The Money Machine

John Haber
in New York City

Undone and Art's March Downtown

Every fall comes the same questions. What can sustain the Chelsea money machine, and what is it doing to the state of the art? Now art institutions are entering the mix. Dia has departed the city, but the Whitney vows to take its place in the Meatpacking District. Is that a sad story with a happy ending, or does it only add a major player to a scene with far too many already?

The same questions come up time and time again. Artists like Aleksandra Mir and Paul McCarthy take the job of turning galleries into businesses seriously—or maybe ironically, if anyone can still tell the difference. Tony Matelli's Abandon (Mark Vanmoerkerke collection, photo by Leo Koenig/Andréhn-Schiptjenko, 2005)

Already, however, the story has another chapter or two. The Whitney has to move, even as it calls a group show "Undone": it is losing its existing satellite branch at Altria as a corporation exits. Perhaps it helps to think of Dumbo—yet another area, like Chelsea or the Lower East Side, that once promised renewal in art and architecture rather than merely coops and condos. In its annual arts festival, another busy neighborhood balances art, urban renewal, and one heck of a good party.

Two factories

With its fall 2007 openings, Chelsea looked less like a gallery district after hours than a shopping mall the weekend before Christmas. Is it now just a glorified cash machine—or even a machine for printing money? Aleksandra Mir does her best to keep it that way.

Mary Boone might have invented the idea a generation ago, back in Soho, and Mir documents just that era. At least she does to the extent that one can seek a documentary record in art—or The New York Post. Mir bases her work on the tabloid's front pages starting in 1986, and their screaming headlines and tawdry cast still look depressingly familiar. From her stash in the gallery's back room, she selects fresh (or perhaps stale) items each day. These in turn become sloppily drawn, larger than life replicas on the gallery walls. In black-and-white sketches, even harsh memories go down as easily as child's play.

Work made on the spot, by hand, sounds closer to "action painting" than to cynicism and appropriation. Visitors can watch art in progress on broad tables, placed sometimes in the back room and sometimes in the main space itself. Just one catch: Mir is supervising an eager cluster of art students. Perhaps that, too, begins in a democratic impulse, from an artist who speaks of her work as about kindness, faith, and hope. However, these sheets of paper marked by minions go for ten grand a pop, and that includes a month of rapid popping.

Mir goes for thematic clusters, such as a crime wave and a wildly fluctuating stock market. They could be describing art. New York has changed so much since those days, toward safety, prosperity, and hope, but also toward inequality and the loss of cheap housing—or studio space. So indeed has Chelsea, and I thought, too, of the crash course in capitalism for Mir's native Poland. Sorting out the change and continuity, the nostalgia and complacency, could keep one busy for a while. By then, the factory will have churned out who knows how many more paper profits, and who knows just who gets a cut?

As an entrepreneur, one could even call her ahead of her time, but only by about a month. Right through Christmas Eve, Paul McCarthy turned his West Village gallery into a chocolate factory—and a fine one at that. A critic can say, because the gallery left out broken pieces as free samples. No doubt the intact Santas, a thousand a day at a hundred bucks a pop, maintain the same exclusive standards, all in time for holiday shopping. Since Maccarone moved to the calm of Greenwich Street to mark itself as a destination for the select, tasting is actually easier than getting on the mailing list. A critic can verify that from experience, too.

Knowing McCarthy, one can expect a certain extravagance. It took quite an investment to set up the operation, and looks counts. As with his gigantic helium balloon Pinocchio, one can expect, too, a certain naughtiness along with childishness and commercialism, and sure enough Santa bears not a Christmas tree but a "butt plug." McCarthy claims to satirize art's commercial impulse rather than milk it. After all, this is dark chocolate. Of course, the satire only contributes to the naughtiness, and it amounts to a kind of pandering in itself.

A museum undone

Speaking of comestibles, Philip Morris has an image problem. Some time ago, then, the parent company traded associations with lung cancer for something more altruistic. Now Altria, as it restyled itself, is leaving New York entirely—perhaps for somewhere with smoking allowed. So, too, is its funding for the arts.

Come this very spring, then, the Whitney will exit the Park Avenue tower facing Grand Central Station. At least twice in the past, an end to corporate sponsorship put an end to a New York museum's satellite branch. Now it happens again, this time after a stay in midtown of some twenty-five years. The Whitney at Altria has had a low profile and only occasional impact. It has served less to proselytize for the museum's mission than as a feeder system for curators and artists uptown. Yet it has lasted longer than many a New Yorker's exposure to contemporary American art.

On has to feel torn. The museum will now put its energies into its planned branch downtown, at the foot of the High Line. This means no turning back on ambitious plans for Whitney in the Meatpacking District, where Dia once planned a new beginning. The small midtown site entailed something much more modest and more remote from the gallery scene. For that very reason, though, I shall miss it. I can pop in at midday, on an impulse rather than as a destination, and so can people who might otherwise not think about art.

They probably have mixed feelings, too. As Richard Serra found to his dismay with Tilted Arc, sometimes workers just want a place to eat, without sculpture looming over lunch. For now, however, they need not worry one bit. A final show seems determined not to get in the way. The work commissioned for "Undone," say its curators, promises to disturb the notion of art as a "perceived completeness of form, space, or identity." In practice, it looks simply too shy to mingle.

Tom Holmes staggers two chain-link fences, running not quite in parallel, both clearly visible from the street but safely out of the way as one enters. Colorful plastic inserts and billboard images, including at least three caffeinated beverages, might suggest the energy level of Manhattan. Mostly, though, they appear all too eager to please. They might be desperate to promote something to go with that panini you had taken in. At least the sandwich will taste ever so much better in a smoke-free city.

Heather Rowe constructs her own atrium screen of ordinary wood beams and mirrors. (She appears, too, in the 2008 Whitney Biennial, which shares many of its themes—and a curator—with "Undone.") She intends its open spaces and tilted surfaces to fragment the space, but it has the grid and polish of designer shelving units. The best part comes in imagining the actual cash machine behind it as part of the show.

Doing the undoing

Tony Matelli's sculpture creates a more striking illusion. The painted metal looks like weeds and clings to the floor, mostly along the walls. In the process, he leaves the small gallery all but empty, as if nature and art could finally take a shared course once others have gone. Here, too, however, art keeps a comforting distance, in part because the curators lock it behind glass doors.

They also undermine a large photograph by Eileen Quinlan, Smoke and Mirrors, by hanging it high on a long atrium wall. Her photographs of actual mirrors accumulate reflections and geometries the longer one looked. They did so at least twice in just the last year, both in her Lower East Side solo outing and in a summer group show, "Strange Magic." Here the actual reflection of the light fixtures overwhelms her polished performance. They also leave one wondering how the work fits into the show—and just who is doing the undoing.

I could relish a show called "Undone" just as a museum is coming undone. I could appreciate fresh thoughts on completion and unraveling, just as art is evolving from Robert Smithson to something even more entropic. I thrilled in much the same way to "The Reconstruction," a show of works in progress when Exit Art moved to its new building. I have much the same thrill and perplexity at the architectural violence of Gordon Matta-Clark—or those trashing the gallery today.

Maybe, too, art could stand something less confrontational than Matta-Clark's idealistic generation or the overhyped present. Yet both Minimalism and installation art depend on a give and take with the viewer. At times, so could the Whitney at Altria. The combination of a tall atrium, shared by lunch traffic, and a small gallery has often allowed that give and take—as with "Burgeoning Geometries" and Sue de Beer. Maybe things can start to become undone in earnest once the Whitney migrates downtown for good.

That still leaves the big questions unanswered. A cycle of doing and undoing might itself serve as a metaphor for the free market. Can art become undone in productive ways when big institutions are building on its remains? Is there anywhere left for the money machine to go—and anywhere left for art?

With the Whitney, it comes soon enough to the end of the High Line, and with McCarthy it reaches almost to Soho. Meanwhile the New Museum of Contemporary Art opened its new architecture right on schedule. Its first show, "Unmonumental," could even offer a sequel to the latest at Altria. Yet will all these bow to high finance? Have they already? Consider an arts neighborhood that succumbed to success before galleries could ever flourish.

Dumbo the elephant

Maybe all happy families are alike, but clearly not all happy art scenes. Where artists go, money follows, but each New York neighborhood gentrifies in its own way. Take Dumbo—and its annual Art Under the Bridge festival.

I should have learned the lesson when East Village galleries did not put Soho out of business, but rather moved to Soho, before it in turn gave way to luxury shopping. I should have learned when Williamsburg made hipness rather than art the product. Does that bode poorly for the New Museum, the Lower East Side, Long Island City, or deeper into Brooklyn—all decidedly works in progress? Dumbo, in contrast, has gone straight from studios to condos, with hardly a gallery or dive bar in between. A sign for Half Pint refers not to the Brooklyn Brewery but to children's clothing. Dumbo may owe more to Disney's flying elephant than I ever imagined.

Its latest weekend celebration was the most child friendly ever. A carousel spun where Smack Mellon once held its exhibitions, while dancers and musicians instead of sculpture competed for audiences. Summer sculpture had given way to fall, but kids seemed perfectly at home clambering over their weekend replacements. Birds on stilts lit up at night, their bodies stuffed with plastic bottles. Neatly folded cardboard looked like homeless shelters tidied up for that special occasion. Fewer artists opened their studio doors than ever before.

Where Smack Mellon has set up shop now, one could visit its studio program, now ensconced right downstairs. As so often, the gallery proper offers a meditation on a neighborhood and its art taking shape. With Peter Dudek's New Monuments to My Love Life, tables and other found objects blend into piles of cutout wooden curves, all as personal and inscrutable as the title. It stands somewhere between sculpture, installation, and furniture display, and circulating the main space becomes an exploration of the vocabulary of architectural models. Elana Herzog also both builds and destroys, with fabric fragments roughly stapled into the Sheetrock. Her raw gashes and spare patterns take one even further from many an installation's impulsive, unedited tedium.

I thought of how lacking in experiment the cluster of Dumbo galleries nearby always seems. In one at least, Roger Hines leads the eye into what he calls Rooms of the Mind. They resemble Joseph Cornell boxes, in their wood craft, found parts, and dreamlike imagery. His doll heads, often broken off, recall Cornell's Medici child, but larger, like true artist studios rather than boxed collage. They are ingenious and creepy enough to make one wonder whose mind they describe, whether in front of or behind the masks. Yet the one or two real studios still open on that same floor off Front Street had no visitors at all.

Outside, one could hardly avoid getting into the festive spirit. Yet I always expected the struggles behind those studio doors to seed so much more. Perhaps I was just lazy, drifting with the crowds on a beautiful fall day, where once I had climbed so many stairs. Who then, is the heir to uptown, midtown, and Chelsea? Which neighborhood will soak up galleries and museums next, and will anyone want them? The money machine has its own momentum, and no one knows for certain the sordid headlines of the future.

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Aleksandra Mir ran at Mary Boone through October 28, 2007, Paul McCarthy at Maccarone through December 24, "Undone" at The Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria through December 31, Peter Dudek and Elana Herzog at Smack Mellon through November 11, and Roger Hines at Gallery Twenty-Four through September 30. Related reviews look at the New Museum's opening on the Bowery and its inaugural exhibitions, "Unmonumental," along with other changes to the Lower East Side.


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