PRINT October 1976

The Apotheosis of the Crummy Space

JUST ACROSS THE 59TH STREET bridge from Manhattan, in a rundown neighborhood now given over mostly to factories and warehouses, stands an 1890s red brick building known as Public School 1. Abandoned since 1963 and far down the list of preservationists’ worries, P.S.1 was slated to go the way of so many of its Victorian architectural contemporaries. But the Institute for Art and Urban Resources, whose weighty title masks a very uninstitutional function, got wind of its impending demise and swung into action.

The institute, brainchild of Alanna Heiss, cuts through municipal red tape to cadge unused city buildings for exhibition, studio and performance space.The operation was inspired by an artists’ workspace project at St. Katharine’s Dock in London which Ms. Heiss had a hand in; it began in 1970 as an alternative to slick, clean (expensive) space for artists, and has spawned some bizarre but very successful exhibition places—the Clocktower, the Idea Warehouse and the Sculpture Factory among them. But P.S.1 is its most ambitious catch so far.

The school’s imposing Romanesque exterior bespeaks a bygone middle-class respectability that in no way hints at a disastrous conditions inside: buckling floorboards, fallen plaster and layer upon peeling layer of hideous pink, green and turquoise paint are held together, it seems, only by a pervasive musty smell. The place is, to put it bluntly, a wreck. The city has leased the building to the institute for 20 years—at an annual rent of $1,000.

This fall, under the only slightly renovated name of Project Studios One, the school opened again, housing some 35 low-rent working studios for artists, as well as space for exhibitions, seminars, performances and poetry readings. The institute’s refurbishing efforts, paid for with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts, plus a Chemical Bank loan, cost a measly $150,000 (instead of the city’s $1.5-million renovation estimate). The repairs have been far more Minimal than any of the art-in-residence; since they were confined to basic safety requirements plus a little heat, wiring and plumbing, they are virtually invisible, and in no way cosmetize the building’s decrepitude.

One can hardly imagine surroundings more potentially hostile to art, but as the Clocktower and 112 Greene Street (which, by comparison, look like MoMA and the Louvre) have proven time and again, this need not be the case. P.S.1 can already claim a major success. In June it celebrated its transformation into an “art” school with a remarkable spur-of-the-moment exhibition—“Rooms.” Some 75 artists staked claim to various parts of the P.S. for on-site works and other installations. Here there was no “best” space; closets, bathrooms, windows, corridors, even the roof, schoolyard and basement were as desirable as the classrooms.

Though a few artists showed previously completed work, most did projects which took their cues from the nature of the place. This in itself is nothing new; what made this particular occasion unusual was the scale on which it occurred and the sheer quantity of terrific art produced—all in one spot and on a maximum of six weeks’ notice. The best artists around, from the West Coast and Europe as well as New York, willingly placed themselves in a very high risk position: working quickly, in unfamiliar territory, and in close quarters with strange bedfellows. (Artists are not, by nature, a clannish lot.) The scenario generated powerful energies, which ’70s art, up to now, has not been given much credit for having. In this respect, P.S.1 can be seen as an act of renewal, a reaffirmation that the art scene is thriving after all, though not in the traditional ’60s contexts still haunted by disillusioned critics.

P.S.1’s success can be traced to the burgeoning interest in project/installation art and the rising status of the crummy space. The “alternative space” idea arose in the late ’60s as artists became increasingly disenchanted with the commercial gallery scene. The gallery’s artifying aura—glistening white walls and track lighting—had made itself indispensable to the modernist esthetic, but because of the star status (and prices) it conferred on artists of the ’60s, it began to fall into disfavor. For one thing, it wouldn’t tolerate the kind of art that many artists wanted to make. Such art messed up the gallery; it wasn’t slick; above all, it wasn’t saleable.

So post-Minimal art began to seek out the alternative space, which, as it turned out, offered considerable challenge. It made much slick art look terrible. The artists were forced to produce work that could survive its surroundings, rather than relying on them to “authenticate” it. One solution: co-opt the crumminess; draw upon it; work it into the art. Never mind if the result is a two-week gesture instead of a beautiful object. Unpurchasability signified the new purity; the nonart context became its testing ground.

As the success of such ventures became more apparent, it began to occur to people that maybe art could survive outside a gallery. More and more artists surreptitiously explored the theory, and more and more art began to find itself entering bad neighborhoods. Museums made a couple of tentative forays—“Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” at the Whitney in 1969, “Spaces” at MoMA in 1970—but by and large, they have sidestepped the problem, relegating such art to small out-of-the-way galleries, carefully screening the exhibitors, and clearly labeling the shows “projects,” as though this somehow distinguishes them from “art” and thus avoids any potential embarrassment. It’s a risky business for museums to get into, since there’s no telling what the artists might do. If it freaks out the trustees, everyone’s in trouble. (Imagine, just for fun, Gordon Matta-Clark sawing the Whitney in half, or Alan Saret knocking a hole through the wall at MoMA. Daniel Buren did get loose at MoMA with some stripes, to be sure, but they were harmless.)

Obviously, no one is asking the museums to preside over their own physical destruction. Nevertheless, their scant attention to ’70s art has certainly contributed to the blandness of their recent bills of fare. P.S.1, by contrast, was uniquely suited to take the ’70s in stride. In the “Rooms” show, at least 50 of the 80 artists hacked, gouged, stripped, dug, poured and picked away at its rotting hulk—to their art’s content. The building became a catalogue of current art ideas, a directory of prevailing modes; and perhaps most important of all, a litany of the multifarious ways of cueing one’s art to the situation at hand while maintaining stylistic individuality and reinforcing a personal esthetic. It was as comprehensive a view of mid-’70s art as we’ve had, or are likely to get.

AN INSTALLATION PIECE HAS a split personality. It derives its form from a specific site, so it cannot be moved, in its original form, at least, to any other place. If produced, as the P.S.1 pieces were, for a specific exhibition, it will have a very limited life span. The successful installation, however, manages to generate a kind of afterlife even during its brief duration. For in its enabling rationale, the way it interacts with its surroundings, there lurk the germs of future works. The artist’s approach to the installation problem, as well as the work’s visible form, becomes a major esthetic issue. This shift in emphasis from finished product to the interaction between the object and its conceptual basis is what is most interesting about installations. Cueing the work to the space makes the two inseparable. And a space like P.S.1, ravaged by time and use, offers a far richer lode from which to mine ideas than any clean, well-lighted place.

It’s impossible to write about 75 different works; the listing task will have to be left to the forthcoming catalogue. Since projects comprised the bulk of the show, I’ll approach the job by considering the various ways in which the artists used the building itself. The space can be brutalized, destroyed, completely restructured; it can be “amended” subtly by small additions that comment on its nature and adapt their posture to its own; it can serve as medium, directly or indirectly, also as subject. And it can be simply a setting, but one on which the work draws directly for its form. P.S.1 also offered numerous possibilities that stemmed from its pedagogical origins.

A number of artists commented directly on its original function as a school. Joseph Kosuth appropriated Room 206, which traditionally housed the brightest children, and worked out an elaborate information system based on the commendation cards actually presented to previous students. These were affixed to the blackboards and accompanied by chalk notations as formidable and unintelligible (in a cursory reading) as those confronted in a physics class, or perhaps a complex sentence diagrammed to expose its grammatical underpinnings.

Richard Artschwager’s row of red EXIT bulbs, which lined the ceiling of one corridor, parodied that institutional sine qua non and reminded me of the crime it used to be in school to use the wrong door. Bill Beirne’s audio piece playing in another corridor evoked memories of talking in the hall—it was a tape of the sounds of a hoard of children being let out of class. Jeff Lew, who has occupied himself for the past several years constructing a collection of metal books, made the connection between art and site simply by depositing a shelf of them in the room marked “Library.” Marcia Hafif, in typical school penmanship, chalked a pornographic “after school” composition on the blackboard of her classroom, and Vito Acconci set up rows of black desks and benches in the charred boiler room, which he accompanied with a tape that parodied reciting in class: “Say it: we . . . are . . . suck . . . ers. . . . Again: we are suck . . . ers. . . .”

Another possibility was to use the building itself—and by extension, its dilapidated state—as the subject of the work. Three of the most successful examples of this were Michelle Stuart’s, Frank Gillette’s and Lucio Pozzi’s pieces. Stuart took enormous rubbings of two facing walls of a corridor, picking up cracks, peels, wainscotting and an old bulletin board. These she transposed, hanging each on the opposite wall from which it was made, thus reversing their locations, but maintaining their relative positions. Like fossils, they recorded the archeology of their past.

Gillette, in addition to a video installation whose cameras focussed on various architectural details (which I was told about, but didn’t see, since the equipment was stolen before I got there) took a series of color snapshots of corners, which he arranged in a grid. The detailed nature of the photos emphasized particularly the succeeding colors of paint, which was, perhaps, the building’s most salient feature. Lucio Pozzi also worked with the paint, picking places where intentional color changes met in straight lines (as opposed to the irregular peeling spots) and carefully matching the colors on small rectangular panels which he positioned across the dividing points on the wall. In all three of these pieces one senses the passage of time, the ways in which the building had been amending itself, layer after layer, before anyone thought to make it art.

Another photographic project which made the building its subject indirectly was that of Eve Sonneman, who documented the workmen executing the repair work.

In addition to those who made P.S.1’s structure their subject, there were those who exploited its crumbling frame directly—as their medium. David Rabinowitch laboriously removed large areas of the gaudy paint and incised a series of six enigmatic small circles in the bare plaster underneath. Dale Henry chiseled away the plaster on three walls of a storage closet, leaving a small rectangle intact on each wall. These, one of which was covered with plastic, were intended to represent drawing, painting and sculpture. They also resembled the fragments of murals or mosaics that cling to the walls of Roman ruins.

The old building also provided material for onsite construction and destruction. Jene Highstein tore up the buckling floorboards of his classroom and used them to form the armature for an enormous black hump which emphasized the tensions between object and space much as certain of Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings heighten the tension between shape and edge. Gordon Matta-Clark, post-Minimal art’s most ardent proponent of the architectural cross-section, cut a hole which extended through all three floors of the building. And Alan Saret chopped an almond-shaped hole through the wall to the outdoors which channelled a ray of sunlight around the room as the day progressed, bearing unmistakable mystical overtones.

The largest group of artists, however, packed their esthetic ideas in their school bags and trundled off to P.S.1 to use it as a setting for works that drew upon its structure, recognized its shortcomings, complemented its idiosyncrasies—took it as it came and made the most of it. And this “most,” more often than not, was superb.

Doug Wheeler and Daniel Buren went for the windows. Wheeler, from the light-drenched atmosphere of California, glazed over the windows of his corner room, each one with a layer thicker than the last, so looking out of them you had the sense of progressing from daylight through dusk into night. Buren covered the windows of the auditorium (the only room that the institute has fully restored) with his ubiquitous stripes, which, though predictable, always seem somehow to work. Their continuing viability depends solely on their contextual freshness.

Up under the eaves, in a towering cathedral-like space for which P.S.1 itself could take artistic kudos, Richard Serra sank two sections of a long steel beam discreetly into the concrete floor. They could almost have been part of the building, but the beauty of them was that they weren’t. I’m told that Max Neuhaus had a sound piece somewhere in the attic, but by the time I got there pigeons had nested in the wiring, thus effectively ending the work. Charles Simonds took to the roof, and built one of his miniature ancient cities of clay bricks on a ledge overlooking the New York skyline. The distance between the two cities equalized their scale, a spatial juxtaposition which also managed to join them temporally.

Patrick Ireland constructed a five-by-five “magic square” of three-, four-, five, six-, and seven-foot lengths of clothesline, painted pale yellow, which stood up from the floor with the help of barely visible nylon attachments to the ceiling. The rows of ropes aligned visually from some angles, and dissolved into random-seeming scatterings from others. The sum of each row’s varying lengths added up to 25, resulting in a dialogue between visual and mathematical precision. The formal and conceptual elegance of the piece, combined with its rather mysterious and intriguing appearance, was heightened by its bizarre surroundings. Carl Andre’s piece also took the form of a square; he appropriated a section of the schoolyard that was paved in concrete squares, and placed upright concrete posts in a 10-by-10 grid established by the sections of pavement. The result could best be described as a sort of post-Minimal graveyard. The weeds and grass growing up in the cracks added the anti-formal element which has appeared in earlier work as stain and tarnish (in the metal plates) and splinters (in the cedar beam constructions).

Suzanne Harris altered the entire space of her room with a tunnellike corrugated cardboard construction that resembled an old-fashioned box camera. It funneled the viewer into the space for a backward view of the structure as a projecting object, thus confounding the distinction between inside and outside. Robert Ryman cleared away just enough peeling paint to stick two white squares of paper to the wall; the contrast somehow made his work’s conscientious purity seem more credible than in more neutral surroundings.

Richard Nonas’ rusted steel beam with a crosspiece at each end stretched down a long corridor, referring to the angles of floor and wall and to the building’s underlying structure of beams. Peter Downsbrough’s unpainted dowels came down from the ceiling and up from the floor, punctuating the space of a corridor by intruding upon it ever so slightly. Patsy Norvell’s bunches of twigs stretched skyward up through a stairwell, their natural crudeness acting as a foil to the building’s time-inflicted roughness. The list could go on.

Paradoxically, P.S.1’s disaster-area ambience made a lot of difficult art more accessible. Work which has a tendency to seem precious or academic in a gallery here took on a different aspect. When its generating impulse became visible, it lost some of its aloofness. By aligning itself to circumstances outside a “pure” art context, it managed, in many cases, to be a lot more interesting. There was a perceptible sense of community problem-solving; no single piece functioned in a vacuum. Though individual spaces within the building differed, of course, all the art had to perform the same basic contextual task. And individual installations benefited by having to keep company with the others.

Any museum curator knows the potential of a sensitive and well-planned hanging of a group of paintings—the insights which provocative juxtapositions can offer. But installations and projects are rarely called upon to socialize, since they usually have the place to themselves. At P.S.1 there was no curatorial control over what went next to what, since the work did not exist when the spaces were allotted. But as one picked one’s way through the rubble from piece to piece, something of the same phenomenon began to occur. Installation itself, not individual projects, became the esthetic issue.

The show concentrated energies which, ironically, the alternative space has been largely responsible for diffusing. Seventies art has shown a tendency to scatter itself—one must look for it not only in the crummy spaces, but also outdoors, where low-key, second-generation earthworkers, eschewing the monumentality of their predecessors, have quietly been working away in forests, fields and swamps. There have been occasional group efforts—Merriwold West in New Jersey, Artpark outside of Buffalo, for instance—but these too, characteristically, have been off the beaten track. All this adds up to ’70s art being hard to see and easy to miss.

Art is shunning the audiences that so glamorized it in the ’60s. The big fortunes have been made, so to speak, and the current scene reflects a disillusionment with such stardom that is often misinterpreted as a disillusionment with art. P.S.1 helped set the record straight. The conservatism that pervades ’70s life in general is reflected not in the art itself, which is as radical as ever, but in its new, more diffident posture. The art community is looking inward; its audience is redefining itself.

It is, perhaps, typical of this retrenchment that “Rooms” should have happened at an off-season time, in an out-of-the-way place, where relatively few people saw it; and it will be interesting to see what else emerges as the artists ensconce themselves in the studios there and begin work. Certainly we can expect more to come from P.S.1, though it’s hard to predict what form it will take. “Rooms” was a phenomenon that is unlikely to repeat itself.

But SoHo, with its chic loft-dwellers, boutiques, trendy restaurants and suburban bus tours, is no longer a place to hide. And if the environs of P.S.1 take its place, current art’s low profile may well discourage camp followers. I have a feeling it will be a long time before the ladies from Great Neck make it to Long Island City.

Nancy Foote


The “Rooms” exhibition was held at P.S.1. 21–01 46th Road, Long Island City, Queens, from June 10 to June 26, 1976. A few of the projects remain. The following is a complete list of the artists in the show, with the locations of their works. In the rooms, 1st floor new wing: Frank Gillette, Robert Ryman, Walter de Maria, Bob Yasuda, Bob Benson, Alain Kirili, Antoni Miralda, Sylvia Stone, James Bishop, Ronald Bladen, Evriah Bader, Michael Clark. In the rooms 2nd floor new wing: Robert Grosvenor, Fred Sandback, Alan Saret, Dennis Oppenheim, Jeffrey Lew, Suzanne Tanger, Michael Goldberg, Suzanne Harris, Gary Kuehn, Peter Downsbrough. In the rooms 3rd floor new wing: Marcia Hafif, Ron Gorchov, Doug Ohlson, Mary Miss, Shigeko Kubota, Power Boothe, Steffan Eins, Douglas Davis, Eve Sonneman. In the attic new wing: Richard Serra, Max Neuhaus. In the corridors new wing: Stephen Antonakos, Lucio Pozzi, Richard Artschwager, John Baldessari. In the rooms 1st floor old wing: Jene Highstein, Sue Weil, Judy Rifka, Richard Mock. In the rooms 2nd floor old wing: Patrick Ireland, Deiter Froese, Joseph Kosuth. In the rooms 3rd floor old wing: Hap Tivey, Tina Girouard, Doug Wheeler. In the attic old wing: Ned Smyth, Howardena Pindell, Colette. In the corridors, old wing: Gordon Matta-Clark, Bill Beirne, Richard Nonas, David Rabinowitch, Michelle Stuart, Bernie Kirschenbaum, Joel Fisher, Patsy Norvell. In the storage rooms: Brenda Miller, Ira Joel Haber, Jared Bark, Dale Henry. In the closets: Steve Gianakos, Scott Burton. In the maintenance room: Nam June Paik. In the auditorium: Daniel Buren, Judith Shea, Jennifer Bartlett. In the bathroom: Lynn Hershman. In the boiler rooms: Vito Acconci, Bill Jensen. _In the coalbin: Richard Tuttle. On the roof: Charles Simonds, Forrest Myers, Bruce Nauman. On the building: Lawrence Weiner. In the school yard: Marjorie Strider, Carl Andre.