New York

“A Decade of New Art”

Artists Space Exhibitions

The coincidence of this space’s commemoration of its ten years of existence and its move into new premises with the Museum of Modern Art’s reopening show, “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture,” illustrated why so-called “alternative” spaces came into being in the first place, and how little the decisions and attitudes of the major art institutions have changed since then. MoMA’s decision to restrict its selection to painting and sculpture was a sign that, however revamped the space, institutional thinking remains fixated on a traditional definition of art. It resists validation of the broad range of artists’ activities, and, more important, the responsibility to enlighten the public about the concepts with which artists are involved. Had the latter been a priority, the museum might not have found it necessary to exclude, for instance, a body of photographically based work important to the problematic of representation and the viewing subject’s inscription within it, and thus to the concerns of women artists.

The alternative space became necessary in part because the Modernist museum had become a mortuary, preserving only the remains of what a paternalistic institution thought proper to be autopsied. Where the Artists Space show itself might have been little more than a postmortem of its past (and while it could not include time-based media, which were deferred until a later date), by contrast to MoMAs homogenized selection it was an enthusiastic presentation in which work held its individuality and vitality. By including “then” and “now” works from each of its selected artists, it offered some insight into the variety of concepts and shifts in direction that have occurred over the past few years. Such a show did not, however, recover what had made the space “alternative”: its presentation of what was too experimental, ephemeral, or “off the wall” to be accommodated within the conservative framework of the museum or the economic one of the commercial gallery.

While many of the activities of alternative spaces have been lost to history, Artists Space recognized the importance of establishing a dialogue around work not located in a permanent object and, consequently, the importance of the catalogue as a temporal extension of the exhibition. This retrospective, therefore, should have provided an ideal position from which to write an “alternative” history of recent art and of the evolution of the attitudes the space supported before the museums or galleries understood, or even recognized, their validity. Unfortunately, an institutional amnesia seems to have infected the present catalogue text, revealing little of what gave Artists Space its specificity. A principle of “no principles” does not serve the context of art whose life depends on a discriminatory value system and on dialogue among antagonistic ideologies. Thus, to infer that Artists Space’s “political consciousness was low” is to forget its support of such frankly sociopolitically oriented artists as Michael Smith, Eric Bogosian, and Christy Rupp, and also to do no justice to the combativeness that made it a vital arena during the ’70s. Its initial mode of selection—work was to be chosen by artists—circumvented the exclusiveness of the curators and dealers, but engendered its own form of incestuousness; Helene Winer, appointed director in 1975, eliminated this problem by nominating organizers for group shows, and brought to bear a tough ideological bias and a sensitivity to the importance of the emerging “postconceptual” discourse. This gave the space its authority. Indeed, one of the most surprising omissions in the catalogue is an acknowledgment of the “Pictures” show of 1977, whose text, written by Douglas Crimp and reprinted in Flash Art and October, extended the usually parochial and marginal arena of the alternative space to an international audience. “Pictures” was among the most important contributions by any space to the development of American art in the ’80s, establishing an authentic identity against the seduction of a nostalgic European expressionism, and identifying work, such as Sherrie Levine’s and Jack Goldstein’s, that remains seminal to the understanding of our cultural and subjective relations to the image.

If Artists Space has itself become institutionalized it is because energy flows and attitudes change direction. Its role has been partially usurped by the East Village gallery, a different kind of alternative space serving an economic rather than an idealistic need. Nonetheless, Artists Space remains viable as a nurturing ground for the young and “unaffiliated” artist, and as a place for the perennially homeless time-based artwork.

Jean Fisher