New York

Alan Saret, Kirstein Bates, Gerard Hovagimyan, Scott 
Billingsley, Willoughby Sharp, J.B. Cobb, Scott Johnson, Gianfranco 
Mantegna, Dick Miller, Stefan Eins, Lee Fer, Julia Heyward, Dara Birnbaum, 
Michael McClard, Dan Graham, Robin Win

Loft show at 597 Broadway

For years now downtown artists, particularly sculptors, have been premiering their work outside commercial galleries, be it in public-funded spaces like 112 Greene Street, Artists Space, The Kitchen, and The Clocktower, or in their own or a friend’s loft. (This isn’t the same as the cooperative gallery scene, which has lost vitality and media attention, and is limited to artists with some cash.) This season, Stefan Eins opened his studio, the 3 Mercer Street Store, for nine modest shows. At the same time, a group of artists brought together by Gerard Hovagimyan, Scott Billingsley, and Lee Fer, climaxed four months of meetings and discussions with a show of work in Billingsley’s loft at 597 Broadway. A friend of mine described both Eins’s Store and the 597 group as satellites of 112 Greene Street. Both operations involved artists who had come to expect an exhibition situation in which it was okay to knock a hole in the wall or tear up the floor, and both attracted essentially the same audience. But the 597 group had different aims. They set up a situation in which artists could get together at regular meetings to criticize each other’s work and plan the kind of show they wanted to have. What interested me was the particular nature of their collective ambition, an urge New York artists rarely seem to feel.

I asked Billingsley, Fer, and Hovagimyan, who make up what might be called the 597 central committee, to comment on this. Was it like a political party cell? A floating academy with them as professors? It was Hovagimyan’s idea to start the group, and of the three he was the most articulate about his hopes for it. “The gallery structure’s become tighter to work in than it had been,” he said,

112, Artists Space, and The Clocktower aren’t really open to experimentation. In fact, most of the people doing these highlights of younger artists are doing it not for the artists, but to get grants. Most artists in New York are very secluded. They have very little confrontation with other people. That doesn’t happen at parties. We were trying to break down this isolation. No more of this crazy garret shit. You can’t think you’re this individual heroic artist, and you’re going to take New York by storm. Instead, you’re an artist and you’ve got to talk to other artists. Otherwise you just fold in on yourself, and that’s no good.

Billingsley agreed. “We were trying to set up a situation that was conducive to interchange. We did experiments at the meetings. One meeting there were no chairs, and people became incredibly disoriented. Another time I didn’t talk, I just handed out cards.” “To confront a new space,” Hovagimyan said, “is to deal with that directly. To confront a group of people is to deal with them directly. If your work and your conviction is strong enough, it will stand up to other people’s criticism. If not, you’ll have to change.” Hovagimyan, whose work is broadly informed by Marxist ideology, said he’d hoped that a design group would emerge something like those formed by Russian artists during the 1918 Revolution. But Fer said, “There was no agreement on ideas about art, no evolution, no mutual influence. We couldn’t even agree on a title for the show.” “The circumstances of the show,” Billingsley added, “became the most important aspect of the group.” “They didn’t take advantage of an unusual situation,” Fer concluded. “They made it ordinary.” Still, the group plans to incorporate under the name Artists Experimental Information Service. Well, okay. But there aren’t so many new faces here. Most of the artists have shown at least once before, and a few are well known. Most of the good work was theirs. The committee’s rhetoric attracted me because I’m always intrigued when artists here show signs of schooling up. That didn’t really happen though, so perhaps the 597 group is really only another normal operation.

But to the show. Most people I’ve talked to about it had already been alienated from the group’s efforts by a February show of videotapes and performances at The Kitchen. So they were more than ready to point out that they blew it with this second show of sculpture and performance. On first take, the show was a schoolish mess. (Or you could say it immediately cashed in the option Borofsky offered with his littered installation.) Each artist picked out a spot in the loft and protected it with a sculpture which didn’t relate to the others. I got the feeling that each of the pieces really wanted its own room.

Alan Saret’s Tower of Silence beats this problem. You’ve got to climb up an industrial platform scaffold to lie on a horizontal rail with a folded blanket for a pillow. Once you’re lying on that rail, you can only see the ceiling and a view toward the windows. It was indeed quiet to lie there and feel that cold rail running beneath my back. I was stable, but still I had to balance and center myself to keep from rolling off. Like lying on a log or getting the top bunk at camp, Tower sets up an immediately accessible meditative experience of the kind that’s come to fascinate Saret since his return from India. Kirstein Bates’s 2’ x 1’ bare wooden box on the wall is so small it doesn’t have to compete with its larger neighbors in the show. A pinhole camera picture, barely an image, is pasted on the outside of the box. Inside, a tape recorder plays Bates’s barely audible mescaline-induced and mournful diatribe against her strict religious upbringing. Letters she read on the tape went into a shelf inset into the box, giving it something of the look of an “artist’s mailbox,” a Fluxus genre of small sculpture. I know she didn’t have that in mind. Hovagiman’s rectilinear cardboard shape suspended in mid-air by twine looks like an unfolding cake box space capsule. The angles of that shape, of course, determine where the twine had to be stuck onto the wall. So in a way, the piece binds up the space near the windows where it hangs—or sections it. Above the windows and aligned with the suspended shape, Hovagimyan placed a cardboard pavilion model on a shelf tipped as if about to fall. I like the futurism (not an evocation of that Italian style) of these works. The pavilion model, marked with a red star, represents the seed of monumental sculptural ambitions. But it’s also like Marxist pie in the sky, a dream shape served up out of reach.

A lot of the works were deliberately uncompleted at the time of the opening. Billingsley bustled about and made a lot of noise with his power saw, the very image of the artist as defiant prole. He uses the same light construction materials in his work as Longendyke, but Billingsley’s esthetic is Minimal perfect-build. The result of his labor that night is a waist-high slotted octagonal work with a vibrator in the bottom, like a tiny variant of his Induction. This daislike thing was described by one critic I spoke with as “a vibrating miniature Nauman.” Still, there was a line of folk at the opening waiting to get into it. Some crouched down, others stood as if in a pulpit. To get to this show you’ve got to climb up five flights of stairs, and during the opening Willoughby Sharp (alias “The Mighty Mogul”) was waiting at the top, walled up in the stairs to the roof and speaking through a microphone. Sharp addressed each visitor differently. Me he told to carry the message of the 597 show to the world. Soon after that the mike wiring came loose and a photographer emerged from behind the partition with a sheepish grin on her face. It was a real Wizard of Oz scenario, part of the exigencies of performance I guess.

Now some short takes: J.B. Cobb ruined a charming sculpture (a concrete block balancing a pane of glass and supported by two sticks skewering apples) by pasting a bunch of mad dog mottos, and quotes from a treatise on violence on the wall behind his thing. It seems to me that Cobb made too much of an effort and too fast to relate to what he took to be the “épatez-la-bourgeoisie” spirit of the show. Unlike say, Saul Ostrow, Cobb just didn’t mobilize his considerable formal talents behind his content. Three works made me feel, the strongest hangover from the dealing-with-the-space premise of Jean Dupuy’s “About 405 East 13th Street” group exhibition last year. Scott Johnson’s polaroids of the bare loft are stuck like spatial condensations in the middle of each window. Gianfranco Mantegna’s foot-wide fluorescent red diagonal stripes on the wall make a kind of perspective correction for the loft’s sloping ceiling. Dick Miller created genuine anger at the February show with his turkey piece—live birds, videotapes of slaughter, and himself with a razor—leading one fellow to tear down the enclosure to set the turkeys free. Miller’s sculpture consists of two facing open triangular enclosures with stripes of the colors on the building’s stairway painted on the floor. Dupuy hangover, overly cumbersome, and upstaged by Sharp’s dominion over the stairway. Stefan Eins showed mimeographs of a 1922 patent on a “device for shaping the upper lip.” He’s shown this before, and his inclusion in the show struck me as political.

At this point I must fall into hearsay. Lee Fer said she did a “mostly nonverbal exercise in communication and body positioning” at the opening, but I didn’t notice it. Julia Heyward (alias Duka Delight) did a competent video performance in the February show, kind of Joan Jonas-like with maybe a dash of Man Ray. Though she was on the announcement, she wasn’t in this show.

Dara Birnbaum’s ponderous installation of slide projections on two canvas screens broke down almost immediately. I’m told she projected slides of her trip to Europe on the vertical hanging screen, and photos of the loft before the show went up on the horizontal screen. Michael McClard’s piece spanned the room. A curving metal ribbon linked a painted poem on one wall, a round cage suspended over an assemblage on the floor, and another poem/book on the opposite wall. This, incidentally, was amended by an irritated visitor. McClard changed his work daily, playing out, I’m told, a drama in sculpture about a poker-game gunfight.

Two performances happened during the term of the show. One evening, Dan Graham performed a descriptive exercise. He alternated a hard-core empirical monologue about his own movements and sensations as a standing man with a similar description of audience members sitting down. The segments, each about ten minutes, followed one after another until Graham quit. It was a striking demonstration of the coextensiveness of performer and audience. Both are equal parts in that relationship where somebody gets up and does something. I’ve seen teachers use such a descriptive mode as a rhetorical device to provoke a class: “Johnny is chewing on his pencil and avoiding answering my question.” But Graham’s descriptions didn’t offer a resolution likeanswering his question. They engendered an absolute state of tension which struck me as some crystalline state of theater. I got an idea of an assembled group of people as this amazing field of potential action. This, like any situation, could have gone in any direction. I secretly hoped that someone would play the ass and upset this ironclad setup. But the audience was simply transfixed by its own objectification as Graham was telling it.

Robin Winters’s installation was up for part of the show—a wretched collage with a pile of street finds in front of it and a red cloth cylinder with a live mike hanging in the middle of the room. A quote from Foucault’s Madness and Civilization didn’t save it as sculpture. But that wasn’t important; Winters used this material as a set. As the audience milled around on the night of the performance, a tape played loud bird calls and a woman on the roof shouted, “Robin! Robin!” Okay. Soon Winters and three others ran in dressed like devils, nude, horned, and painted red from head to toe. The ensuing commedia-dell’-arte type antics climaxed with an offstage explosion after which the cast lined up and spit on the floor. This tightly paced performance wouldn’t have annoyed Aristophanes, nor would the walk-down-Broadway happening that Winters conducted at the Kitchen in February have much surprised Kaprow.

In writing about this show I’ve kind of averaged my responses with the near-unanimous disdain most of this group’s work has engendered in those I’ve talked to. It may be that their rhetoric and mode of organization are more interesting now than most of what they’ve done so far.

Alan Moore