Robert Kushner, Torrid Dreams (1984), acrylic, silk and cotton applique on cotton; courtesy Pablo Enrique and MOMA PS1.
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What is there to say about the 2015 edition of “Greater New York” that hasn’t been said about any number of exhibitions intent on bringing some kind of definition to the dizzying state of contemporary art? Yeah, sure, this variant of the once-every-five-years pseudo- Biennial is emphatically New York-centric, particularly with numerous pieces dedicated to the city’s changing landscape. It’s also less smitten with the latest batch of bright young things. “Opportunities for younger artists,” the press release avers, “ . . . have grown alongside a burgeoning interest in artists who may have been overlooked in the histories of their time.” If this was cause enough to include works by artists as diverse, accomplished, and of a certain age as Robert Bordo, Robert Kushner, Joyce Robins, Nancy Shaver, and Rosalind Solomon, well, that’s all to the good. Dead artists are given a berth in Long Island City as well: among them, Alvin Baltrop, Rudy Burckhardt, Scott Burton, and Gordon Matta-Clark, whose photographs of industrial spaces punctuate the galleries. All of which is an attempt at satisfying—or engendering— the viewer’s “desire for the new and nostalgia for that which it displaces.”
So why does “Greater New York” feel like more of the same—that is to say, an undifferentiated amalgam of poses, politics, and attitudes? Peg it on too-many-cooks-in-the- kitchen, if you’d like. Four curators, along with an additional pair of curators who have organized an accompanying series of live events, all but guarantee an exhibition marked by compromises and second-guessing. Yet however much one’s taste might veer from that of the curator Douglas Crimp—the theorist and art historian who was an early and influential trumpeter of postmodernism—the failings of “Greater New York” are more indicative of a pervasive cultural complacency. Some thirty years back, the critic Hilton Kramer coined the phrase “the revenge of the philistines” to describe the inroads the Camp aesthetic and a concomitant abrogation of standards had made into the realm of “High Art.” That the latter term can hardly be used without scare quotes here in the twenty-first century is an indication of how thoroughly the anti-aesthetic has been mainstreamed. “It’s all good”—the slacker’s response to anything untoward, has become the dominant credo. Acquiescence to all things artistic might betoken an open mind, but it’s a stance that has resulted in a scene marked by toothless anonymity. Give “Greater New York” this much: it is symptomatic of the times.
Installation shot of “Greater New York”; courtesy Hyperallergic
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Admittedly, any venture as encompassing as “Greater New York” is asking for it. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, especially with a laundry list of artists as variegated as this one. You want your mixing of medias? Painting, sculpture, photography, installation, video, music, fashion, documentary bric-à-brac, and a “dystopian sci-fi street dance” film—it’s there to see at PS1. There’s enough “content” on display—about identity politics, consumerist critiques, welfare reform, and what-have-you—to cover some of everybody’s bases. Or so you would think. The general response to “Greater New York” has, in fact, been tepid, and characterized by a sense of fatigue borne of commercial calculation and artistic overabundance. Forget the careerist snark of artists who weren’t invited to participate or the musings of cranks who pine for good old days that never were. Relatively copacetic members of the scene have been underwhelmed by PS1’s attempt to hold the moment. Howard Halle, writing in Time Out New York, describes how the show “largely feels exhausted, even as it exhausts your attention.” Holland Cotter’s take in The New York Times was summarized in its introductory sentence: “‘Greater New York’ has come to sound like a wish, and not a statement of fact.” Writing for ArtNews, Andrew Russeth extols the “sunny disposition of so much here,” but admits that “[‘Greater New York’] feels off.” Run of the mill is more like it. It’s a sprawling exhibition of predictable rewards.
A fairly good rule of thumb is that an exhibition in which the sound of ominous clanking greets the viewer, as it does at “Greater New York,” should be treated with a degree of skepticism. Funhouse sensationalism is the defining characteristic of a lot of new art, and PS1 has made a specialty of the genre—largely, one feels, because the venue makes curators and artists a bit nervous. The towering environs and period-piece charm of the re-purposed school have proven a tough row for art to hoe. Exhibitions tend toward overkill or over-weening stylishness. The latter tack is taken by the organizers of “Greater New York.” The results are impeccable and airless, gleaming with cruelly tuned clarity. What happened to the avant-garde? It’s been rendered just as hygienic, streamlined, and efficient as the display units at IKEA. Little wonder that ample space has been set aside for the maze-like installation dedicated to KIOSK, an internationalist gift shop run by Alisa Grifo and Marco Romeny. This inclusion may have been done with tongue in cheek, but what does it say when the (often kitschy) items featured for sale are more inventively crafted and more visually compelling than the artworks on display?
Installation shot of KIOSK display at “Greater New York”; courtesy Hyperallergic
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A cynic might reply that commodity culture has won out, plain and simple. We are what we buy, and art is just one more product amongst many, many others. But I suspect the real answer has less to do with money— although that’s certainly a factor—than with creative capability, ideological conformity, and lack of initiative. Take into account the uncredited package designers whose work is seen in KIOSK. They are, by definition, intent on reaching an audience and, if the examples seen at PS1 are any indication, that audience has a pronounced, self-aware, and often elevated sense of taste. Outreach is the marketer’s purview. For the contemporary artist, outreach plays a distinct second-fiddle to navel-gazing. Narcissism, particularly when glossed over with politics, carries more integrity than anything so crass as engaging the viewer. Self-indulgence reigns—putting a glossy face on it, the career move. Exquisitely contrived sensibilities—high-end brands for the Chelsea-set—are the rule. “Like many New Yorkers, I lack imagination.” So says Glenn Ligon, an artist whose sentiment can be gleaned from inside PS1’s all-too-tidy grab-bag. Rarely has an exhibition been criticized from within with such uncanny, if unintentional, specificity.
© 2016 Mario Naves
This review originally appeared in the February 2016 edition of The New Criterion.