PRINT Summer 2010


White Columns, Paula Cooper, and El Museo del Barrio

The facade of 112 Workshop, Greene Street, New York, ca. 1970.

A LITTLE MORE than a year ago, a variety of news outlets reported that an estimated 350 hopeful artists had lined up outside the entrance to fabled New York contemporary art space White Columns—the site of numerous groundbreaking exhibitions, including “Artist/Critic,” 1983, “The New Capital,” 1984, Group Material’s “Resistance (Anti-Baudrillard),” 1987, and Fred Wilson’s “The Other Museum,” 1990. As it happened, these people were not queuing up to see artwork; nor were they there to protest an exhibition or, more predictably, to talk with staff members about show proposals. Rather, these hungry souls were at White Columns to vie for one of fourteen coveted spots on Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, a reality TV show (executive producer: Sarah Jessica Parker) that is doing with artists what Project Runway has done with fashion designers and what Top Chef has done with cooks: namely, setting them up for internecine competition (the nastier, the better for ratings), to say nothing of the strategic product placements that frame this spectacle and make it all possible. To quote the breathless introductory incantation of the show’s host and judge, actress-model China Chow, this is the “opportunity of a lifetime” for contestants to “show their talent to America and the top players in the art world,” all leading up to a “grand prize of a solo show at the world-famous Brooklyn Museum and $100,000—provided by Prismacolor Art Uninhibited!”

Unwitting parody aside, this development marks the latest and giddiest instance of the merger of art and show business, offering further proof (if any more proof were needed) of the mutability of the spaces in which art appears, of the ever-growing publics that such spaces attract, and of the reciprocal effects between those spaces and publics. Given such cozy cohabitation, can one discern any remaining contrast between art and its mass-mediatization? Does this latest televisual event demonstrate the mainstreaming of contemporary art’s alternately antic, frivolous, and dead-serious neo-avant-gardist gambits whose origins date back to the establishment of spaces like White Columns? To grasp the changes that have taken place in art and in its expanded context and fractured communities, I wish to reflect here on three pillars of artistic innovation and political engagement in the New York art scene—White Columns, the Paula Cooper Gallery, and El Museo del Barrio—all of which have recently celebrated their fortieth birthdays.


THE ORIGINAL INCARNATION of White Columns—by its own account, “New York’s oldest alternative art space”—dates back to fall 1970, early in the formation of New York’s vibrant “alternative arts” movement, when the space was known as both 112 Greene and 112 Workshop. Back then, the art world was a very small and undercapitalized place. The artist Jeffrey Lew, who owned the building at 112 Greene Street, decided to open its colonnaded but otherwise raw ground floor and basement spaces (previously occupied by a rag-salvaging business) to an exhibition program that he devised with the help of a circle of artist friends, at whose center was the charismatic Gordon Matta-Clark. Lew’s original inner circle also included Alan Saret (who introduced Lew to Matta-Clark), Caroline Goodden, and Tina Girouard. The circle grew along with the reputation of the space. Together the group evolved a freewheeling program of pioneering process-oriented and post-Minimalist art installations, as well providing a space for performance, dance, music, poetry readings, and film screenings. Lew asserts that the doors to 112 Workshop were never locked, a possibly apocryphal claim that nonetheless attests to his determination to effect “radical changes in the art-showing process.”¹

Lew’s friends would bring other artists to his attention, and with his tacit approval they would then consult the calendar that Lew kept in the space and sign up to create work for a given block of time. Especially when compared with the schedules and stables of the commercial art galleries uptown, 112 Workshop was a model of cultural democracy—albeit within the constraints of an art world that still marginalized, when it did not altogether ignore, art by women and people of color. As Martin Beck has noted, the artists involved in 112 Workshop “did not think of it as a space for showing ‘marginalized,’ ‘difficult,’ or otherwise underrepresented cultural practices.”² Nor was this the only sense in which most participants at 112 rejected the idea of employing their art to respond to, or to acknowledge explicitly, the period’s political turmoil, whether that related to the antiwar, Black Power, and feminist movements, or the nascent movement for lesbian and gay civil rights.

Over the intervening forty years, it has become clear that such explicit forms of political engagement constitute only some of the ways in which politics and political dissent figured in the cultural practices of the burgeoning alternative arts movement. Beck argues that the program at 112 Workshop established an implicitly political alternative to the mainstream. Its laboratory/playground setting encouraged artists to create works that, for example, impinged on the structure of the building itself—Urs Fischer, as it were, bien avant la lettre. Working directly with the site fostered informal collaborations among the participants, all of which assumes political significance (“political” in an expanded rather than explicit sense) within the context of radical theories of space that reached critical mass throughout the first half of the 1970s. This theoretical efflorescence stemmed from texts by Henri Lefebvre, Daniel Buren, Brian O’Doherty, Michel Foucault, and Laura Mulvey (among others), each of whom critically addressed the political implications of space, which they interrogated from a variety of interconnected yet ultimately distinct points of view.

Marjorie Strider, Building Work #1 (1970), colored plastic foam. Installation view, 112 Greene Street, New York, 1970. Inaugural Group Show.

For example, in his magisterial The Production of Space (1974), Marxist geographer Lefebvre argued that space should no longer be considered in conventional “geometrical” terms but rather be understood as a social product that is shaped by the relations of production and exchange that inhere in capitalism. Lefebvre anticipated how difficult it would be for people to adjust to such a radical reconceptualization of space: “To speak of ‘producing space’ sounds bizarre, so great is the sway still held by the idea that empty space is prior to whatever ends up filling it.”³ Also of importance to the political implications of the program at 112 Workshop were three somewhat later texts that O’Doherty (aka Patrick Ireland) published in Artforum between 1976 and 1986, in which he famously subjected the “white cube” to a critical examination that—not unlike Buren’s earlier deconstructions of the “function” of the museum, the studio, and architecture—essayed the ideological effects of such allegedly neutral spaces, which not only frame art but also determine what kind of art gets displayed. ⁴

At 112 Workshop, participants were much less interested in “filling” space than they were in taking full advantage of the special sanction granted modern artists (in a trade-off for bohemian marginalization) to imagine and give material shape to practices that deviated from the idealist neutrality that O’Doherty identified with the space of mainstream commercial art galleries, not to mention the museums that the people associated with the Art Workers’ Coalition were then picketing and protesting.⁵ Artists at 112 Workshop departed from the conventions not only of how art was getting seen but also of the ways in which art was getting made. What set the gallery apart as an alternative space was, to use Beck’s words, its deployment of the site as both “a field of action . . . and a basis of action.”⁶

“In most galleries,” Lew asserted, “you can’t scratch the floor. Here you can dig a hole in it.”⁷ Actually, Lew insisted that artists who dug holes in or otherwise altered the architecture return it to its former, admittedly raw condition. For example, shortly after Christmas 1970, Matta-Clark dug a hole in the basement large enough to plant his Cherry Tree. After the tree died, Matta-Clark repaired the floor, and then adorned the repair with “a grave for the tree with a silver line dug out of the cement in the shape of the tree,” Goodden recalls.⁸ Similarly, Lew permitted Marjorie Strider to create a work in his living loft above 112 Workshop. To execute Building Work #1, 1970, Strider poured “brightly colored plastic foam” that congealed as it oozed out of the double-hung, third-floor windows overlooking Greene Street. That this piece partly anticipates such works as Buren’s Within and Beyond the Frame, 1973, in which he hung his signature striped canvas panels from a cable extending out the window and across the street from the John Weber Gallery, attests to the breadth and depth of the critical reevaluation of space (including the spaces in which art appears) that was taking place during the first half of the 1970s.

Also consistent with the effort to recast the way art gets seen, 112 Workshop’s inaugural exhibition had neither an official opening date nor an announcement, and throughout the event’s unusually long run (October–December 1970), the seventeen participants periodically changed, withdrew, or replaced their works. Indeed, when a George Trakas sculpture collapsed, Lew and Trakas decided to leave it as it had fallen.⁹ Beck aptly summarizes the improvisational circumstances: “The exhibition was a process hosted and enabled by 112 Workshop.”¹⁰

Tina Girouard, Carol Goodden, and Gordon Matta-Clark in front of the restaurant Food, corner of Prince and Wooster Streets, New York, 1971. Photo: Richard Landry.

But the social implications of the gallery’s spatial aesthetics were perhaps realized most fully with the opening one year later of Food, the artist-run restaurant at 127 Prince Street. After collaborating with Matta-Clark on a series of dance and film events, Goodden resolved to open a restaurant “along cooperative lines.” She approached Matta-Clark, who designed the space, and for three years they operated Food along with Girouard, Suzanne Harris, and Rachel Lew. The previous tenant at 127 Prince had been a Spanish-American luncheonette (“Comidas Criollas” read the sign outside), which for years had served Latino/a workers—whose employment by the area’s small manufacturers and warehouses was then in jeopardy, along with the rest of Manhattan’s declining manufacturing base.

Four decades later, it is difficult to conceive of just how small and discrete the SoHo art scene was then. When Food opened, it was the only convivial, nonalcoholic locale where the area’s artists, dancers, musicians, and writers could meet for inexpensive, nourishing meals. Prepared and served cafeteria-style by artists in its airy, well-lit, informal space, Food’s offerings included a changing array of homemade soups, hearty breads, salads, desserts, coffee, and the like. The restaurant also provided temporary employment for members of the arts community. “For a limited number of people and during a brief period of time,” Beck writes, “112 Workshop and Food offered a viable alternative to the presentational apparatuses and support systems of the traditional art world. . . . The spaces . . . became, at least for those actively involved, a means of production.” ¹¹


BECK ARGUES so effectively that a more expansively defined “politics” was endemic to 112 Workshop’s spatial aesthetics that it comes as something of a surprise when critic and art historian Francis Frascina notes that in the late 1960s and early ’70s, “the difference between what artists produced and what they claimed was their politics . . . was at a volatile pitch.”¹² In this respect alone, perhaps, Minimalists and post-Minimalists agreed with the famously anti-Minimalist critic Michael Fried, whose “Art and Objecthood” had appeared in Artforum in Summer 1967. Consistent with the modernist quest for aesthetic purity, Minimalist skepticism ruled out the possibility that artists such as Donald Judd and Carl Andre, for example (both members of the Art Workers’ Coalition, though Judd quit shortly after joining and went on to publicly criticize the group), would have allowed political protest to inform their art, any more than they would have permitted popular imagery to infiltrate it. With the Art Strike Against War, Repression, and Racism in 1970, the tension reached something of a climax. Lucy Lippard registered her disappointment with what she then regarded as Judd’s relative nonparticipation at weekly meetings of the AWC, and alluded sarcastically to what she considered to be his reluctance to support, much less participate in, the group’s actions. “[Judd] says that those museums ‘who refuse [to talk with artists] can be struck’; by whom? Judd and the rest of the art community’s silent majority?”¹³ Judd and other Minimalists were not alone in maintaining a firewall between their art and their politics; the post-Minimalists and process artists associated with 112 Workshop did so as well.¹⁴ “112 had no political interests,” Lew insists. “It was a free space where an artist could come in unknown, without a resume, and have a show.”¹⁵ Workshop regular Richard Nonas concurs: “We didn’t go there because it was a social experiment. We were really restless and impatient and we had work to get out then.”¹⁶ “We had been protesting all our lives,” Girouard asserts. “We had had Cuba in high school, the Viet Nam War, the Civil Rights movement. By the time we reached maturity and were out of the universities ready to be artists, we were finished with protest. We just wanted to make our work.”¹⁷

Invitation for Paula Cooper’s inaugural exhibition, benefit for the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, New York, October 1968.

THE BOUNDARY separating commercial galleries from the spaces associated with the alternative arts movement may have been more permeable than Beck’s phrase “presentational apparatuses and support systems of the traditional art world” suggests. Ironically, some engagements with the explicit politics of the day fell to one (admittedly unusual) commercial operation—the Paula Cooper Gallery (PCG). Two years before 112 Workshop opened its doors, Paula Cooper opened her gallery in a third-floor space at 96 Prince Street, near Greene. PCG enjoyed the “traditional art world” status of being a for-profit, private enterprise with regularly scheduled exhibitions of works by artists chosen by its proprietor, which the gallery formally announced. Given Cooper’s background in running the cooperative Park Place Gallery, and the nature of advanced art during the early 1970s, it is not surprising that, in appealing to the small public for contemporary art, Cooper also hosted dance, music, and literary events. In 1973, the gallery staged the first of its marathon New Year’s Eve readings of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, which alternated for a few years in the ’90s with readings of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, until the practice finally came to an end in 2000.¹⁸

Cooper did not show politically oriented works by such artist-activists as Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, Rudolf Baranik, and May Stevens, all of whom were producing work at the time, but her gallery did engage in other practices that may confound assumptions of contemporary readers regarding the presumed differences between “alternative” and “mainstream” spaces. PCG opened on October 23, 1968, in a space that was neither raw (by 112 Workshop standards) nor refined (by uptown white-cube standards). Its construction—the erection of Sheetrock walls, for example—did not occur all at once. Cooper recalls that when she had resources she hired artists to do construction. “I would build a wall,” she says. “The next year, if I had a little more money I’d build another wall.”¹⁹ In a still more striking departure from what one might expect from a privately owned, for-profit gallery, the inaugural show was a benefit for the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. The exhibition had a simply designed announcement whose style was consistent with the rigorous, pared-down aesthetic of the fourteen participating artists. In addition to listing the exhibition’s title, location, date, and time, along with other details that now seem as quaint as they are remote—“Opening tuesday, october 22, 1968, 5-8 pm (party 7-12 pm $2.50 per head / with wine and band)”—the twice-folded card featured a text credited to Lippard, Minimalist painter Robert Huot, and peace activist Ron Wolin, which unambiguously asserted the political purpose of the opening exhibition.

These 14 non-objective artists are against the war in Vietnam. They are supporting this commitment in the strongest manner open to them, by contributing major examples of their current work. The artists and the individual pieces were selected to represent a particular esthetic attitude, in the conviction that a cohesive group of important works makes the most forceful statement for peace. ²⁰

Perhaps the key phrase in this statement is “in the strongest manner open to them.” Forty years later, two decades after the AIDS crisis engendered an overtly activist response, the notion that the “strongest manner open to artists” to support political objectives is to offer works for sale to benefit activists measures the breadth of the historical fissure that has opened between then and now regarding art’s activist potential.²¹ For example, by the late 1980s, artists’ responses to AIDS had become a focal point of special exhibitions and events at, among other mainstream and alternative spaces, White Columns (then in its third space, on Christopher Street, having changed its name in 1979 with a prior move to Spring Street) under Bill Arning’s directorship.

But it makes little sense to apply the critique of artists’ charitable donations retroactively in relation to Huot, Lippard, and Wolin’s argument for the political significance that they attributed to the donation of “major works” in economic and symbolic support of explicitly political goals. It is also important to note that Cooper’s decision to use her gallery to support political causes was not a one-shot deal. An exhibition organized by Lippard titled “Number 7”—a benefit for the AWC—opened in May 1969. More than once, Cooper opened her gallery to AWC meetings; and as 112 Workshop was getting started during the fall of 1970, PCG was exhibiting another benefit show, titled “Art for Peace.” Ever since, the gallery has from time to time continued to host special events keyed to explicitly political objectives.²² When asked why, in her opinion, 112 Workshop had so rarely staged politically oriented events, Cooper replied that such events would have been off-limits to Lew, who depended on public sources of funding to support the space.²³

Indeed, funding sources did have an effect, but not quite in the way one might think. Lew turned to public arts funding only in 1973, after Alan Saret’s uncle, Kurt Wasserman, withdrew his backing, at which point 112 Workshop did have to adapt to the guidelines of arts granting agencies—not by engaging in self-censorship, but by implementing more regular hours of operation, limiting exhibitions to more conventional duration, and providing advance notice of exhibition opening and closing dates. But the participating artists’ determination to maintain the boundary between their art and explicitly defined political issues survived the institutional adjustment, even as the political context in which they worked, and the implications of the art they made, were undermining that boundary’s viability.

View of benefit exhibition for the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, October 1968. Foreground: Carl Andre; background: Doug Ohlson

AT THE SAME TIME, there were different circumstances in which art, politics, and art’s public intersected, giving rise to differently conceived spaces and to different kinds of conflicts. Even as Lew and his collaborators shaped the kind of space for art that they found otherwise lacking—and even as Cooper was consolidating a program combining politically oriented special events with advanced art, music, dance, and literature—women, Black, Latino, and Asian artists were responding to their cultural, social, and economic disenfranchisement by forming activist groups (some of which originated as subgroups within the AWC) such as the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (1968–69), Women Artists in Revolution (WAR), the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee, Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation, the Puerto Rican Art Workers, and United Black and Puerto Rican Artists. Such groups helped lay the groundwork for the emergence of cooperative, artist-run spaces such as New York’s first independent women’s cooperative gallery, A.I.R. (founded 1972), and community-based museums and cultural centers such as the Studio Museum in Harlem (1968), El Taller Boricua (1969), and El Museo del Barrio (1969).

The history of El Museo del Barrio is marked by tensions between the community it was founded to serve and the ambitions of administrators, boards of directors, and curators determined to attain for this different kind of alternative space a status that went beyond the self-imposed cultural limitations of a community-based museum. This tension has remained a prominent aspect of El Museo’s history ever since its founding, and has resulted most recently in the ambivalent and sometimes outraged responses of East Harlem residents to El Museo’s heightened visibility, refinement, and sophistication, as its administrators have striven to achieve for it the status of New York’s preeminent museum of Latin American art. This clash was perhaps never starker than in the wake of its yearlong publicly funded renovation, culminating in a widely publicized reopening in 2009. At stake has been nothing less than El Museo’s identity, its institutional mission in relation to the community that helped to found it, and the question of whose needs it was formed to serve.

It was during the late ’60s that Puerto Rican parents, teachers, and community activists in Central and East Harlem demanded cultural enrichment programs for the neighborhood’s public school children that would acknowledge and affirm their cultural heritage. In 1969, Martin W. Frey, superintendent of School District 4, responded to community outcry by appointing the charismatic Ralph Ortiz to address the problem of providing appropriate teaching materials throughout District 4’s public schools. Instead of doing so, Ortiz founded El Museo del Barrio, which—consistent with its origins in a struggle over public education—opened first in a classroom at PS 125 at 425 West 123rd Street before moving within months to PS 206 in East Harlem. Here, it mounted its first exhibitions—the prescient “Art of Needlework” (El Museo would continue to celebrate Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and Latin American craft traditions, along with ritualistic and religious practices, up through the present day) and a small survey of Puerto Rican paintings and graphics. Over the next nine years, El Museo moved from a brownstone on East 116th Street to a row of Third Avenue storefronts, and from there to a defunct firehouse on East 104th Street, before finally moving into the space that it still occupies in the city-owned Heckscher Building—a former orphanage at 1230 Fifth Avenue. Ortiz first articulated El Museo’s mission in terms of a “neighborhood museum of Puerto Rican culture,” a statement that he has since had occasion to revisit, expand, and clarify.

It is difficult to ascertain how the founding of El Museo compared to that of the downtown galleries discussed here, with respect to the challenges being posed to the conventionally produced spaces in which art gets made and seen, and the manner in which such spaces attract publics. Certain aspects of Ralph Ortiz’s own history as an artist help to bridge that gap. Subsequent to the wave of protests and exhibitions associated with the Artists Protest group’s “Angry Arts Week” in winter 1967, the Judson Gallery reopened for the first time since 1962, under the leadership of artist Jon Hendricks. In October 1967, Hendricks, who as a conscientious objector had been working at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village to fulfill his community service obligations, staged what he billed as “12 Evenings of Manipulations” at the Judson Gallery. The first night was devoted to Destruction Room and Brainwash, events conceived by Ralph Ortiz aimed at creating environments to supposedly cleanse visitors’ minds of “their most destructive and aggressive urges.”²⁴ As if under the combined influence of Georges Bataille’s theory of economic expenditure and Wilhem Reich’s then popular primal psychotherapy, Ortiz devised a situation to encourage visitors to get in touch with, and exorcise, their aggressions by destroying the contents of a room: “furniture, china, bric-à-brac, clothing, pictures of loved and hated ones, magazines such as Reader’s Digest, Life, Time and Playboy.” In 1966, Ortiz, who had made a name for himself with his “destructivist” performances (a subgroup of the neo-avant-gardist movement most widely and infamously associated with Hermann Nitsch and the Viennese Actionists), participated in the Destruction in Art Symposium at the Africa Centre in London, which addressed the “element of destruction in Happenings and other art forms, and . . . relate[d] this to destruction in society.”²⁵ Two years after staging Destruction Room and Brainwash, Ortiz founded El Museo del Barrio.

Ortiz’s mission statement reflected his own experience growing up in a “typical disenfranchised Puerto Rican family,” his mother a garment worker, his father an elevator operator. Being a cosmopolitan vanguard artist with ties to performance art in general and to international Actionism in particular, Ortiz also understood the importance of establishing “a practical alternative to the orthodox museum, which fails to meet my needs.”²⁶ Over the decades, as Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and Latin American immigration to the mainland US has increased exponentially, and as such communities have grown more economically diverse, El Museo has struggled to reconcile the tension between its originally stated mission as a community-based, Puerto Rican museum with an activist emphasis on outreach and education, and the sense that El Museo should be an art museum, albeit one with deep roots in its geographic, social, cultural, and historical preconditions. El Museo’s various boards of trustees have approved no fewer than four mission statements since the institution’s founding (in 1969, 1994, 1996, and 2000) without ever reconciling the structural conflict over its institutional identity. According to the most recent statement, El Museo’s mission “is to present and preserve the art and culture of Puerto Ricans and all Latin Americans in the United States.” A recent survey shows that 52 percent of El Museo’s visitors are Latino/a and 48 percent are not, which only partly accounts for the delicate balance between activist goals and aesthetic ambitions that the institution has had to maintain.

However, there is another issue at stake here that may not be reflected adequately in debates stressing the institution’s original focus on the support and promotion of Puerto Rican art and culture. During her twelve years (1990–2002) as curator and then executive director at El Museo, Susana Torruella Leval was responsible for reorganizing and upgrading El Museo’s permanent collection, and for improving the level of scholarship that frames both the collection and temporary exhibitions. Torruella Leval notes a “pendulum swing” throughout El Museo’s history and understands it in terms of the oscillating emphasis on outreach and education (its activist mission) versus its role as an art museum.²⁷

To this day, community activists’ view of El Museo remains at odds with that of others who envision it as a world-class museum.²⁸ Amid the hoopla accompanying the reopening of El Museo subsequent to its recent “makeover” (the most elaborate in its history), Ortiz, now in his mid-seventies, performed a small-scale “destruction” piece for one of the celebratory observances. He reportedly sat on a stool before a small table on which he sledgehammered toy pianos to smithereens; all but one, which he handed to Julián Zugazagoitia, El Museo’s suave, Mexican-born, Paris-educated executive director. On that toy piano Ortiz had inscribed “Thank you for bringing the Museo to life in the world.” Expanding on the meaning of this enigmatic inscription in the context of a discussion of the recent tensions that attended El Museo’s renovation, Ortiz told the New York Times that “it doesn’t make sense to remain forever underclass. Culture has the right to move out of the barrio too”—just as Ortiz himself did. Ortiz’s mission for El Museo was, he said, “for Puerto Rican culture to be integrated into Latino culture and then into the larger world culture.”

Miniature piano with inscription by El Museo del Barrio founder Ralph Ortiz, given to El Museo executive-director Julián Zugazagoitia on the occasion of the reopening of the museum in 2009.

EL MUSEO’S quest to help Puerto Rican art and artists move beyond the cultural confines of the barrio and into the cosmopolitanism of the larger art world stands in stark contrast to those 350 aspiring art stars who last summer hoped to leapfrog, via reality TV notoriety, over the spaces and communities of art altogether. Then again, perhaps it is not entirely accurate to claim that Work of Art resides so completely outside the confines of the art world—and not only because the program’s judges are art-world insiders. Indeed, the show—a tissue of unreconstructed myth and cliché—is a farcical result of market and cultural forces that over the course of the past half century have driven ever larger audiences toward ever more industrialized, or merely hackneyed, forms of art. The unprecedented sums of speculative capital that have gushed into art over the past several decades have emerged in tandem with a media-abetted star system whose mechanisms mirror other, larger forms of celebrity worship. Even White Columns has recently engaged in a mild flirtation with celebrity cachet—albeit a relatively minor and undercapitalized form restricted to the microcommunity it attracts. I refer here to installations such as “Male,” which featured selections from Vince Aletti’s collection, and the “Collection of . . .” shows, which sampled art from the holdings of such art-world denizens as Linda Yablonsky and Clarissa Dalrymple. Of course, this is not to say that White Columns does not continue to mount challenging, inspirational shows. And it must be said that from the perspective of mindless celebrification, Paula Cooper’s perseverance with showing more or less rigorous, often Minimal or Conceptually based art still stands out as a stimulating, well, alternative to big-business showmanship; as does El Museo del Barrio in its current mission as the preeminent center of education and display for Puerto Rican and Latin American art in New York.

But, thankfully, not all aspiring artists are queuing up to compete for their fifteen minutes of opportunistic fame. No Longer Empty and 25CPW, to cite two of the many artist-run ventures currently operating in New York, demonstrate the persistence, particularly among young artists, of the independent model, and its continuing capacity for reshaping contemporary art, its spaces, and its publics along alternate lines—not unlike the way things happened during the early years of 112 Workshop. These artists have taken advantage of the economic downturn to occupy vacant commercial spaces where they work collaboratively to stage exhibitions of their own work and the work of other artists with whom they want to engage in dialogue. They also mount public projects, thematic exhibitions that often address explicit political or social issues, and shows commenting critically on big-budget mainstream exhibitions.²⁹ Here, in keeping with a noble and perhaps timeless artistic impulse, young artists are shaping spaces of exception, and in small, symbolic ways, remodeling cultural practices and social relations, to change the art world, if not the world, as we know it.

David Deitcher is an independent art historian, critic, and curator based in New York.


1. Jeffrey Lew, quoted in Robyn Brentano and Mark Savitt, eds., 112 Workshop/ 112 Greene Street: History, Artists & Artworks (New York: New York University Press, 1981), viii.

2. See Martin Beck, “Alternative: Space,” in Julie Ault, ed., Alternative Art New York, 1965-1985 (New York: Drawing Center; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 256.

3. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Cambridge, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1991) 15.

4. During the spring of 1971, these issues had been brought into especially sharp focus when Thomas Messer, then director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, cancelled a long-planned Hans Haacke exhibition because of the artist’s intention to show Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971. That cancellation provoked a highly revealing debate concerning the limits of what should be displayed inside the allegedly neutral space of the museum. For a cogent analysis of that debate, see Rosalyn Deutsche, “Property Values: Hans Haacke, Real Estate, and the Museum,” in Deutsche, ed., Eviction: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 159–94.

5. See Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009).

6. Beck, 256.

7. Brentano and Savitt, viii.

8. Ibid., 6.

9. Prior to the inaugural show, Trakas approached Lew for permission to construct a piece in the basement. Lew, who at that moment was welding his own sculpture, turned Trakas down, arguing that the space was already too crowded. A few days later, Trakas returned in his truck with the elements required to build his piece. Known as ⇄, the sculpture comprised a delicate wood and wire structure supporting a tall, rectangular piece of tempered glass standing on one end with a pile of sawdust at its base. A taut rope fastened outside the basement window to a wall in the airshaft secured the precarious whole. When a rainstorm soaked the rope, causing it to tighten, the entire piece came crashing down, the glass shattering into a glittering mass of tiny cubes. Trakas and Lew both liked it in its collapsed state and decided to leave it as it lay. The inaugural exhibition also included works by Bill Beckley, Bill Bollinger, David Bradshaw, James Brown, Rafael Ferrer, Lee Jaffe, Barry Le Va, Lew, Matta-Clark, Brenda Miller, Larry Miller, Richard Nonas, Doug Sanderson, Saret, Marjorie Strider, and Richard van Buren. See Brentano and Savitt, 10.

10. Beck, 252.

11. Ibid., 256.

12. See Francis Frascina, Art, Politics and Dissent: Aspects of the Art Left in Sixties America (New York: Manchester University Press, 1999), 141.

13. The Art Strike occurred in response to the invasion of Cambodia, news of the My Lai Massacre, and the killings at Kent State and Jackson State. See Lucy R. Lippard, “The Art Workers’ Coalition: Not a History” (1970), in Lippard, Get the Message: A Decade of Art for Social Change (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1974), here quoted in Frascina, 141.

14. Perhaps in response to the strike, Artforum published “The Artist and Politics: A Symposium,” in which artists were asked to respond to a number of questions concerning the relationship between their art and their politics. Among the varied responses, Judd advocated the separation of art from politics. Artforum (September 1970), here quoted in Frascina, 140.

15. Brentano and Savitt, vii.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., xii.

18. During an early Jennifer Bartlett exhibition, audiences could attend two evenings of solo performances by Deborah Hay. Would a different public have attended the “informal” concerts by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center during January and February 1978? Or concerts by Petr Kotik and his S.E.M. Ensemble during the 1990s? In 1986, “The Law and Order Show” celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of the United States Constitution and the twentieth anniversary of the Center for Constitutional Rights with performances by, among others, Trisha Brown, David Cale, and Mabou Mines. Unpublished document from Paula Cooper Gallery, “Special Events at PCG” (October 2009), n.p.

19. Michelle Amateau, “Interview: Paula Cooper,” Ocular (June 1977), 29.

20. Robert Huot, Lucy Lippard, Ron Wolin, “BENEFIT / FOR THE STUDENT / MOBILIZATION / COMMITTEE / TO END THE / WAR IN VIETNAM,” announcement in the archives of the Paula Cooper Gallery. Many thanks to Steve Henry and Jamie Goldblatt for their help in my research.

21. “Raising money is the most passive response of cultural practitioners to social crisis, a response that perpetuates the idea that art itself has no social function (aside from being a commodity), that there is no such thing as an engaged, activist aesthetic practice.” Douglas Crimp, “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,” in Crimp, ed., AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), 6–7.

22. Late in 1991, during some of the darkest days of the AIDS crisis in New York, PCG joined with Matthew Marks Gallery in hosting exhibitions to benefit ACT UP/NY. In 2005, when the US Department of Justice determined to jail Critical Art Ensemble founding member Steve Kurtz and his associate Robert Ferrell for everything from planning biochemical terror attacks to mail fraud, the gallery (with artist Sam Durant) hosted a benefit auction to support their ultimately successful legal defense.

23. Interview with the author, August 12, 2009.

24. See Frascina, 130 ff.

25. Ibid., 131.

26. Ortiz quoted in Deborah Sontag, “Beyond the Barrio, with Growing Pains,” New York Times (October 11, 2009), 27.

27. Interview with the author, October 15, 2009.

28. The community’s sensitivity to El Museo’s ambitions, to the possibility of the institution’s betraying its founding community, surfaced yet again as a result of an administrative gaffe during the renovation of its space. Zugazagoitia, El Museo’s first non–Puerto Rican director, eliminated a $3,500 line item reading “Camels” from El Museo’s operating budget. The line item referred to the animals for which El Museo had been paying for over thirty years as part of its annual participation in the traditional Three Kings Day Parade through East Harlem. Community activists took El Museo’s refusal to pay for renting the animals as proof of its betrayal of the community that had brought it into being, and that it was mandated to serve. See Sontag, 27.

29. My current favorite project is 25CPW’s “The Artist Is Absent,” a rogue performance art epic, which over Memorial Day weekend this year posited a queer corrective to MoMA’s somewhat dispiriting Marina Abramović retrospective. For more information on this event, see: