New York

“Retrospective of Storefront”

Following a six-month period of reorganization, Storefront for Art and Architecture held its second “inaugural” exhibition, a group show assembled under the direction of Kyong Park featuring selections of work from exhibitions and projects that this experimental gallery has sponsored since opening in 1982. There is always the risk that such a roundup can be merely self-congratulatory, but this retrospective was unusual and forward-thinking. The exhibition was a serious critical appraisal of contemporary culture through the lens of the organization’s activities, presented through documentation, texts, photocopied images, and original works. An often stale format was stretched to new possibilities; it was a resource rather than a recollection.

During its short history Storefront has provided an open forum for artists and architects to present their work and to discuss the future of creative action as an agent for change in society. One of the most ambitious exhibitions was “Homeless at Home” (1985–86). Organized as a multidisciplinary activity, this yearlong project engaged creative artists to write essays, create public art, enact performances, and generate architectural ideas on housing the homeless. One particularly memorable episode in this project was the exhibition of photographs of New York’s homeless by Nancy Miller Elliot, some of which were on view for the retrospective. Elliot’s candid, painful photographs contain a level of lucidity and strength that is seen in all of Storefront’s endeavors; there is never the tendency to abstract or distance the problems and issues at hand. Instead of blunting the reasons for the original initiative behind any project, esthetics articulate the issues and arbitrate between public and private objectives.

Another major exhibition featured in the retrospective was “Adams’s House in Paradise” (1985). This exhibition focused on the circular garden designed and planted over a ten-year period by Adam Purple on an abandoned city-owned site on New York’s Lower East Side, which was about to be reclaimed by the city for public housing. Artists and architects were invited to submit plans that would satisfy the city’s need for increased housing at this site and, at the same time, save the garden. Storefront’s attempts to change the city’s plans proved futile and Purple’s garden is now gone, but the exhibition generated exceptional work. A small drawing by Elizabeth Diller and Richard Scofidio was an eloquent metaphysical inquiry into the tension between urban forms and natural processes; it commented both on Purple’s plight and on all cities, past and future. A drawing by Lebbeus Woods depicted a raised, circular, stepped design that provided housing, passage, and public space while preserving Purple’s garden as its nucleus. These two drawings from the original exhibition suggest the range of investigation in this and other exhibitions organized by Storefront. The work is provocative, challenging, risk-taking, and stylistically diverse.

Storefront has become a center for innovation, for art that is inherently involved with urban issues and public life. There is no other place in New York, or in most cities, that regularly operates as an active forum to examine the future of public, urban life through the activities of artists and architects throughout the world. This retrospective was as brave, fresh, and informative as the many exhibitions it recalled. The work selected represented an important moment in contemporary architecture and public art.

Patricia C. Phillips