New York

“Alternatives in Retrospect”

“The narratives of the world are numberless,” says Roland Barthes. They subsume “a prodigious variety of genres . . . as though any material were fit to receive man’s stories.” Take the New Museum’s Alternatives in Retrospect, a survey of seven alternative spaces in New York during 1969 and the early ’70s: Gain Ground, Apple, 98 Greene Street, 112 Greene Street Workshop, 10 Bleecker Street, Idea Warehouse, and 3 Mercer. Whether video, process, site-specific, or documentary, most of the works here talk a lot, with even the most perceptual pieces, such as Nancy Holt’s and Cecile Abish’s, radiating a halo of cognitive commentary. What unites the various stories they tell and the arguments they make is a fairly similar mood or point of view, which reveals a great deal about the years 1969–75.

The prevailing mood is declarative. The detached, pseudoscientific voice of extended Minimalism, the most rational and orderly of all possible tones—that’s the inflection of the fact-finding reports of Christopher McNeur and Vito Acconci. Yet McNeur’s litany, without comment, of crime statistics for 1962–72 implies a wrenched society. And Acconci’s documentation of Room Piece, 1970, in which the contents of his apartment were moved to the Gain Ground gallery and then, at his suggestion, removed to the homes of the various viewer/participants, involves a systematic dissipation of significance. First, Acconci labels actions transitive or intransitive, thus demoting people and things to subjects and objects, literally grammatical categories. Then the phrase “may be stolen from” is examined as a self-destructing concept: if you are permitted to “steal” you are no longer “stealing”; permission is not needed for something not forbidden; consequently, the entire statement negates itself. Acconci uses language to demolish language and achieves freedom (from transgression and punishment) at the price of destroying meaning.

The same is true of Eleanor Antin’s dispassionate biographies, California Lives, 1970, and Portraits of Eight New York Women, 1970. Anecdotes offered without explanation or obvious connecting thread, but with minute detail, intimate a raconteur so detached that her stance becomes obscure—is she approving or ironic? There is a sort of void where one ordinarily looks for guidance, an anxiety of suspended sense.

One of the surprises of the show was seeing the seedlings of the cash crops of new imagism and decorative art sprouting in the soil of alternative spaces: Neil Jenney, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Susan Hall, and Brad Davis at 98 Greene Street, and Tina Girouard at 112 Greene Street Workshop. Even these samples of reemergent physicality, however, often rival their colleagues in sangfroid. The deadpan delivery of Girouard’s linoleum-and-wallpaper installation Walls Wallpaper II, 1973—deadpan because indistinguishable from the real thing—is saturated with the kind of muteness that opened up the decorative (rightly or wrongly) to charges of mindlessness and unconscionable cultural shoplifting, and that may have led to the rash of “dumb” art of the past few years.

None of the narratives in “Alternatives” is “told from the viewpoint of wisdom and experience and listened to from the viewpoint of order,” as Jean-Paul Sartre once characterized the 19th-century novel. When the “I” of autobiography occurs, it doesn’t establish an identity, it undermines it—as in Larry Miller’s documentation of his attempt to “become” his mother during six weekly sessions with a hypnotist in Mom-Me, 1973. Larry, as his mother, talks about Larry as a child growing up—a perfect case of the unreliable narrator. And if exploration of a personal past, however distorted. is dignified as social science, history itself is thumbed through and thumbed at. The rats on Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt’s altar in Panis Angelicus, 1973, are directly iconoclastic; so are the materials he uses. Robert Kushner’s video, Masque of Monuments, 1973, substitutes barely varying imitations of sundry natural wonders (such as the Grand Canyon) for the lavish spectacles of past masques. These are performed by Kushner and his company rigged out in tarps of plastic, foam rubber, and (no doubt synthetic) mohair. So much for one of tradition’s premier expressions of the alliance of culture and power.

It’s not that the selections in this retrospective lack a sense of duration and are cut off from the past or the future. Rather, they remind one of the protagonist in the Indian folktale who, running from a charging elephant, jumps into a well. He clutches at the lowest branches of a tree growing at the edge of the well to keep from falling. The elephant butts at the tree from above. And from below comes the sound of rodents—quite possibly relatives of Lanigan-Schmidt’s rats—gnawing at the roots.

What’s interesting is that most of the participants have survived what they evidently considered a moment of crisis, the best known of them by managing to affiliate themselves with commercial galleries. As a result, one of the misleading inferences one might draw from this show is that the alternative space functioned not so much as an alternative, but as a talent scout—an idea that has enough currency as it is. Certainly the documentation (well done here, I think) of organizations no longer in existence is more pressing than the documentation of those that are. But, one of the unfortunate side effects of showcasing only defunct spaces, and only defunct New York spaces at that, is that it reinforces the mentality of the “one brief shining moment in one enchanted spot,” and undermines the self-sufficiency which was the point of artist-generated spaces in the first place. The alternative-gallery movement affected the entire country, may even have given regionalism the good name it enjoys presently, and continues to do so today. To suggest, however inadvertently, that it is dead seems unnecessarily defeatist in an era when Reaganomics make things difficult enough.

Jeanne Silverthorne