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PRINT January 2005

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“Greater New York 2005”

IT HAS BECOME A COMMONPLACE TO SAY THAT New York is no longer hospitable to artists, that Chelsea is a sort of Potemkin village fronting for a city whose economic realities make it increasingly difficult to keep a practice going, and whose Disneyfied ambiance provides diminishing incentive to try. For the second time in five years, a team of curators from affiliated institutions P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center and the Museum of Modern Art has set itself the task of marshaling evidence for the counterargument. From March 13 through September 26, “Greater New York 2005,” the successor to 2000’s “Greater New York: New Art in New York Now” will fill P.S. 1 with the work of between one hundred and two hundred artists based in and around the city. The selection committee—comprised of P.S. 1’s Alanna Heiss, Bob Nickas, and Amy Smith-Stewart and MoMA’s Gary Garrels, Glenn Lowry, and Ann Temkin, and headed by Klaus Biesenbach, a curator for both museums—aims to present a mixture of well-known and as-yet-unknown artists whose diverse practices will provide, if not a unified-field view, then a definitive gloss on contemporary art in New York. “Many museums survey the local talent every now and then,” says Biesenbach. “This kind of focus only gets interesting when you apply it to the greater New York area, because this is still the place to which artists come from all over the world and, despite incredibly high living expenses, keep struggling to produce art. . . . It’s refreshing to consider a city that constantly announces itself as the capital of the world as a local entity.”

It’s also daunting—not least because of the sheer amount of legwork, and eyeball work, involved. The first “Greater New York” garnered considerable attention from gallerists and critics, to say nothing of Newsweek and Harper’s Bazaar. It put unknowns on the map (John Pilson) and helped propel up-and-comers to the next level (Paul Pfeiffer). The memory of this success has created a sense among New York artists that the stakes for inclusion in the upcoming show are high, and has brought a certain amount of scrutiny to bear on the selection process. As one artist, who asked not to be named, said, “Is this really an open process, or is it going to be about connections?” Then, too, there’s the fact that the show will be, in some sense, a state-of-the-union report on moma and P.S. 1’s relationship, which was officially inaugurated with the 2000 show. P.S. 1 director Heiss says that “Greater New York 2005” will serve,
in part, to signify “that P.S. 1 and MoMA are still having a lot of fun together” and that MoMA’s commitment to its erstwhile neighbor has not waned with the conclusion of its QNS interlude. She continues, “We hope that artists feel that in the attention that’s being given to the work.”

Thus the curators have made an almost quixotic effort to scour every inch of their catchment area, which extends beyond the five boroughs into New Jersey and upstate. An open call that went out last fall brought in over two thousand submissions, all reviewed during a marathon slide-viewing session in early December; any artist deemed worthy of a second look by any curator was put on a list for further consideration. The seven members of the selection committee, plus additional curators from both institutions, have also solicited recommendations (from “local and international curators, colleagues and critics, friends and enemies,” says Biesenbach), and gone on numerous studio visits—some of them impromptu drop-ins at the behest of the artist next door. “It’s like a daisy chain—artists suggest artists,” says Smith-Stewart. The short list (short only in the most nominal sense) resulting from this research will be winnowed down in a series of increasingly rigorous review sessions until the curators arrive at the final lineup. As for who makes the cut, the selection committee intends to keep that a secret until the last possible moment to allow for late additions. There is even talk of skipping a traditional press preview and unveiling the show in its entirety only on opening day.

With the selection process still underway, the curators can make only provisional statements about the kinds of work that will be on view. Remarking that “New York has undergone some of the most unbelievable and tragic moments in history during the last five years,” Biesenbach notes “climatic shifts between escapism and regression, agitation and anticipation,” and cites “playful and serious depictions of beauty or horror, montage taken from the visual grammar of computer games, cartoons, comic books, fairy-tale fictions; a lot of painting, not as much photography.” Nickas speaks of “a number of artists who’ve dealt with the military, warfare, violence,” and of “in-your-face” imagery “that might be a response to a climate of conservatism. . . . People are pissed off and frustrated. It has to have an effect.” Both Biesenbach and Nickas stress that their comments should be understood only as references to tendencies they’ve observed among a limited number of artists, not as generalizations about how the show will take shape. But it seems safe to say that if the first “Greater New York,” which opened two weeks before the NASDAQ hit its all-time peak, reflected something of the irrational exuberance of Y2K NYC, the second will register the tenor of a very different city.

Elizabeth Schambelan is editor of artforum.com.