Dear Friends and Readers,
“To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.”
– bell hooks
“In the times when everybody wants to succeed and sell, I want to celebrate those who embrace social and daily failure to pursue the invisible, the personal things that bring no money and no bread and make no contemporary history, art history or any other history. I am for art which we do for each other as friends, for ourselves.”
“So be a girly man
& sing this gurly song
Sissies & proud
That we would never lie our way to war.”
– Charles Bernstein
What have we gained from reading novels, books of poetry and philosophy, observing music and dance performances, watching films, or contemplating works of art? In each instance, a human experience is materialized and distilled as one distinctive expression that tells us something about the community and world we inhabit.
At times, one finds a universal expression imbedded in a particular period of culture and place. One can also discover the immense joy of being fully immersed in the minutiae of another time and location. In our vast constellation of galleries and museums we’re reminded that all participants are indispensable in their contributions. This is not to imply every individual can or should be defined as playing a simple or singular role within the larger community, or that all roles are equally impactful.
Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City 1952 – 1965 at the Grey Art Gallery (January 10 – April 1) and Alice Neel, Uptown, curated by Hilton Als at David Zwirner (February 23 – April 22), illustrate some of this breadth. In the former, the artists undertake participatory functions through cooperative galleries to present their own works or art historians, curators, dealers who promote the works of their fellow artists, whereas Neel is immersed in a solitary search for communion with ordinary people of different ethnic backgrounds from the neighborhood where she lived, Harlem. Of these two models, one stays within the habitat of the art world and the other infuses art with different segments of society, yet both spread out.
The fourteen galleries featured in Inventing Downtown (Tanager Gallery, Hansa Gallery, Brata Gallery, City Gallery, Ruben Gallery, Delancey Street Museum, Judson Gallery, 112 Chambers Street, 79 Park Place, March Group, Judson Church’s Hall of Issues, The Center, Spiral Group, and Green Gallery), brilliantly curated by Melissa Rachleff, represented artists during a thirteen-year period (1952 – 65) notable for its concentration of artistic germination in a variety of mediums and subjects, including the early formations of pop and conceptual art, and minimalism. Today’s geography of the art scene has expanded into the Lower East Side, Bushwick, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Gowanus, Red Hook, Dumbo, Brooklyn, Ridgewood, Queens, Long Island City, and elsewhere. Artist-run galleries now abound: CANADA, Regina Rex, Rawson Projects, Pierogi, 247365, Bodega, Motel, Signal, Underdonk, Orgy Park, Microscope Gallery, Sardine, Greenpoint Terminal, Real Fine Arts, Soloway, Ortega y Gasset, Pioneer Works, MINUS SPACE, Valentine, and Kimberly-Klark, among others. Curiously, almost all artists who run these galleries decline to show their own works. I find these pluralistic models of presentation to be very exhilarating.
In a letter visible in the exhibition at David Zwirner, Neel cites her conviction to follow the lead of Vincent van Gogh, in his spirit and preferred subject matter: the deep compassion and admiration of common working class people. Her inner calling led her outside the art world’s ordinary boundaries.
In the midst of our endless political climaxes—focused on praises of folly (and the stress that follows)—the amplification of artistic and cultural activities is even more rewarding. It began in November with the satirical caricatures of the 37th president of the United States, Richard Nixon, in Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 to 1975 at Hauser & Wirth (November 1, 2016 – January 28, 2017), and continued in Painting Paintings (David Reed) 1975 curated by Katy Siegel and Christopher Wool at Gagosian (January 17 – February 25, 2017), Jack Whitten at Hauser & Wirth (January 26 – April 8, 2017), and the incisive eye of Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work at the New Museum (February 8 – April 9, 2017). Reed, Wool, and Whitten are featured in Richard Shiff’s brilliant essay Blur and Fuzz, which we reprint in this issue.
Meanwhile, a whole community of artists including Cindy Sherman, Patti Smith, Elizabeth Peyton, Alex Katz, Christopher Wool, Matthew Barney, Chuck Close, Rudolf Stingel, Richard Prince, and Ai Weiwei, along with many other individuals, rose to the aid of Anthology Film Archives and the countercultural legend Jonas Mekas. The goal was (and is) to build the Heaven and Earth Library and Café, the cathedral of essential cinema. With the support of the generous art community substantial progress has been made. St. Mark’s Poetry Project will be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary and is honoring the remarkable Anne Waldman (their first artistic director: 1968 – 1978). ArtTable’s annual “Women in the Arts” luncheon is honoring the brilliant Lowery Stokes Sims. Additionally, the duo of Mia Locks and Christopher Lew have curated a timely and poignant 2017 Whitney Biennial, with pervasive social and political credence that is adamant about the diversity of our human race, complete with what is fraught.
In conclusion, as Patti Smith said at the Anthology Benefit, “We need an underground now more than ever.”
Happy Poetry Month, in solidarity,
P.S. This issue is dedicated to Chuck Berry, Trisha Brown, George Braziller, Sir Howard Hodgkin, David Rockefeller, Robert B. Silvers, and George Woodman whose extraordinary legacies have significantly enriched our cultural lives now and forever.
PHONG BUI is the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.