Critics Page

Exit Art

Drawing by Kelsey Mitchell, 2016.

I learned from so many people: artists, writers, dealers—really, whoever would bother to talk to me. But sometimes there didn’t have to be that much talk. It’s what someone gives you to look at that opens your eyes. My first contact with Exit Art would have been the 1983 exhibition on Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance, 1981 – 82, which was held at Franklin Furnace but under the auspices of Exit Art—not that I’d have noticed that at the time. But once Papo Colo and Jeanette Ingberman opened the Exit Art space at the end of 1984, I was a regular. This, more than any other, was the institution that gave me my crash course in contemporary art, partly though group shows, but above all through a sequence of one-person shows of midcareer artists (then as now an unjustly sidelined demographic). I saw shows that blew me away, including my first exposure to works by people who are now famous (David Hammons, Martin Wong, Jimmie Durham), others with artists who’ve been lost from view, though not from my memory (Richard Mock, Elaine Lustig Cohen). I remember a show of Samuel Beckett’s work for film and television, Archie Rand’s sublime “Letter Paintings,” and too many more to mention. I didn’t understand everything I saw, but I always felt its urgency and that fed my desire to understand. Exit Art taught me that artistic quality belongs equally to all forms of expression and to all people. Thank you, Papo and dear Jeanette, for setting me straight on that from the beginning. I’ve just received the new book, long in the making, Unfinished Memories: 30 Years of Exit Art (Steidl, 2016), which will serve to keep the lesson fresh in mind. And to show how exhibitions that might not have seemed so important at the time can now appear astonishingly foresighted: How, for instance, did Papo and Jeanette realize in 1988 that The Debt would be one of the key socio-political issues of the 21st century? I’m still learning from Exit Art.


Barry Schwabsky

BARRY SCHWABSKY is the art critic of The Nation.