New York

Ida Applebroog

The irony of Ida Applebroog’s two-part exhibition is that the actions motivating her withdrawal of the Past Events installation from its context, the Great Hall of the New York Chamber of Commerce, perfectly illustrated her themes. Applebroog’s obsession with vulnerability, with awkward or impeded communication, and with alienation, as they color the spectrum of social relationships, was in this instance brought into play in the terrain of artist’s rights. And the specific gist of her gallery showing—the massive conservative revival now invading and altering our culture—was reinforced by the mélange of mismanagement and direct or indirect censorship by the space-providing and sponsoring agencies.

Current Events involved Applebroog’s now-standard means of presentation (books, vellum proscenium stages and windows, paintings and etchings), to which she added a new form—small sculptures depicting park-bench scenarios—and a new, overtly political theme. However, these changes do not shift the operative process of her scenarios, but merely move the underlying thrust of her social comment into a more explicit register. Thus the same conventional, familiarized images are presented in multiple sequences, barely altered so as to arrest the narrative flow. To the diagrammatic figures placed against neutral backgrounds is added, in some cases, a sparse, politically charged text; in others, an explicitly conservative “character-type” is introduced. Thus the drawn-out, seemingly unchanging drama of two young women, one lying in bed, the other standing, features the comment, “He says abortion is murder.” “Why else did God give us the Bomb?” runs the caption under an image of three portly, complacent, business-suited men, perfect paragons of the Moral Majority. A large single-panel painting shows a bevy of cutesy showgirls, scanty-panty-clad, aligned on stage for inspection. Elsewhere smaller scenes are intercut within large paintings to function as reveries or memories, flash-forwards or flashbacks, devices for implicit, though ambiguous, comparisons. I Can’t, for example, shows a woman being consoled by an older woman; within the window to the side is a view of a woman held at gunpoint by a faceless man. Elsewhere the innuendos of sexual violence, sexism, and stereotype are differently aligned, as in the double voyeurism of the twin-windowed Trinity Towers where we, as viewers, look through a window at two nude seated men staring, through the separate window of the other panel, at another man being hanged. Or supposedly so . . . for, as with the relations Applebroog poses between domestic drama and political strife (which force the viewer to intervene in the elaboration of connections), it is unclear whether we are watching one or two separate scenes.

The slowed-down, barely perceptible time of these works functions as a metaphor for the pervasive, retarding, often stymieing force of social structures. The works show Applebroog’s skill at handling two different modes of projection. One is that of spectator participation; the viewer is cast as voyeur, projecting his or her eye (and hence emotions) into the familiar intimacies of the window pieces, or into the paradoxically private park-bench scenes. But the works also function as devices for psychological projection, for the investment of the viewer’s attitudes and sentiments. The characterization of the personae is at once so minimal, generalized, and sharp in its political specificity as to magnetize the wealth of pervasive, often ambiguous approaches that comprise the tenor of a period. That’s what furnishes the political power of these pieces; they function as barometric tools.

I would venture that precisely this projective capacity ensured the downfall of the public work. Installed in the Chamber of Commerce, Past Events was commissioned and sponsored by one of the city’s most laudable art agencies, Creative Time. And viewed in the context of recent political art, it was neither offensive nor particularly outrageous; rather, its powers were generalized and barometric of conservative fears. Briefly, it consisted of a three-foot-high plaster statue figuring a garlanded 19th-century maiden, which was placed among the 200 portraits of distinguished men already lining the Chamber walls. A cartoonlike blurb from her mouth read “Gentlemen, America is in trouble.” The men responded with a variety of ideologically similar remarks: “You Can Never Be Too White.” “It’s a Jewish Plot.” “You Are Differently Developed.” “Isn’t Capitalism Working?”

It’s difficult to sort out the relations between the motivations and the action surrounding the installation’s fate. Applebroog had been invited and commissioned by Creative Time to execute the work in the space, officially administered by the Chamber of Commerce. She had also been apprised that, in this as in other situations, there might be problems arising from the “offensiveness” of its political content. On November 9 at 4 p.m., scarcely one hour after installation had begun, Applebroog was informed that the work would be taken down immediately after the public opening, scheduled to begin one hour later, since some branch or board of the Chamber (its precise nature was never specified) was to meet there the following morning. At 8 p.m. the work was removed; it was reinstalled the following day. Five days later, on November 15, it was again taken down as stated in the original schedule (according to previously agreed terms the show was scheduled to break from November 16–22, since the space had been rented out for the period; it was to reopen to the public on November 23 at noon). On November 22 Applebroog was again informed that the space had been rented for the 23rd. When she returned to the Chamber on the afternoon of the 24th to approve the installation she found the space still closed to the public, disarranged and altered by the hanging of additional portraits—changes which left no room for the blurbs as originally placed. Faced with these changes, the obstruction of public access, and the general mismanagement of the situation by Chamber officials, Applebroog wrote a letter to Creative Time and removed her work.

The artist stated in her letter that although the idea of a ghost work which, under “censorship,” appeared and disappeared with the meetings of the Board, appealed to her sense of irony, she felt compelled on moral and protective grounds to withdraw it. She also said in conversation that she wished by her artist-initiated action to force the sponsoring agency to take a stand, for neither Creative Time nor the Chamber adequately explained the play of actions and sentiments that underlay the event. Officials claim, retrospectively, to have liked the work, but I personally doubt such approval of the specific comments coming from the (figured) likes of John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Mellon. But the situation is not a simple illustration of censorship, whether intentional or indirectly promoted through mismanagement. Rather, it indicates a significant failure on the part of one of the city’s most responsible funding services to adequately represent the artist’s rights, either by informing her as to a course of action or by intervening on her behalf. It also indicates that agency’s fragility during a time of rising conservatism—a fragility made doubly palpable by its responsibilities to sponsor other artists. And it indicates a failure by state, city, and private sources to take individual artistic expression seriously when they embark on public sponsorship. Given these complexities, framed by the new conservative revival, it is not unexpected that Past Events would find its place within the gallery, as an analogue to Applebroog’s political repartie.

Kate Linker