Met, just across the river and a few minutes by subway. Once a close-knit Italian community, it conceals the best barbecue joint in the city.

Each of Heiss's operations hid its aspirations, too. As empires go, the Institute went out of its way to ride over no one. P.S. 1 and the Clocktower both combine public and studio space, with perhaps greater emphasis on the latter. Both buildings practically invited one to forget about the art. I would go to P.S. 1 to roam the gabled schoolhouse I never had in my own childhood. I would go downtown to see McKim, White, & Mead's high-ceilinged tower and to climb into the clock face.

Exhibitions at P.S. 1 had the same charming combination of ambition and self-effacement. Never did one feel sent back to school. The best show, in the winter of 1982, turned those eight modest rooms over to critics, to do whatever they wished. Linda Burnham called her room "Self-Indulgence."

Soho then was drowning in money, publicity, and Neo-Expressionism. Over in Queens, a couple of staples held together the black-and-white catalog, set in a typewriter font. If Heiss had to choose between a consistent critical purpose and a curator's vitality, she mostly opted for the latter.

Postscript

P.S. 1 has changed, but just how? It sure feels different, more pretentious, as one enters through a walled courtyard. Two-foot-tall lettering, a project by Douglas Gordon, spells a message more like advertising than alternative art—it has only just begun. The yard leads up to entrance stairs patterned on a temple or the Met, presuming that one can remember the difference.

Inside, artists fill four stories, plus a basement and the rooftop. Downstairs a heavy wheel by Chen Zhen bears images of money. I could budge it with proper difficulty, but then I already put my shoulder to the wheel five days a week. Heiss says she turned to it often for inspiration as she got P.S. 1 back in order.

And everything I just wrote is misleading. Instead of grandeur, one encounters a wry and shifting parody of the museum. Instead of heaviness, one meets diversity. Size translates not into a broader consensus, but into a more thoughtful unity and into greater risks. Frederick Fisher, the architect of the changes, gets full credit for the range of spaces he has created, from echoes of the classroom to the pretensions of a major museum.

Diversity colors Heiss's unique approach to wall labels, too. Instead of the curator's self-justification, she hangs bunches of 8 by 11 sheets, with the words of half a dozen critics. I bet she let them decide the art in need of text. She picks good ones, too, including Arthur C. Danto (also an important philosopher of art), Andrew Solomon, and Kim Levin. And they helped for a change, when I could not figure out what was art, much less what it means.

In the end, expansion has turned P.S. 1 into a better alternative space. The letters P.S. can also denote a postscript, the alternative as an addition. It may not last, but in this first show Heiss has found a way to leave her signature without losing the possibilities that did not fit.

Since its previous rebirth, cutbacks in funding have hit the arts hard. Museums, galleries, and even artists have had to learn merchandising as a source of income. Somehow, however, the closing of P.S. 1 in recent years stood only as a prelude to its restoration, dramatic expansion, a new name, and even a new address.

The change of labels befits the grander new entrance around the corner—and, I hope, a long, new life. A beginning is not a future, and it always has a past. Barely a year after a wrote this review, P.S. 1 merged with the Museum of Modern Art. I may not enjoy myself out there ever again. Perhaps. But if one can judge by the opening, however, I want very much to find out.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

The P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center reopened October 29, 1997.

 

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