PRINT October 1999

International With Monument

By the fall of 1986, a good litmus test of where you fell on the art-political spectrum was how you felt about International With Monument. Feared by some, hailed as the neighborhood’s salvation by others, the ponderously monikered gallery on East Seventh Street between 1st and A was known foremost as the outpost for Neo-Geo, the notorious non-movement whose lack of prior historical status did not exempt it from accusations of killing off the bohemian camaraderie that typified the first wave of East Village galleries. Begun in 1984 by three artist friends (Kent Klamen, Meyer Vaisman, and Elizabeth Koury) who named their new business after a partly obscured sign found in the basement, the tidy storefront locale garnered major attention in 1985, with the first individual gallery exhibitions of Peter Halley and Jeff Koons. (Although Koons had already achieved a sliver of notoriety through early-’80s shows at the New Museum and Artists Space, Halley came to Vaisman’s attention through the unlikeliest of methods: by dropping off his slides.) Not only did Halley and Koons create exhibitions that carried a seismic critical wallop, but their work, packed into a tidy storefront, was also plainly visible to passersby, adding a touch of visual sensationalism for the uninitiated. This was in 1985, at a moment when some of the pioneering East Village galleries had already begun to close their doors.

In conception, International With Monument was like a pumped-up version of Nature Morte. Borrowing Alan Belcher and Peter Nagy’s formula of bridging the work of younger, Conceptually oriented artists and their Metro Pictures forebears, Vaisman and Koury upped the ante, showcasing work that was rigorously ironic and stripped down to its visual essence. The intention, in part, was to shock viewers with the brazen insistence that there was a new stylistic game in town, and that salon hangings, sloppy business practices, and expressionist angst were already a thing of the past. In stark market terms, their success superseded that of any other gallery in the neighborhood, and with remarkable speed. By the fall of 1986, the four artists most associated with International With Monument—Halley, Koons, Vaisman, and Ashley Bickerton—were presented at Sonnabend Gallery in perhaps the most talked-about gallery show of the decade (indeed, one that would revitalize that dealer’s space and put her back on the map for years to come). All at once, the East Village and SoHo’s upper echelons had harmonically converged, and to a degree only hinted at by Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf’s much-publicized defection from Fun Gallery to Tony Shafrazi two years before.

During its brief run, International With Monument’s roster was almost too good to be true. Besides the Sonnabend quartet, Sarah Charlesworth, Richard Prince, and Laurie Simmons all had highly visible exhibitions during the three seasons that the gallery was thriving. In fact, Vaisman and Koury (Klamen had sold his stake before the storm broke) came as close to cornering the market in Neo-Geo as Fun Gallery had done with graffiti. Their success, however, also in a sense led to the demise of the gallery, since the frenetic market interest in many of these artists’ work increased the number of more powerful dealers vying for their attention. This was fine with Vaisman, who soon sold his share in the gallery to Koury and Ealan Wingate in order to concentrate on his artwork. Several of the artists had already fled to Castelli, Sonnabend, Jay Gorney, and Barbara Gladstone, so that once International With Monument reopened in SoHo in 1988 as Koury-Wingate, the gallery bore only the vaguest resemblance to its predecessor. Perhaps this was fitting: In a few short years, International with Monument had already begun to feel more fabled than real, a magic stepping-stone for artists who couldn’t spare a moment in their mad dash from obscurity to the annals of art history.