New York

Michael Smith and Joshua White

New Museum

A site-specific work by Michael Smith and Joshua White, Open House, 1999, is one of the most corrosively funny installations I’ve ever seen. It’s Hans Haacke meets Jerry Seinfeld. This isn’t as unexpected as it might sound: Smith has actually worked as a stand-up comic, though he’s best known for his acerbic videos, performances, and installation art. White, on the other hand, along with being the creator of Fillmore East’s Joshua Light Show, works as a director for television and has in fact written for Seinfeld.

With a press release that resembles a homemade flyer (the kind with the phone number repeated at the bottom so that you can tear one off), Smith and White invited viewers to an open house at the live/work SoHo loft of “Mike,” an artist whose career has not gone as he’d hoped. A different version of this character appeared in their brilliant but less ambitious installation Musco: 1969–1997, 1997, about a lighting company that hit the skids and had to sell everything. Here, too, Mike is prepared to sell, especially since the market for SoHo lofts is so very hot.

Entering the very lived-in-looking space, we see a small kitchen, two large columns, a loft bed, a table and chairs, a video production area, and several video monitors. On the first of these, situated at the entrance to the installation, Mike (played by Smith) informs us that he moved into this artist-in-residence loft in 1978. We learn that he was once part of an artist’s collective, that he worked in construction and would use materials from the job in his sculpture, even that he had a high-minded, public-access talk show called “Interstitial.” But Mike never got a gallery, and to make ends meet he turned to video postproduction, a tellingly large portion of the loft having now been given over to this breadwinning work. Most recently, he’s been producing a point-of-purchase video for a lip definer called “The Downtown Look.”

It’s all nearly too much to bear. Pausing to watch some of the heartbreakingly earnest cable show (with Mike interviewing various young artists and managing to be at once hangdog and wide-eyed with optimism), or footage from the lip definer’s promotional video, one teeters between groaning and laughing. The heartbreak is in the odds and ends, the spot-on, squalid details of the actual—the unopened mail, the obsolescent technology (an ’80s photocopier, a clunky personal computer). Then there’s Mike’s own sad site-specific work: Sweat Equity, a wall he built as “art,” which is a kind of real-estate version of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, since to remove it would mean destroying it.

There are brilliant touches here—a boot print in paint on the floor, for instance, which functions both as painterly “mark” and simply another touch of realism. That the installation is in the New Museum is one level of the show’s irony, since of course it and other art world institutions came on the heels of SoHo’s “pioneering” artists and then changed the character of the neighborhood. On the other hand, the New Museum, with its loftlike columns and beams, is of SoHo, and it made a real difference to have the installation there; it’s hard to say how well all this would translate in, say, a museum in Texas.

This is a ’90s version of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy: Smith and White are fascinated by peculiarly American versions of failure, of utopian dreams sold down the river of compromise and capitalism. Here they approach real estate as truth. After all, what the art world and SoHo have become since the ’70s, the pain of that, is real—as real as the loft is fake.
Thad Ziolkowski