Going, Going, Gone!

John Haber
in New York City

Not for Sale and MoMA PS1

Has P.S. 1 sold out? In a mundane sense, perhaps, it already has. In January 2000, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center took on a second identity as MoMA PS1. Now, however, has it sold its soul?

Jerry Saltz, for one, wants to know. In only his second week on the job at New York magazine, he rips into the joint. Ironically, he faults it for "Not for Sale," in which forty-six artists displayed work that they have kept for themselves. Yet his criticism goes beyond the show and a great nonprofit arts center. It asks about the fate of art now that anything is for sale. Dana Schutz's Ryan (collection of the artist, 2005)

Saltz worries when an arts center falls back on success stories—the familiar names that really can sell out a show. At the same time, he questions whether an alternative space can afford a "hippie-dippy freestyle" in a more conservative age. These days "anything goes" equates to consumerism, the very problem for an alternative spaces. Is art trapped, then, between two equally ineffective futures? It comes down to whether new and unfamiliar art needs a place of its own, as opposed to a place at the center of contemporary art.

Marked down

Anyone who has not picked up a price list recently is in for a shock. I mean not just not the dollar values, but also the number of red dots that often appear well before the opening. Whatever did not "move" at an art fair may have already fallen to top customers, perhaps based on only hype and a jpg. And what is one to make of those mysterious initials N.F.S.?

Alanna Heiss, P.S. 1's director, decided to find out. As she joked, "I called artists whom I know well and who happened to be at home." Saltz terms the show's premise, that some art just cannot be bought, a "glib put-down" of the market. It will be worth remembering when MoMA celebrates forty years of P.S. 1 in 2016. For all the numbing effects of commerce, he believes, it will not help to ignore it. It certainly will not help to turn to the private collections of established artists.

First, he argues, it avoids a serious encounter with how money shapes trends and careers. What happens when the same artists go for fame and fortune? Second, one cannot escape the market's judgments so easily. What distinguishes art "Not for Sale" from art that no one would buy? Last, the show amounts to hypocrisy. How can Heiss criticize the scene while exploiting her own position—and with her safest selection of artists yet?

If anyone deserves to speak out about greed, Saltz can. He has defined Chelsea's "battle for Babylon," he has questioned the representation of women in MoMA, and he has demanded whether the art market "makes us stupid." Now he gets to extend his critique, by placing private markets in a context of public institutions. A museum this fine should take a hard look at what gets created and who gets displayed. Instead, Saltz argues, Heiss "kidnaps" a vital idea while flaunting her insider connections and institutional power.

Speaking of not selling out, Saltz has just jumped ship at The Village Voice, which gutted its coverage of politics and culture after takeover by a national chain. I had been meaning to write The Voice a thank you note, for saving me so much time reading each week. If only it fired Saltz, I wanted to add, I could toss the paper immediately. Now I must thank him instead. He will also add to the sheer quantity of decent criticism out there, by his dedication to a weekly column. Since setting to work on a superb biography of Willem de Kooning, Mark Stevens had lost interest in regular criticism for New York, and now he has quit altogether.

Best of all, Saltz's article appeared on May Day, right after the show closed. Artists of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your sales.

Back from the edge

Saltz has a strong argument. He also picks on an exhibition that I had not found worth reviewing, and I did not expect to be mentioning it now. These artists definitely did not hold onto their best and most revealing work. Finally, he sets it in context of other "big, unfocused, iffy exhibitions" at P.S. 1. SculptureCenter just up the road has focused on the interaction between art and its space for display, MoMA spotlights new media and the relationship between past and present, the Whitney tries to determine the boundaries of American art, the Studio Museum questions the notion of black identity, and the Jewish Museum and the Brooklyn Museum relate art to culture, gender, and community. Every artist loves visiting P.S. 1, but when did it last do something to insist on its mission—or to change the course of art?

I myself learned so much from "Greater New York 2005," its second museum-wide display of emerging artists. Yet I also saw a direct channel from a handful of MFA programs to the museum. I wondered if a once risky concept had grown too much fun for its own good. More recently, a flurry of loose, eccentric exhibitions has left me cold. With at least one too many exhibitions of "shock art" or sound art, P.S. 1 has been trying way too hard to make art edgy again.

But is that such a bad aim? The moment one asks, the trickier the issues appear. Every writer has to hedge an article like this by praising Heiss to the skies, so let me do my share. In 1971 she founded the Institute for Art and Urban Resources, to discover new venues for art like this one and the Clocktower in Tribeca. She devoted the red-gabled schoolhouse to contemporary art in 1976. A new entrance, added in 1997, made its courtyard a low-key, accessible performance space for summer Sundays.

I joked about selling out, but she merely affiliated with the Modern rather than let it take over. The exciting first version of "Greater New York" went on only months later. Heiss has hardly changed course since, planning joint exhibitions with that powerful affiliate only rarely, as for Dieter Roth. You can make fun of the $20 admission price to MoMA, but in Long Island City you can still pay what you wish—or just duck into the cafeteria and hang out.

She is still that rare breed of museum director who remains active as a curator—and without her P.S. 1 may become little more than a branch of MoMA. Rarer yet, she peeps out now and then to see how things are running. Her busy exhibition schedule makes impressive use of small rooms to gamble on unfamiliar artists. Larger shows spill into hallways, alcoves, stairs, and even the toilets. When an artist has a full retrospective, often as not I have my first exposure to the work.

Conversely, the museum cannot easily fold up its Rolodex and turn its back on its past. It has work by Richard Serra and James Turrell built into the roof, plus permanent displays in the stairwells and, again, the bathrooms. No wonder Ron Gorchov, an abstract painter who appeared in P.S. 1's opening show, also had a spare retrospective in the last year. P.S. 1 displays art as the dark unconscious—or brighter consciousness—of all that it has left behind. Contemporary art includes every one of its generations, and its survival depends on them all.

Art with reservations

For that very reason, "Not for Sale" could sell me on a show. Why not ask survivors and young celebrities alike where even they feel less than at home in the market? They may not keep their best pieces, but make no mistake: N.F.S. does not mean a mere failure to sell either. In this market the right name can sell pretty much anything. For these artists and their dealers, the only hard part is to save art from one obvious definition of success.

Most of the time, artists make their decision in advance. Others buy back work that has already sold. Why, then, do they hang onto things? When an artist has, so to speak, reservations, one learns something about the creative process. Sure, one could deride any curatorial effort as picking up the Rolodex. One needs instead to ask who and what comes out of it. With a little more imagination, "Not for Sale" could do just that.

I could imagine a show arranged by motives for withholding a work. I could imagine a show that juxtaposes work in an artist's collection from before and after Chelsea's metastasis. I could imagine work by artists created in response to art that they and others had found unfit to sell before. (Robert Rauschenberg got the drawing for his Erased de Kooning from a studio visit.) "Not for Sale" looks scraggly, disorganized, and all too safe—but not because it asks the wrong question. Rather, it will not stop for an answer.

I found myself looking for my own answers, and I could roughly boil it down to two. First, a work may seem premature. Artists may hold onto early work, assuming they have not destroyed it, or they may know that they are in transition, when the public looks at the same work solely in context of the artist's past. I can remember an artist's small exhibition in Jersey City, rather than in her New York gallery. She wanted to try something, to see how ideas that had gained her attention would play out in another medium, and she felt a kind of relief in putting that attention behind her. Except for a CD, which went for $10, she choose to hang onto it all.

Second, work may seem too personal. An artist known for provocative poses may have used a spouse as a model. An artist may have incorporated scraps of a life, like theater tickets, that give the work too local a habitation and a name. Imagine the dilemma for Jasper Johns, who so carefully hides his traces. Johns appropriates and transforms the given, but he insists that an image, like a target or a map, not lose its original function for other viewers. That way, it never settles simply into a representation or an object.

To put it another way, artists withhold work that explains too little and too much. Either way, art fails to take on new lives in the eyes of others. The few times that the show did work for me, these weaknesses made the work vulnerable but in a moving way. Portraits by Eric Fischl and Dana Schutz approach a tenderness unlike their usual dissection of desire. With his Swing, Mark di Suvero goes past combining monumentality, formal structure, and the materials of everyday life, to the point that one wants to hop on.

Between alternative space and museum

I found too little art like this—to little to remember and too little reason to remember it. Most artists, like Alex Katz, churn out their usual, casual formula. Most choices say little about artists, careers, or buyers. But in principle they could. They might then address Saltz's questions about market exclusions and market pressures. They might address other viewers and other imaginings as well.

Still, every show needs a focus, every show can contribute to more sensible talk about art's future, and one can always have another. The Whitney's Independent Study Program for budding curators in fact has one, with "The Price of Everything: Perspectives on the Art Market." If the young curators make predictable choices, that alone may say something about the state of the art. Besides, artists have taken on the market for some time now, thank you. On my last visit to Chelsea alone, Paul Thek had paintings from before his death in the 1980s on pages of The New York Times, Sherrie Levine carried on her critique of originality that once defined Postmodernism, Pierre Bismuth exhibited oversized invitations from galleries as overblown as his own, and Jonathan Monk served up trendy parodies of so many trendy artists that it hurts to remember them.

It seems strange to single out "Not for Sale" for not matching the show of one's dreams. It seems strange to single out a safe show, amid the outrageous, the confused, and the forgettable. It seems strange, too, to single out the city's one long-standing refuge for contemporary art, with its unique position between alternative space and museum.

Even as I write, the Brooklyn Museum is turning questions as pressing as feminism, globalization, and art since 1990 into another poor excuse for community outreach. The Met is discovering new media a generation too late, and the examples look it. The Whitney is doing its best to rebound from a widely ridiculed Biennial and local opposition to expansion—and, thankfully, doing it well. The Guggenheim again stands half empty, the New Museum is in transit, and the Dia Center has abandoned New York. The Studio Museum in Harlem is basing a show on a warhorse like Endless Column, by Constantin Brancusi. And do not even ask about the MoMA atrium, with its echoes of a shopping mall.

Maybe all that explains Saltz's urgency when it comes to P.S. 1, especially when faced with right-wing critics like Roger Kimball, who can find big money only in academia. If Heiss and her curators cannot care for the future, who can? Saltz has a prescription in mind as well. In discussing a proposed home for the Whitney with new museum architecture near Chelsea, at the foot of the elevated park of High Line, he has asked that it display only contemporary art. A show with room for Christo and Chuck Close must seem to him too close to permanent collections in Manhattan—but is it?

Facing commerce, one can place hope in the nonprofit sector. And facing the confusion, proliferation, and stagnation known as contemporary art, one can hope for a more privileged and nurturing enclave, apart from safer choices and bigger names. However, art suffocates in too small a room. It thrives by understanding and challenging its past. Perhaps instead P.S. 1 should embrace its affiliation with MoMA—and with "Greater New York" in 2010, the institution will indeed become MoMA PS1 once and, perhaps, for all. It could take the cash, borrow what it wishes, put on parallel shows, and play directly against the behemoth's strengths.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Not for Sale" ran at MoMA PS1 through April 30, 2007.

 

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