PRINT March 2005


Frances Richard on Pierogi gallery

PIEROGI GALLERY in Williamsburg, Brooklyn recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary. In surviving to the decade mark, this space created by artist Joe Amrhein provides a lens through which to view an array of issues typically grouped under the heading “alternative art scene.” This kaleidoscopic picture centers on art-market vicissitudes and the perennial need for innovative ways to bring young or under-supported artists to the attention of curators and collectors. But other shifting facets include the real-estate market, cycles of media recognition, contrasting models of nonprofit and commercial organization, and the creative power of good old artist-to-artist conversation. Tracking Pierogi’s development since 1994 thus allows the student of such phenomena to note how Williamsburg compares to other New York artists’ districts of the past thirty years, and thereby to consider how the always-uneasy mix of art and commerce is creating new paradigms for distribution, representation, and artists’ survival.

What Amrhein founded as a self-described “speakeasy,” a meeting place for local artists, has grown into an enterprise with connections extending beyond New York’s Manhattan and DUMBO to Los Angeles and Europe. This very growth, however, poses challenges not only for Pierogi but also for neighboring galleries, much as success in SoHo in the ’70s or the East Village in the ’80s paradoxically refined away the scruffy, why-not spirit that built venues like 112 Greene Street and FUN Gallery. Williamsburg rents are increasing exponentially, pushing out artists who have had live/work spaces there for years and displacing the Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Polish residents who preceded and then coexisted with them. At the same time, even as shuttered storefronts and abandoned factories are rehabbed into bars and “loftlike” condominiums, the bohemia of Bedford Avenue is not rich enough to support all the ambitious dealers who start up there. In recent months, several have moved to Chelsea: Bellwether and Jessica Murray Projects relocated outright, while Roebling Hall opened both a branch on Twenty-sixth Street and a third space, Satellite, in SoHo. Praising such decisions in the New York Times, critic Roberta Smith announced that these small, bold venues were “too legit for Williamsburg.” Not everyone, however, feels the lure of what Smith herself termed the “big car dealership–style” showrooms of western Manhattan. Pierogi’s siblings Momenta Art and Schroeder Romero Gallery (which started life as Sauce) are also celebrating ten-year anniversaries, and Roebling Hall remains committed to its Wythe Avenue space. Pierogi’s home in the former American Star Cork Co. manufactory also houses artists’ studios and the apartment Amrhein shares with his wife and gallery partner, poet and designer Susan Swenson; both make their own art in the building. Such layered localness grounds and shapes Pierogi without simplistically defining it. As Amrhein puts it, “What the East Village and early SoHo allowed was do-it-yourself credibility. That kind of availability only happens every so often, and Williamsburg had it. There were a lot of artists just talking to each other. Now the artists we represent have gone beyond the Brooklyn identity, but I like our roots where they are. If I’m only selling art to make a living—I don’t want to do that. The selling floor doesn’t have the heart I want to have.”

Pierogi gallery started life as Pierogi 2000 in Amrhein’s painting studio, in the building next door to Star Cork (the gallery moved in 1999; the numeral was retired in 2000). Like other legendary artist-run spaces—112 Greene Street, Fashion Moda, and ABC No Rio, for example—it materialized organically, instigated by a sense that dominant art-world players were overlooking an emergent scene. “It started as a glorified studio idea,” Amrhein explains. “I was frustrated; the peak in the ’80s and the dead period in the ’90s seemed pretty dire. I wanted to invite people, create some energy.” On weekends, he pulled a curtain across his paintings and asked acquaintances whose work he admired to install. Amrhein was inspired by other pioneering area ventures, including Herron Test-Site, run by the late Annie Herron, and Mike Ballou’s Four Walls. As Swenson remarks, “It was the right idea at the right place and time.” Pierogi galvanized its audience-contributors, with artists and their fellow travelers packing the narrow ex–loading dock for openings, jostling toward the back where the eponymous Polish dumplings were dished up free. The logic of friendship propelled the place. “Annie Herron gave me two hundred dollars,” Amrhein remembers. “It paid for the paint or something. I didn’t have a computer, so every time I did a mailing, I would run over to Annie’s and she would print my labels. I had a microwave for the pierogis and a refrigerator for the beer. It was an amazingly small space, but we got so much work in there.”

Since then, Pierogi has developed into a multifaceted operation comprising artist representation, the literary magazine Pierogi Press, and the now-famous flat files. Perhaps surprisingly, given the tacit assumption that “community based” equals “nonprofit,” the gallery has always been commercial. Self-supporting and therefore independent, it is able to pull off the kind of participatory experiments typically associated with cooperative spaces, while still providing serious attention to individual artists’ careers. “My idea of community,” says Amrhein, “is that there will be a dialogue after the initial meeting, some continuance, rather than just a fleeting moment or voyeuristic thing.”

Pierogi Press helps realize this aspiration, as a biannual literary journal with limited-edition artist-designed covers that was launched by Swenson in 1998. Once a staple of downtown collaboration—consider the milieu of Saint Mark’s Church in the ’70s—organs for sustained artist/writer interaction are almost nonexistent in the current landscape, a polarization of natural allies that perhaps makes sense from a marketing point of view but none at all from an aesthetic one. Another instance of imaginative alliance made possible by this dialogic ethos was the 1997 reinstallation of Robert Smithson’s little-known Dead Tree, a non-site sculpture realized in Düsseldorf in 1969 and documented by a single photograph. The brainchild of Amrhein and artist Brian Conley, the project worked with the Smithson estate to reenvision his gritty poetics of entropy for the industrial wastelands along the East River, shoehorning an actual dead tree into Pierogi’s tiny space and establishing a touch point between the Williamsburg and Smithson generations that predated by several years the current renaissance of interest in the late artist’s output—which, of course, includes important production as a writer.

If Dead Tree helped to put Pierogi on the international map, the flat files keep it there. A wall of unremarkable horizontal drawers, the files are expansively inclusive and intimately accessible, housing works on paper by more than eight hundred contributors. Amrhein holds weekly appointments with new artists and accepts submissions when he likes the work. Any visitor can don white gloves and browse; the average price is $450. “He makes the search exciting, enough of a treasure hunt, and you actually find treasures,” says curator Robert Storr. “Joe has the deepest and most unexpected assortment of people if you’re looking to see something you don’t know or to track someone you do.” A boîte-en-valise of New York talent, selections from the files have traveled from London to Vienna to Los Angeles. Like the slide registries at New York’s Artists Space or White Columns, the files function as a search engine for curators, and like the Viewing Program at the Drawing Center, inclusion in them can lead to a full-dress exhibition. But they also serve collectors, the impecunious or inexperienced as well as the savvy and adventuresome, targeting a far wider and more flexible audience than the elegant, blue-chip viewing room.

It is difficult to think locally and sell art globally and, as an unabashedly mom-and-pop operation, Pierogi cannot avoid a sometime role as farm team or incubator, periodically culled by more powerful purveyors. In fact, this was initially the point. Amrhein originally planned for each artist to have one show only—he would then try to foment interest elsewhere. Bruce Pearson, James Siena, Mark Lombardi, and Yun-fei Ji are among those who benefited from this format, while Fred Tomaselli and Eve Sussman are flat file alums. “It was just so clear,” says Pearson, recalling what it was like to have Amrhein as advocate and impresario. “The clarity of Joe’s agenda and the—I hate to use the word, but purity. He was doing it as an artist.” The effectiveness of the peer-to-peer arrangement eventually changed the stakes, however. As artist Ward Shelley puts it, “It got so Joe couldn’t ignore the fact that he had a business.” Since 2000, Amrhein has represented artists in a more traditional manner, and some of the more prominent have, like the nearby galleries, crossed the water for Chelsea’s increased foot traffic and institutional support. Migration works both ways, however. James Esber, for example, has recently moved to Pierogi from representation in Chelsea, and Dawn Clements has shown simultaneously in both neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Amrhein’s own flourishing painting career pivots on a related contradiction. He shows at Roebling Hall, and he and Swenson both acknowledge that they must consider Pierogi part of their own work, a kind of social sculpture, or risk being split across the divide of their double lives. Perhaps not coincidentally, “social sculpture” offers a decent definition of both Amrhein’s art—which draws on his pregallery life as a sign painter, with found snippets of artspeak lettered onto Mylar or glass panels—and Swenson’s poetry, which frequently includes documentary and translated material.

Historically, this pinch between making and distributing has led artist-run spaces to hire administrators or persuaded artist-dealers to give up their studios—as the transformation in the last decades of New York’s rowdy alternatives into well-behaved kunsthalles indicates. Furthermore, Pierogi’s hard-won equilibrium between artist-mind and dealer-mind has in some ways rendered survival more difficult for nearby spaces. The tokenizing of “Williamsburg” as the anti-Chelsea means that lionizing one space results in neglecting another—exactly the sort of hyped distortion that Pierogi was founded to combat. “Pierogi has been the focus and source of a tremendous attention to Williamsburg, a successful rainmaker of international attention, while resolutely remaining true to its ‘little guy’ status,” says Joel Beck of Roebling Hall. “This is eminently honorable, but it presents a problem at the same time. Popular imagination desires Williamsburg to be small-scale and homespun, yet ever more adventurous and long lasting. The story of Williamsburg is inextricably tied to the popular vision of Pierogi as that ideal that exists in its own orbit, not following or leading but defining itself on its own terms and remaining true to them.”

So where are the next alternatives, and what will happen as the Williamsburg generation ages? One might as well ask where a new politics will come from, or what if Mayor Bloomberg’s administration really does replace the East River–side waste-transfer station with promised green space? As Ji warns, “The gallery is ongoing. It’s not history, and it’s dangerous to make a summary. Pierogi is very well positioned; its strength is that it’s close to the community and has people who understand the art-making process and have good eyes.” In other words, it’s the conversation that will keep Pierogi and its environs vital. “The space was designed to be primarily a forum for exchange, and it has kept that quality even as it has evolved,” says another artist, Daniel Zeller. “One feels this upon entering—it’s high-minded without feeling that way. Pierogi is a place where art is the most important thing in the world, but not as important as the people who get to experience it, make it, and talk about it.” Check back in ten years.

Frances Richard is a Brooklyn-based writer.