PRINT September 1997

Focus Preview

the return of P. S. 1

ABOUT TEN YEARS AGO, the venerable New York alternative space P. S. I began to think about a major renovation of its building—a huge, brick, former public school built in the nineteenth century, and improbably located in Long Island City, Queens. Recently, the task became precipitously necessary as the roof was literally caving in—along with the floor of director Alanna Heiss’ office, and myriad other parts of the structure. With the city as the renovation’s major patron (although P. S. I did raise a portion of the $8 million cost on its own), a new, almost “uptown” P. S. I will open to the public on October 29, after a rebuilding hiatus of almost three years.

After arriving at the choice of Los Angeles’ Fred Fisher (who worked with Frank Gehry and has created a number of major gallery spaces) as the renovation project’s architect, P. S. I fell back on its oldest resource—turning negatives into positives. Short on money for finishing walls? No problem, we’ll just create “The Apotheosis of the Crummy Space.” (That was Nancy Foote, twenty-one years ago in these pages.) These days it’s, Collapsing floor? Great; we’ll take it out and create a two-story gallery with naked brick walls. An incoherent melange of chambers and hallways and basement hideaways? What better setting for the kind of everything-under-one-roof, joyfully self-contradicting, multiplex exhibitions that P. S. I has always thrived on?

Fisher’s overhaul has provided an additional 30,000 square feet of exhibition room, making P. S. I the largest contemporary art institution in the world in terms of programmable space. That includes about 20,000 square feet of outdoors in the building’s formerly aimless backyard. Now that yard sits just inside the relocated main entrance—the formerly inconspicuous door on the street has been moved to what was once the rear—as a leveled, graveled sculpture court surrounded by a tall, thin cement wall. Once you traverse the outdoor exhibition space, skip up the wide, almost formal front steps (a kind of blue-collar version of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s front porch), and walk through the door, you’re back in good ol’ user-friendly P. S. I—just neater, grander, and, thanks to Fisher, more elegant.

Not that the original was all that bad. In 1976, Heiss asked each of the boroughs in the city for the use of an empty building and was handed this grand, gothic revival structure. With some basic gutting and repairs, the place was transformed into the P. S. I Museum of the Institute for Contemporary Art. (It’s now been rechristened the P. S. I Contemporary Art Center.) Back then, Heiss thought there was a need for a large not-for-profit exhibition space that could a) handle what artists—having broken the shackles of both the Minimalist aesthetic and the commercial gallery presumption that art almost always consists of cohesive, portable objects—were making, and b) provide a counterbalance to the slick museums in Manhattan. But, in the spirit of the art she wished P. S. I to serve, Heiss wanted to avoid what she calls “certain museum tendencies”: a permanent collection and a board of powerful art collectors.

For the last twenty-one years, P. S. I has mostly succeeded. Certainly in the realm of prescience. If you take a quick look at the “Rooms” catalogue from P. S. I’s maiden year, you’ll be astonished by the percentage of artists who are now considered the founding fathers and mothers of everything post-Minimalist. And all along, there has been a simultaneous sprouting of site-specific pieces in the many canyons, corridors, and crevices of the institution’s wonderful old building. Heissan intelligently effusive woman with cropped blonde hair and a sharp barroom laugh—says, “If we were working with an old famous artist, he or she would do the most eccentric thing they’d ever done; if it was a young artist, it might be the biggest project he or she was able to do.” But the thing about P. S. I was that, in spite of its deceptive funkiness, it put a floor of quality under everything; it was never just a happy radical art camp where the kids in the cubicles did wild and crazy things just for the hell of it. Aesthetic rigor at P. S. I has remained like the melody in a John Coltrane solo: not obvious, but undeniably there.

P. S. I suffered, however, from a couple of more persistent ills. The first—location—might still be incurable, except by changing the mindset of an entire art world. Although P. S. I is closer to MoMA and the 57th Street galleries than the Guggenheim SoHo is, most people still think that if anything is outside Manhattan it might as well be in Siberia. The second is a slightly amateur-hour feel, emanating mostly from the fact that P. S. maintains some “international studios,” where artists, sponsored by their native countries but ultimately chosen by a P. S. I jury, get to spend a year in New York, communing with each other and the vibes of the art world’s most important city. In other words, a kind of grad-school redux. “I’m split about the international studios,” Heiss admits. “It’s a time-waster. Nobody really enjoys that year in New York—trying to get work done, meeting other artists, struggling with finding a living space, etc. By the time they get the hang of it, they’re ready to go. It’s like the worst part of having a house guest for a whole year.” On the other hand, she says, “The studios represent the conscience of the institution. Sometimes when we look at art we tend to think it’s just delivered; we forget that it’s made with mistakes, cul-de-sacs, and struggle. Having living artists around, making art, reminds us of that.”

That sense of life is what makes P. S. I different from the Manhattan museums in terms of dealing with truly contemporary art. MoMA, with its elephantine influence on history exercised every time it buys a print, can hardly keep pace with the present. The Whitney is hobbled by its reputation of repackaging gallery fare. The Guggenheim seems too busy franchising itself around the world. And, according to what I’ve been hearing, the New Museum has a sociopolitical agenda, and only seeks out art that fits it. Finally, Dia seems more like a reductivist version of one of those stately English manors which, forced to open its doors to the tourist public, would really prefer to have nothing to do with the hoi-polloi.

Artists exhibiting at P. S. I, says Heiss, “have to have an ability to withstand cold and lack of flattery. We don’t tell each one exhibiting or making something here that he or she is the greatest artist in the world. There are too many of them, and they’d each hear us flattering the other.” But artists working there from now on won’t have to withstand the perception that P. S. I is stuck out in the boonies. Its new architectural grandness brings the place a little closer in spirit—if not in actual distance—to Manhattan. And, as they say in the art business, location is the sincerest form of flattery.

Peter Plagens is a painter and the art critic for Newsweek. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

A retrospective of seventy-seven year-old John Coplans’ photographs of sections of his own aging body will be one of five shows opening the renovated P. S. I. (The others: a retrospective of the work of filmmaker Jack Smith; a midcareer survey of Jackie Winsor’s sculpture; a Lynne Yamamoto solo exhibition; a huge group show called “Heaven”; in addition to on-site projects by no less than fifty artists.) Coplans could be described as a former everything—South African, Londoner, Californian, soldier, pilot, painter, critic, curator, art editor (of this magazine, 1971–76), and museum director. But, to our amazement if not his, the odds are he’ll ultimately be remembered for his photography, a medium he didn’t take up until he was about sixty. Coplans doesn’t like the term “photographer”; he calls himself “an artist who uses photography as an alternative medium.” The difference, he says, is that photographers “run around looking for an opportunity, hoping something will turn out. I have my subject in mind. I set it up and shoot.”

“My work,” says Coplans, “is actually a kind of joke, or a hoax. I use my own body to travel in time, down the gene path. Sometimes I’m a male, sometimes a female. I don’t pose that way [Coplans views himself in a video monitor and has an assistant take the picture], or use any tricks. It just happens. It’s all in my mind.” But for all his physical self-exposure and rhetorical hubris, Coplans is still something of a formalist in Lady Godiva’s clothing. “Sculpture is really about the play of light and dark, and so is photography,” he says. “Brancusi is one of the great photographers of the century; his photographs of his sculpture stand independently as rather amazing ideas.”

In the P. S. I show, organized by Alanna Heiss (with a catalogue essay from French curator Jean-Paul Chevrier), Coplans will have the vastness of the great hall upstairsin which to stretch out. In Coplans’ monumental close-ups (works as large as 12 by 30 feet), the slow drama of his physique succumbing to gravity is abruptly beautiful. Bold, sculptural, primordial, hermaphroditic and, above all, photographic, Coplans’ work guarantees he will never be considered a former photographer.

Peter Plagens