Exhibitions > Essay by Tim Maul
Artforum, December 1974, Page 82
In 1974, The December issue of Artforum had a smeared video image by Nam June Paik on a cover that still looks radical today. Compared to the magazine now, it is a slim tome, with scant advertising. On page 82 of this issue, back in the review section, a photograph on the top of the page accompanies a discussion on Judy Pfaff’s show at Artist Space, a newish, non-profit gallery below Houston Street, in the area known to artists, and some astute real estate types, as Soho. The image, in black and white, is relatively generous in size. Looking at it now, I do not believe that it serves the art that well; Pfaff’s work was in fact rendered directly upon the walls of the worn, medium-sized room in what I recall as unusually decorative colors. Perhaps a detail of wall would have been more descriptive. The magazine’s distinctive rectangular format allowed for the inclusion of larger images to illustrate the articles, criticism, and advertising. It seemed uniquely conducive to those post-minimalist times, its very form beckoning and shaping the art it chose to validate. The magazine today is a weighty volume, chock full of vulgar self-promoting advertising, top-ten lists, and other juvenilia. Returning to the Pfaff image, a slight distortion is apparent, making the room look larger than it was, and not sharp enough to really see what the art looks like. The person standing center/right is me; my arms are folded in contemplation and more hair is in evidence. I believe the picture was taken that fall, so I am wearing a handmade pigskin coat that I inherited from Kathleen’s Father- it still hangs somewhere in my closet.
Artist Space was located on an upper floor of 155Wooster Street on the corner of Houston Street. I am positive that my presence in the gallery that day was connected to my employment to Bill Beckley, an artist who lived (and still does, incredibly) downstairs in the same building. Bill was an instructor of mine at the School of Visual Arts, where I graduated in 1973. In addition to working for a commercial photographer uptown, I was helping Bill, running errands and doing some preparatory work. Bill was around 30, and like most of the artists I admired, worked with photography, but unlike those artists, he worked on a larger technically ambitious scale and included text. He was busy in his career, showing mostly in Europe; and seemed to have little interest in the growing ‘alternative’ scene. I remember being alone in the gallery that afternoon, and it was obvious that installation shots were being taken. But as I was about to make my exit, someone suggested I remain in the picture to give it ‘scale.’ I did not really like the show. Having just left art school, I was only attracted to art that look finished and self-assured. I read Pfaff’s sprawling murals as a pretentious mess, fussy abstract painting interrupted by the occasional Johnsian device. For some reason, I had always distrusted messes in art; maybe they represented the easy way out when it came to dealing with the occupation of space of any kind. Yet, I approved of randomness, along with Duchampian ‘chance operations’. Les Levine once said that ‘mindlessness was ok as long as there was a mind behind it’, and I agree. I am sure I left the gallery perplexed as to how that artist got there, a state I still regularly find myself in. If I had mentioned the show to Beckley, he probably would have expressed annoyance over the abuse of the buildings tiny elevator.
I led a frugal life in recession era Manhattan, so purchasing an issue of Artforum, simply to look at myself, was out of the question. But I am sure I lingered at some newsstand and leafed through its pages until, there it was. And yes, I probably leaned over some bar to blurt “I’m in Artforum!” to whoever was listening. I made Artist Space an occasional stop on my downtown meanderings, interested in the gallery’s ‘artist-choose-artist’ curatorial policy of that time. I remember a tepid display of conceptual notebook projects by Laurie Anderson (chosen by Vito Acconci), gem-encrusted paintings by John Torreano (chosen by Chuck Close?) and a memorable show of little canvases by Elizabeth Murray-not a square inch wasted. And wasn’t this medium supposed to be dead?
The waning of post-minimal painting was accompanied by a growing skepticism toward the production of collectible objects and in what was referred to as the ‘gallery system’. Somewhat in support of this, non-profits, alternatives, and artists themselves hosted programs of performance, dance, music, and video art-all which functioned outside the established 60’s type ‘underground’ cinema and ‘off-off’ theatre venues. Sometime in 75-6, I helped another instructor of mine, Jean Dupuy, with an evening of film and performance at Artist Space (AS herein) itself. I believe I assisted in hauling a projector over for the showing of a film by DeeDee Halleck; basically a portrait of Jean working in his East 13th Street studio. My duties were made more complex in that Dupuy smoked dope like a Rasta, and spending any time with this generous and important personage in ‘downtown’ art necessitated some partaking. I recall getting scolded by a student-council type for taking some Judy Rifka paintings off the wall so we could project on it. With few exceptions, I have never been comfortable with gallery assistants since. Around the same time I attended (also at AS) a screening of some of Lawrence Weiner’s short videos, which I felt, owed a great deal to Godard, -artsy looking women reading aloud to each other, etc. I now wonder if I went alone to this. And who did I sit with? Bill? Weiner pulled a big crowd (for that time) composed of an intimidating array of period hipsters. They all appeared to know each other well, and each one exuded the distinct aura of being a ‘somebody’. They reminded me of the cooler older brothers and sisters of my wealthy friends back in Connecticut, who attended experimental colleges and spent the summers having hippie adventures in Europe. No one here looked like they drove cabs or waitressed. Maybe they were ‘urban pioneers’. If they were, like Irving Penn’s portraits of beautiful, early Haight-Ashbury residents, they certainly looked the role.
Social acceptance from this milieu, under the pretext of getting my ‘work out there’, would take some re-thinking. My language, in describing my art, would need to become more specific and less laid-back. Who would be the audience for what I was doing? Was this my community? Or was it my ‘social life’? I observed that being a fixture at openings did not necessarily endear you to the people who controlled what went on the walls. Having successfully sidestepped the social tyrannies of an American high school in the 60’s, could I handle this new world on top of a day job? Any artist, anywhere, who seeks an audience for what they do, confronts the fact that public activity accumulates into what is thought of as a career. Unless you are very, very, special, having some degree of social drive is necessary in a careers maintenance and continuation. Once a public is found, even a teensy one, a certain fear of losing that audience begins to form. And other realities present themselves. Parallel to the workings of the business of showing art, for money or otherwise, is an unstoppable mechanism of continual displacement. A quick tour through any art magazine older than two years, proves instructive in illustrating this- covergirls, coverboys, critics, and galleries; all disappear into the black hole of history. Where did all these artists go? Did they leave it behind forever? In the early 70’s a good run in the gallery/museum system could last eight busy years. Now, in this climate that worships the perpetual ‘next’, I observe artists blurred coming and going like Wells’s time traveler stuck in fast-forward. Another useful analogy may be the art world as a night spot with its own mysterious door policy, many are called but few are chosen; and those ushered inside will want to hang out for a long as possible. I confess that I was envious of the rapid rise of those I considered ‘politicos’ or schmoozes. Hence, my conflict; these are the people who always appear to get ahead, if only temporarily. Whatever notion you have of community is altered by the appearance of fame and real money. It does change everything; including upending the value systems of even the most righteous of individuals. The camaraderie of everyone being on the same level is thrown off balance when one member of the team is singled out for stardom. Once established, artists become threatened by whatever’s new, although voicing that angst is not seen as cool. Around this period I also noticed that people often sought ‘family’ through engagement in the arts, which doesn’t happen as much as you would think. But I understand why someone could believe otherwise; to outsiders, the art world looks like One Big Happy Family. If one visits the Artnet or Artforum websites (or attends any art fairs), you’ll see tons of good-looking artists, curators, collectors, ‘advisors’ etc. all over each other-hugging and kissing the same people literally around the globe. I am loyal to my friends, but I’ve always held familial relationships for actual family, which is enough work in itself.
By the late 70’s, my own generation began to populate gallery openings, and the difference in the tone of these events was startling. Lower Manhattan with its cheap rents had become a destination for hordes of oddballs churned out of colleges, art schools, and graduate programs. Uneasy with my position on the sidelines of this, I wondered what attracted them. Perhaps it was simply the desire to become someone other than who they were expected to be, to ‘take a walk on the wild side’. Once again, this crowd was mostly white, ambitious, and organized in many ways new to me. They applied for state grants continually and frequently received them. They maintained lengthy mailing lists and supported each other by attending, en masse, any little thing any one of them did. They chose Lou Reed over Van Morrison, The Mudd Club over One University and Benjamin over Wittingenstein. They had their hair together. In comparison, my SVA chums were insular and overly reverent of the previous generation with whom they had studied assisted, and to whose careers they emulated. The ideal future seemed to be a teaching gig in bran muffin academia and a show every 2 or 3 years with some devoted gallery. The class of ’77 wanted more; upward mobility in the visual arts meant the overthrow of the current regime, and shortly, the regime that made such am impression on me a mere few years before, would be toast.
I was ok with much of this. I felt the frustration in waiting one’s turn, and shared in the excitement of putting on your own show or publication; ‘alternative means of distribution’ right? But I was slower to accept the idea of a medium being less important than the attitude brought to it; a concept never encouraged in school. A kind of militant amateurism reigned. You no longer had to be a photographer to make photographs, or a filmmaker to make movies. Sounds made by non-musicians were of particular interest to me; the musicians I met were braver, more willing to put themselves on the line for their ideas than the visual artists I knew. They also embraced errors, both in performance and in the fragile, no-budget technology they employed. A willingness to fuck up in public remains for me the touchstone sensibility of that time, along with a few other things. Like Peter Plagens, John Perrault, and Peter Schjeldahl, Alan Moore’s criticism on Page 82 was of its time; breezy but informed. Within the following year I would meet Moore through my participation in a group show at 3 Mercer Street, Stefan Eins’s storefront studio and exhibition space. But a clarification is in order. Judy Pfaff’s, exhibition, where my dark form was captured, was very, very good art. During the 70’s, the gallery wall, once stroked and pampered as a Kentucky Derby contender, began to get the short end of the stick. Artists drew and painted directly on them, threw meat cleavers at them, drilled holes through them, and chainsawed shapes out of them. If Rauschenberg’s combines had altered the function of the canvas, gallery walls also became temporal places where things ‘were’. Today, a stroll through Chelsea galleries will find the wall frequently used as a projection screen, a surface ‘painted’ with light. Pfaff’s show was the first work I can recall that was both a single installation and also pictorial. It could be interesting to think of this work as one of the many bridges between the puritanical strain of post-minimalism and other, less repressive tendencies, which appeared locally in the 70’s- ‘Canal Street’ assemblage, pattern and decoration, and the eventual return of painting itself. Remember my discomfort with ‘messes’? Would this unease also apply to Helen Frankenthaler’s 50’s pours onto canvas or Lynda Benglis’s pours directly onto the gallery floor? Did I have a problem with strong, liquid wielding women? It’s not much of a stretch to regard Pfaff’s work in this company, who, after the canvas and floor had been ‘covered’, addressed herself directly to the wall. Closely watched by many young artists was the work of Mel Bochner, who is enjoying (I assume) a continued interest in his work today. Bochner’s 1973 exhibition at Sonnabend Gallery (in the Soho community’s ‘cathedral’ of 420 West Broadway) ‘Non-Verbal Structures, Red, Yellow, and Blue’, may have held great interest to Pfaff, in the sequence of painted rectangles situated directly along the walls of one of the gallery’s several rooms. Bochner, often mislabeled as a conceptual artist, was, to the surprise of many, ‘painting’. The rich territory previously covered by Jasper Johns was still being deeply mined by a generation who continue to grab the headlines. Beyond his obvious importance to Pop, consider Johns’s painting in terms of its use of encaustic (Marden), measurements (Bochner, Rockburne), language (Ruscha, Kosuth) , and casting (Nauman, Serra). Judy Pfaff’s show at Artist Space held delirious promise in it overlapping geometries, pastel washes, and wry incorporation of small objects and architectural detail. It did not need to ask permission of an idea to paint a shape on a wall. Shortly thereafter she began a long association with the Holly Solomon gallery, and while I am unsure of her exact influence, I recognize her work in artist’s diverse as Susan McClleand, Jessica Stockholder, and Sarah Sze.
Nostalgia visualized could resemble a Nauman corridor piece from 1970; long, brightly lit, and extremely narrow. As I reread what I have written, my own nostalgic voice can get as whiny as Andy Rooney’s. If I am ‘romantic’ or ‘wistful’ for anything from my past, it is for my own curiosity. After showing in Europe, I made a proposal to AS for a project produced in collaboration with Fred Szymanski, an artist and composer who worked with sound. A brief meeting with curator Valerie Smith followed, and a show was scheduled for the spring of 1983. It was a lot of work, involving time off from a job I needed, and with Fred recovering from a serious illness, much of the running around was left to me. But it was a good experience, working with Fred felt like being in a band. At that time ‘a show at Artist Space’ could open doors, largely due to the gallery’s hosting of Douglas Crimp’s ‘Pictures’ exhibition in 1977, which has acquired a mythic, ‘Armory Show’ significance.
Could an exhibition at AS today still open doors? I don’t really know. Art-market frenzies, like the one we are in, demand the acceleration and compression of a lifetime of achievements into several, short years. For a young artist, how could showing in a non-profit gallery compete with the dangling carrots of financial gain, owning real estate, and the possibility of a photo op with Chloe Sevigny? An examination of the relevance of these contexts, in relation to the communities they purport to serve is due, but not by me. I recall taking a Canadian gallerist to White Columns in the late 80’s, and her leaving stunned that a space for emerging artists was actually ‘doing business’. Some artists never leave the security of the alternative world, gestating there forever like Finch stuck in the mailroom in ‘How To Succeed……’ For the time being, commerce rules, and non-profits adapt to this by courting art dealers, collectors, and corporate sponsorship. The curators, once low-key scholarly types, now have the appearance of peppy multi-taskers, organizing shows here and abroad, sitting on panels, writing criticism, posing for photographs, and promoting their own art. So my last glance at page 82 is a melancholic one-but as I expressed earlier, I am ok with it. But those were different times.
Tim Maul NYC 6/07