New York

Vito Acconci and Steven Holl

In the past few years, the maverick organization Storefront for Art and Architecture has invited artists to subvert not only the conventional function but the very architectural structure of the gallery space. Utilizing strategies of surveillance, confounding the viewer’s expectations of a protected interiority, artists and architects have exploited this Lilliputian, homely, wedge-shaped space to undermine traditional art environments. On two earlier occasions, artists have flexed their muscles to cut through the grimy exterior wall of Storefront to produce a certain permeability between interior (art) and exterior (life). Now Vito Acconci and Steven Holl have gone beyond making a surgical incision in the wall and performed a complete autopsy on the building. The south wall was cut, splayed, and clamped so that every viewer participated in the forensic examination that confirmed the perilous state of the art gallery.

But as if discreetly draping a corpse, Acconci and Holl performed a very tidy operation. Huge apertures were cut along the entire wall. Rather than having its flesh removed, the structure was placed on hinges that pivoted either horizontally or vertically. At the end of each day, the huge swinging elements were pushed back into place and the wall was sealed, as if by sutures, until it was reopened the following day. The body of the building was constantly violated and repaired—left wide open or virtually impenetrable. There were three large openings on vertical pivots; smaller window-sized cutaways placed above eye level or near the base of the wall. Viewers walked in and out of the various incisions and, of course, became part of the spectacle. While there was undoubtedly a rationale to justify the size and position of the openings in Storefront’s wall, the overall experience was of a complete negation of the functionality of architecture.

Acconci and Hull’s project was not unlike Gordon Matta-Clark’s subversive dissections of architecture. There was a calculated madness or possession in Matta-Clark’s aggressive penetrations of the architectural whole, but Acconci and Hull limited their activity to peeling away the skin—to the disruption and displacement of the wall which, like an organism’s epidermis, reliably creates a separation between private space and the more random conditions of the city beyond.

Unfortunately, after the initial shock of this project, its impact quickly diminished. Ultimately, it seemed like a respectful visit to a recycled idea. Questions about why were quickly replaced with curiosity about how. The gallery had not really escaped into the city and the city didn’t invade the spaces of art display and production. Viewers were offered a progression of revolving doors little more challenging or unusual than most building lobbies. Storefront did not push the dimensions of theory and practice as it has done so courageously for the past decade. This project is a symbol of the organization’s intentions rather than a bold enactment or extension of political agendas. Yet, where else in New York is there an arena that consistently raises such provocative questions about art and architecture? Even its quiet disappointments are promising passages—its routine autopsies hold out the hope of truly startling results.

Patricia C. Phillips