PRINT December 2005

David Rimanelli

I KNOW SOMETHING MUST HAVE HAPPENED this year besides Paris Hilton. I was recently in a video store scanning the new-releases board. A video clerk had penned an amusing one-line summation of House of Wax: “Paris Hilton dies in this remake of the horror classic.” Diderot, too, had a flair for deflating concision, describing in his Salon of 1767 Jean-Baptiste Leprince’s Portrait of a Young Girl Abandoning her Toys in Favor of Study as a “mediocre picture, but an excellent lesson for a child.” Too bad contemporary critical etiquette prohibits such terse judgments; but why, I wonder, should oneliner artworks deserve any more than one-liner reviews? Diderot was notoriously fond of lessons, though, praising the sentimental moralizing canvases of Greuze and damning the Rococo froufrou of Boucher and Fragonard. Néanmoins, Diderot is Diderot, and I’m merely me, but I’ll risk the ridicule of my colleagues and venture a simple question in the spirit of the sage philosophe: What lessons are to be learned from the New York art world during the last year?

Quite late one night several months ago, a few artist friends of mine—Hanna Liden, Nate Lowman, Aaron Young, and Adam McEwen—came over to my apartment for drinks after some opening/dinner/after-party. P.S. 1 ’s “Greater New York 2005” had recently opened. A rumor was circulating that Mary Boone, like any canny dealer, was eager to lure certain Greater New Yorkers to her gallery, perhaps for a group show, perhaps for something more—and Lowman, Young, and McEwen had all been included in the 170- odd-artist juggernaut. Rather than sign on for a conventional group show, I suggested that we re-create Gavin Brown’s bar Passerby—had we been there that very night? it’s just down the street from my house—inside Boone’s Chelsea Gallery. Now, if you’ve ever been to Passerby, you know that it is a tiny space that often attracts uncomfortably large crowds. Piotr Uklański’s disco floor—an installation I had seen at Brown’s first gallery on Broome Street in 1996, and which had been adapted as pulsing, at times headache-inducing decor for Passerby—wouldn’t be cheap to replicate, but, thinking big, the consensus was expense be damned. I also thought that we should populate the “bar” with archetypal denizens of the original in the form of photographic or painted cutout figures: Gavin, curator and demiurge Clarissa Dalrymple, Elizabeth Peyton, Rirkrit Tiravanija, et al., would lean against the bar; a Spencer Sweeney cutout would be at the turntables spinning, just as the real Spencer frequently does. It seemed so funny, the notion of remaking Passerby, a blinding-headlight signifier of the cool art scene of the late ’90s, within the immaculate and commodious precincts of Boone’s downtown space, with a conscious bow to her own persona as an avatar of the ’80s New York power dealer. I mean, Parker Posey played Mary Boone in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat. She’s art history and pop history. But the idea came to nothing, of course, like so many clever but dubious schemes conjured up during the hour of the wolf and in a spirit of boozy camaraderie.

Gavin Brown’s Enterprise—with its annex, Passerby—remains preeminent as a precursor to newer “scene” galleries like Maccarone Inc., Rivington Arms, Daniel Reich Gallery, and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, many of them located either in the hipster hell of the Lower East Side or in the even weirder no-man’s-land of Chinatown. Aside from building up a roster of now internationally famous stars, Brown, who moved to New York from London in 1988, succeeded in delivering to New York more than another neutral exhibition space; he created a situation that encouraged partying, louche behavior, and fuck-you antics. And a certain genus of New York artists, writers, and performers, many still living on fantasies of the Factory and willingly possessed by the specters of Andy Warhol and his superstars, gravitated to GBE and Passerby. You could dress up; you could dress up in rags. Unadvisedly, you could totter in your spike heels as you danced perilously on the bar like an alcoholic maenad. You could go to the bathroom with seven of your new best friends. Of course, much of this scenester mayhem was inescapably juvenile, and you probably met more assholes than charmers. (Recall, for instance, last summer’s “GBE hot dog bust”: Brown found himself, briefly, in the hands of plainclothes police because at the party following the opening of “Drunk vs. Stoned 2,” a couple of guests started throwing hot dogs at people walking by on the street below.) But the message was clear: You could maintain a serious and trendsetting artistic program—GBE’s roster hasn’t stultified, and Brown has scored with several additions to the program in the last few years, among others Mark Leckey, Oliver Payne/Nick Relph, Anselm Reyle, and Jonathan Horowitz—and you could maybe enjoy some kicks at the same time.

Located on the far east end of Canal Street, Michele Maccarone’s three-story operation remains the ne plus ultra “destination” gallery, redolent of attitude, gossip, mockery, and desuetude; it also boasts one of the sharpest programs in New York, exhibiting young and youngish European and American artists such as Christoph Büchel, Christian Jankowski, Anthony Burdin, Mike Bouchet, Nate Lowman, Roberto Cuoghi, and Carol Bove. Maccarone—who had for several years worked at Luhring Augustine, a very established gallery with a quasi-corporate profile, before setting up her own operation—learned the art business inside-out, savvy to the whims of collectors and curators, the machinations of auctions and art fairs. She didn’t set out to open a scene gallery, but—in the service of extremely demanding installations (e.g., her inaugural show in 2001, wherein Büchel created a total environment de haut en bas, or Bouchet’s New York Dirty Room this year) and seemingly off-the-hook artists (anarchic noisemaker Burdin, among others)—the sheer force of her hysterical humor, histrionic persona, and fuck-off gestures could not help but endow her gallery with its own auratic halo.

Mirabelle Marden and Melissa Bent opened Rivington Arms in 2002, and seemingly within weeks their tiny Lower East Side space flowered as an epicenter of gilded and grubby youth. Rivington Arms and its stylish proprietors received so much coverage in the non-arts press that some skeptics doubted the seriousness of the enterprise. And there was no shortage of LES hipster mayhem during openings, as the crowds of would-be beautiful-and-damned kids spilled out of the exceedingly modest space and into the street, leading to frequent visits from the police. Unlike Maccarone, “the girls,” as Bent and Marden are still sometimes referred to, started out with no gallery experience at all, but they shared a keen desire to show the work of their friends, and the gallery soon attracted “real” attention (reviews in the New York Times, critical coverage in the art press) for exhibitions of Dan Colen, Hanna Liden, Lansing-Dreiden, Mathew Cerletty, Carter Mull, and Dash Snow. They also began to work the art fairs, those necessary evils through which specialty sensibilities are deracinated for acquisition within the global art market and “hot” new galleries brush up against blue-chip megaliths. Rivington Arms, as the corporate identity of Bent and Marden, is the subject of the latest issue of Me magazine, itself a demimondaine-studded, crystallized symptom of scenesterism through its tessellation of youth-culture art, fashion, music, cooking, dog-walking, you name it. Sample questions to Me interviewee Liden, who shows with Rivington Arms: “When and where did you meet Mirabelle and Melissa? Not sure, but probably on the Lower East Side in the late ’90s, maybe in some bar full of skaters and beer and graffiti or some apartment full of skaters and beer and graffiti or on some sidewalk full of samo. What was your first impression of them? ‘Wow, those are the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen, what the hell are they doing in this dump!?’”

There’s something droll about the proximity to Rivington Arms of Orchard gallery, which debuted this year. A “co-operative” endeavor, one hesitates to say Orchard opened for business; instead, another kind of scene is on life support there, an “institutional critique” fragment of the program that the late Colin de Land sustained with such astonishing success as an “antidealer” dealer at the incomparable, now-defunct American Fine Arts, Co., itself perhaps the quintessential scene gallery, where disparate sensibilities (Andrea Fraser, Art Club 2000, Alex Bag, John Waters, Mark Dion, Christian-Phillip Müller, not to mention celebrity photographer Greg Gorman) were held together by the overarching persona of de Land; kids would work there for pennies just to be part of the AFA clique. While the artists involved with Orchard are no doubt rigorous—Fraser, Müller, and Gareth James (all from the AFA stable) are among the principals—and while any number of shows and performances the co-op has put on were eminently worthy of our attention (“May I Help You?,” “September 11, 1973,” the sole screening of Michael Asher’s film no title, 1973/2005), personally, I find Orchard creepy: This “scene” reminds me unpleasantly of the original black-and-white Night of the Living Dead, suffused with necrophilia and necrophagy. Call it nostalgia. If you live in the past, you die a little every day, and I want to live.

If a single gallery achieved a particularly dazzling succès d’estime this year, it’s Reena Spaulings, located in a strip mall on a dismal stretch of Grand Street in Chinatown. The gallery opened in January 2004 as an underground project that wasn’t even open to the public. “It was very elitist,” as proprietor Emily Sundblad describes the first events at the gallery, her tone one of sincere irony. The first show consisted of a ripped-up Michael Krebber catalogue, the pages taped to the walls in homage to the German painter, cult figure, and fuck-up. The exhibition “Robert Smithson” followed. “We wanted to do a show about Robert Smithson at a moment when the reverence for him, and all the knockoffs of his work, was really overwhelming, around the time of the last Whitney Biennial,” Sundblad explains. “Mirrored letters outside the gallery spelled out his name, and inside we glued mirrored tiles to the floor; it looked like a gay jewelry store. Every time someone came in you knew because you could hear a mirror cracking.” Tellingly, the show itself made no explicit reference to Smithson beyond decor; instead, there were performances—Ei Arakawa did his first-ever performance in New York—parties, bands, and a screening of Niki de Saint Phalle’s 1973 film Daddy, during which guests drank opium tea and Michele Maccarone got very sick to her stomach (the tea, perchance?). Reena Spaulings also did an exhibition of works by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. “It was great to show Kim when we were in Basel,” Sundblad continues, “because all the Europeans were so excited that we had a rock star in our gallery.”

But Reena Spaulings mounted even better shows this year, preeminently an installation by Klara Liden (Hanna’s younger sister), built out of two thousand sheets of cardboard that she had scavenged from the street; her videos were screened within. Roberta Smith reviewed the show in the Times, displaying an enthusiasm that is seldom her style: “It doesn’t sound like much, but it is. Ms. Liden is the real deal, possessed of a fierce, concentrated energy that infuses everything she does. She is as engaged with her time as she is with form and materials, and approaches both with a very real but elegant sense of economy.” Nothing short of a rave. The underground hit the mainstream hard, and subsequent exhibitions at Reena Spaulings—of Josh Smith’s “mirror paintings” (actually “reject” canvases repainted black, and not conventionally pretty) and of Wynne Greenwood and K8 Hardy’s mock-newscast video, New Report, 2005—received enthusiastic notices from Smith and Holland Cotter, respectively. Hardy and Greenwood played anchors/in-the-field reporters Henry Stein-Acker-Hill and Henry Irigaray in what could be characterized as a half-scripted/half-improvised lesbian version of Alex Bag. “We are pregnant with information,” anchor-womyn Henry says. “Our audience is always willing to admit when the facts are not the facts.” In an investigative report, Henry–cum–Christiane Amanpour delves into the crisis of feminine anxiety. “Anxiety has a long psychological history with women, dating back to Freudian history,” s/he comments, before moving on to an anxiety victim’s personal account. How does she deal with anxiety? Cigarettes, Xanax, Ambien, Sonata, Bedtime Tea, television, valerian, a shot of NyQuil, and so on. “I think my anxiety stems from a feeling of powerlessness.”

Deitch Projects, on Grand Street in SoHo, remains the grandest thoroughfare for the transmission of young scenesterism to collectors, curators, and museums. Jeffrey Deitch started his art-world career behind the desk of the John Weber Gallery in 1977, and was an eyewitness and active participant in the “first wave” of New York scenesterism, i.e., the East Village art scene. Deitch, who cofounded (with art historian Patrick Cooney) Citibank Art Advisory Service in 1979, and who managed the business end of the enterprise and all contemporary art acquisitions, wrote “Report from Times Square,” about the legendary “Times Square Show,” for Art in America (September 1980): “The ‘Times Square Show’ was a challenge to dealers and curators of advanced art who continue to feel that the discreet display of a few pieces in an elegant gallery is enough. But it is even more of a challenge to artists who think their work stops when the piece leaves the studio, and who leave its presentation to others.” Deitch’s critics usually suggest that he is the avatar of the vampire-dealer leeching the energies of young, untried, even unworthy artists and repackaging them as chattels for the demon market. In fact, Deitch has remained remarkably consistent in his aesthetic affiliations, in particular his penchant for youth culture; he’s the Arethusa of scenesterism. Live Through This: New York in the Year 2005, edited by Deitch and Kathy Grayson, is without doubt my favorite art book of the year. It’s pointless to summarize the thirty-odd artists and artist collectives represented therein—e.g., Dan Colen, Dash Snow, Terrence Koh, Ryan McGinley, Jules de Balincourt, Bec Stupac, Tracy and the Plastics—and it’s certainly not a matter of liking them all, but the book serves a more documentary function, and like all documentaries, the enterprise inevitably fictionalizes its subjects. That’s why the extensive party pics and fucked-upness pics—dirty, sexy, fashionable, stupid, drunk, druggy—serve the overall project as much as the sections devoted to individual artists.

Voyeurism, you say? “Consuming” youth?—as if that were something new and disturbing. Curiously, I’m reminded of a passage from Chris Marker’s 1982 film Sans Soleil, itself a consummate meditation on the truth and lies of documentary. Japanese culture reigns as the cynosure of Marker’s “tourism”: “The youth that get together every weekend at Shinjuku obviously know they’re not on a launching pad toward real life. That they are life, to be eaten on the spot, like fresh donuts. It’s a very simple secret. The old try to hide it, and not all the young know it. The ten-year-old girl who threw her friend from the thirteenth floor of a building, after having tied her hands because she had spoken badly of their class team, hadn’t discovered it yet.”

The seepage of Lower East Side sensibilities to Chelsea perhaps suggests further development in the eat/elevate-the-young vein. Last summer, Neville Wakefield organized an ambitious group exhibition, “Bridge Freezes Before Road,” at Gladstone Gallery, a blue-chip paragon if ever there was one, that took as its premise the ongoing influence of Robert Smithson on younger generations. Works by Smithson, John McCracken, Chris Burden, Jack Goldstein, and Martin Kippenberger commingled with the latest runway models, among others Lowman, McEwen, Colen, Kelley Walker, Banks Violette, and Steven Shearer. McEwen’s recent group show at Nicole Klagsbrun, “Interstate,” assayed another generational mix-tape: Lucio Fontana and Josh Smith, Larry Johnson and Dan Colen, Polaroids by Dash Snow and Lucas Samaras, et al. The rumble in lower Manhattan has reached even the far north of Europe: Witness “Uncertain States of America: American Art in the 3rd Millennium” at Oslo’s Astrup Fearnley Museum for Modern Art, curated by Daniel Birnbaum, Gunnar B. Kvaran, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist and featuring works by numerous New York artists—young artists, Greater New Yorkers, scenesters of one species or another—Lowman, Young, Smith, Bouchet, Seth Price, Guyton\Walker, Mika Rottenberg, Matthew Day Jackson, Matthew Brannon, and Devendra Banhart, among others.

As we prepare to go to press, I dash off to attend the opening and dinner for Nate Lowman’s first solo show, at Maccarone Inc., 45 Canal Street. Quite a crowd. On my way there, I receive a text message from a friend, a curatorial rising star: “Are you coming? In Michele’s office, hiding. Serious social Panic Attack.” And that’s life in New York City, November 6, 2005.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.