Alternative Histories

EXIT ART | SEPTEMBER 24 – NOVEMBER 24, 2010

I caught Exit Art’s Alternative Histories, a recounting of New York’s alternative art spaces and collaborative artists’ groups from the 1960s through today, on the last day of the show. While I had avoided, for the moment, one of the hazards of a hyper-busy life—the belated discovery that an important exhibition had already run its course—it felt especially wistful to visit this remarkably well-researched and well-presented excavation of recent cultural history in the hours before it vanished forever. It wasn’t so much the element of nostalgia that influenced my perception, although there was an undeniable whiff in the air. No, it was the way that the past seemed to swell the membrane of the present, pressing against a future that, with any luck, will carry the art spirit—as that original New York renegade, Robert Henri, called it—beyond this particular reckoning into new latitudes of urgency and invention.

The exhibition’s setup was simplicity itself: in two rooms, visual documentation (mostly photographs and posters) was arrayed chronologically across the walls, while shelves displayed texts on white office paper describing each space or organization; on the other side of a black-curtained partition, an impossibly long table held storage boxes stamped with the names of venues or artists’ groups. These you could open and, with the white gloves provided, handle the contents: photos, books, mimeographs, and the like. There were also some videos playing on two monitors at the back of the room and, across another set of black curtains, a sampling of alternative periodicals.

It is easy to view this exhibition as a history of gentrification—the old story of a bohemian vanguard domesticating an urban frontier for the aid and comfort of lawyers and financiers. There is something to that. But the emphasis placed by the curators (Papo Colo, Jeanette Ingberman, Herb Tam, and Lauren Rosati) on the spaces and groups themselves, independent of real estate strategies, treating each one—the game-changers, the eye-blinks and everything in between—with scrupulous egalitarianism, underscores the Promethean fire that set these enterprises into being.

They had no business plans, client lists, or sometimes even clear identities. Their founders could be undisciplined and capricious and perhaps more than a little crazy. The first wave staked its claim in a scary time in a scary city—improvising, floundering, surviving, or succumbing—while those who followed in its wake benefited from generational experience and post-graduate savvy. If the latter-day groups—spearheaded by fresh-faced newcomers as well as indefatigable veterans—inevitably operate with a degree of self-consciousness springing from their historical condition, they have swapped the novelty of their forebears for a newly articulated sense of community.

Although no amount of street-smarts or book-learning can immunize anyone from the perils that have awaited cultural adventurers since the 1960s, we’ve hardly seen a drop-off of those who, in the middle of yet another economic downturn, are prepared to reignite and take the risk to flail or fly—to give, as Shakespeare would have it, “to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”

Contributor

Thomas Micchelli

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