New York

“Illegal America”

Exit Art

Chris Burden lies down on a California freeway surrounded by emergency flares; Gordon Matta-Clark carves a hole in the facade of a warehouse on the Hudson River; Louis Aragon writes an ill-timed poem about the Russian Revolution; and Charlotte Moorman plays the cello topless. Each of these acts, and many others staged by the 36 artists included in this thought-provoking exhibition, was deemed “illegal” by the reigning authorities. In some instances their creators were arrested or fined, though in most cases charges were dropped as prosecutors wallowed in a mire of slippery terms and legal technicalities.

Most of the work here, which ranged in date from the beginning of the century to the present, was originally seen in a 1982 exhibition of the same title. Recent political impingements on cultural expression motivated curators Jeanette Ingberman and Papo Colo to update and restage the show. Their intention, as expressed in a written statement accompanying the exhibition, is at least in part to incite today’s artists to similar acts of willful transgression.

The strongest impression left by the show is the sheer arbitrariness of what is deemed “illegal.” The charge that Moorman had committed a “lewd act” dissolved in the judge’s hopelessly subjective discriminations between nudity in historically venerated art and in contemporary performance. A thoughtful newspaper editorial reprinted in the show points out that the distinction between the “unpatriotic” use of the flag in politically charged contexts (hung upside-down to protest the Vietnam War or worn as a shirt by activist Abbie Hoffmann) and its incorporation in souvenir hankies and plastic martini “olives” is dubious. Indeed, the problem with most of the radical acts seen here is that, intentionally or not, they challenge existing categories of legality and illegality. Baffled policemen confronted with Burden’s highway stunt could only charge him with “causing a fake emergency to be reported,” while Russian emigrés Komar & Melamid’s telegram to Khomeini claiming responsibility for the Iran earthquake, rather than leading to arrest and punishment, was paradoxically “rewarded.” They were offered permanent U.S. residency as “particularly important figures of international renown in science and culture.” While the spirit of defiance behind such dares as John Giorno’s unofficial Radio Hanoi broadcasts and Jay Jaroslov’s falsified birth certificate is admirable, far more poignant is the conspicuous psychological toll on artists forced into positions of opposition. Papo Colo’s forged diploma comments on Puerto Ricans’ linguistic and political exclusion from mainland privileges, and Sam Hsieh added a statement to his self-condemning U.S. Immigration Service “wanted” poster stating that his four-year ordeal as an illegal alien had left him “very depressed and unable to create any art pieces.” Many of the incidents documented in this exhibition, such as the occupation of abandoned buildings by the Real Estate Show were intended to promote solidarity among an urban community, which made its rejection by tight-assed bureaucrats and law enforcers all the more offensive.

In a note of contemporary relevance, several of the works address the commodification of art that came to dominate the ’80s art world: Richard Mock cut out a section of Christo’s romantic but well-financed Running Fence to publicize Cesar Chavez’s impoverished campaign for migrant workers’ rights, and the Art Workers Coalition removed a Malevich painting from the walls of the Museum of Modern Art, accusing the institution of transforming “a once-revolutionary work into a valuable object.” Paradoxically, “Illegal America’s” curators, in bringing these works to our attention, have contributed to this self-defeating phenomenon. A series of heroic gestures has been transformed into a roomful of artifacts; even the catalogue from the 1982 show has become a collector’s item.

Lois E. Nesbitt