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Brooklyn Dispatches

The Brooklyn Canon: Airbrushed Out of History

Meeting circle for
Meeting circle for "Organism," (1993), Old Dutch Mustard Factory.

He was a goner, a nonentity, and although he’s had a perfectly respectable career, to the forces that “streamline” history, he was invisible.

It was in Soho, at the Spring Street Bookstore (which gives you an idea of how long ago this was) that I picked up one of those small-run artsy publications with the punchy cover design (Russian Constructivism meets Hippie Bauhaus) and latched onto an essay featuring a set of nearly identical photographs. In the first, with their shirts off in mock “muscleman” poses and lined up like a screen test for a Fassbinder movie, were a doughy-looking Julian Schnabel, a sleeker Marcus Lupertz, Jörg Immendorff, and, hanging at the end, the above-mentioned artist. Evidently, this was a snapshot taken on some summer lark, four friendly painters hanging out and mugging for the camera.

The second photo was identical to the first except that someone had cropped out the fourth artist, deciding his notoriety wasn’t sufficient to merit inclusion. This “corrected” pic has been used in countless catalogs, textbooks, and magazines all over the world. The gist of the article was the shameless alteration of actuality to tidy up reality from a certain preconceived angle, in essence to propagandize, create a myth and shape history. I snickered, digging the subversive humor. Years later I’m still laughing, but the sinister aspects of the alteration have become more apparent. Despite my awareness of the cropped-out artist, I can’t for the life of me remember his name. Modern techniques of thought control are effective.

What brought back this memory was Jerry Saltz’s “The New York Canon,” published April 7th in New York magazine ( As an amateur historian, I love these kinds of overviews; Irving Sandler’s quartet of books, The Triumph of American Painting, The New York School, American Art of the 1960s and Art of the Postmodern Era make up the core of my bookshelf on the New York milieu. “The New York Canon” reads like the beginnings of what could become, if fleshed out, a standard art history text that picks up where Sandler leaves off. A couple hundred artists are mentioned, twenty-eight dealers, and forty-four galleries, as well as the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, the New Museum and PS1. Publications listed include the New York Times, ARTFORUM, October, Avalanche, the Washington Post and Saltz’s current employers, New York. Among featured locations are: Soho (numerous times), 57th Street, Chelsea, Times Square, Union Square, the East Village, Washington DC, Texas, Germany and other spots in Europe. There’s even a mention, despite Saltz’s caveat that “the market is ruining everything” of the Brooklyn Museum’s controversial 1999 Sensation exhibition, organized and sponsored by super-big moneybag collector Charles Saatchi.

Far be it from me to argue with any of the items included in this litany. I did find one glaring, unexplainable omission, however: that among its nearly 6500 words, the one word that was missing was—Williamsburg. Yeah, I’ve been accused of being a “provincial chauvinist” by one of America’s preeminent bloggers, but (in my finest Chamber of Commerce voice), “Williamsburg, Brooklyn is the largest enclave of artistic talent ever to congregate in one community in American history.” Okay, perhaps a touch hyperbolic, and maybe at this point (which adds to the urgency) we’re talking in the past tense. In any case, I’d like to offer a few humble suggestions from this side of the East River that might warrant consideration for the BIG PICTURE before airbrush-wielding historians and pundits consign the whole megillah to the eternal damnation of obscurity.

Let me add that, thanks to the scarcity of gullible types willing to bankroll venues and projects, and with only the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Academy of Music as institutional presences, nearly all the actions and events here described have been Do-It-Yourself affairs relying on the energy, ingenuity and finances of a “coalition of the willing.” While much of New York’s “mainstream” art history has been a function of exclusivity, one of the main strengths, or weaknesses, of the Brooklyn scene is its inclusivity. Consequently, for better or worse. I’ve solicited suggestions and ideas from dozens of local residents. Despite the expected gaggle of “hey, my show three years ago was the most important exhibition of this century,” many intriguing individuals, events and venues were dredged up.

Manhattan has always been the place to be, but since artists typically live on restricted budgets while needing large spaces to work, Brooklyn has long been the closest and most sympathetic alternative. And while it’s not my intention to go back forty or fifty years, suffice it to say that the long tradition of artists living and working here has seen the likes of Mark Rothko, David Smith, Barnett Newman, John Graham, Ben Shawn, Judy Pfaff, Vito Accocni, Ashley Bickerton and more, many more. A recent wave of high-profile artists seeking maximum studio space in “real” neighborhoods has included Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Tom Otterness, Fred Tomaselli and Dana Schutz.


The decade of the 1980s witnessed ironic, even reactionary changes. Soho, which emerged barely ten years before as an alternative venue for young, downtown avant-sters, has hardened into its own worst enemy, strangled by formalist theory, market forces and a political elite. Despite its dozens of galleries, opportunities are limited for recent art school graduates, women, and other out-of-the-mainstream artists. At the beginning of the decade, however, a trio of groundbreaking exhibitions in Brooklyn establish precedents for grassroots art happenings in the borough and beyond.

Mark Lombardi
Mark Lombardi "Chicago Outfit,: courtesy of Pierogi Brooklyn.

In May 1981, the Monumental Show, a huge exhibition organized by Frank Shifreen, George Moore and Michael Keene (and which, no doubt, took its cue from the previous summer’s Times Square Show), presents a Brooklyn-sized cast of over 150 artists in a former Civil War munitions factory near the Gowanus Canal. As one of the first mega shows, Monumental included well-known artists like Nancy Holtz, Keith Haring, Komar and Melamid, Carl Andre, and Mike Cockrill along with dozens of lesser-known and unknown contributors. The opening party, featuring rock bands and performances, draws 3,000 spectators. After only three days, the landlord pulls the plug due to concerns over “toxic contamination”.

On April 1st of the following year, a loose-knit community of artists living in and around Williamsburg is introduced to a larger group of downtown artists through the All-Fools Show. As a condition for making the space available, for six weeks beforehand, the landlord on South 4th Street enlists teams of overly energetic artists as slave labor (I was one of them) working from dawn till dusk removing tons of baled rags and other garbage from his building, getting an expensive clean-up job for free. All-Fools runs a month. Hundreds of artists participate and thousands attend. Contacts and alliances are established that blow back over the Williamsburg Bridge and influence the organization and tone of a nascent East Village scene.

By the time Terminal New York debuts during the summer of 1983, a standard operating procedure for gargantuan shows has been established. This massive former military terminal contained more cubic feet than all of Manhattan’s museums combined, and its vaulted cathedral-like nave has the highest ceiling for the display of art seen in the city until the Museum of Modern Art reopens with its new atrium in 2004. The big Brooklyn show is now been accepted by the establishment, and the list of stars in this production includes Uptowners, Soho-ites, East Villagers and Europeans.

A Scene Grows in Brooklyn

During most of the eighties boom, with the media focused on the East Village and Soho, swarms of art school grads and dream-seekers pour into the city, with Brooklyn as the place for cheap studio and living space. Small enclaves of creativity pop up in places with roguish names like Red Hook, Sunset Park, Dumbo, Vinegar Hill and Greenpoint. Weekend loft exhibitions and guerrilla happenings become a ritual for hundreds of local artists. A web of networks form, spanning the Manhattan mainstream, the East Village, the marginalized outer-boroughs and even New Jersey. Because of its direct link to Midtown via the L train and its low-rise, semi-industrial building stock, Williamsburg becomes a magnet, developing the highest concentration of artsy types in the city.

As Soho reels, knocked off its plinth as the center of the art world, and the East Village garners a lion’s share of press, art activists in Williamsburg want to get in on the action. Though accounts vary (after all, little of this made the New York Times or ARTFORUM), A Place Apart Gallery (“Formerly Sirovich Gallery”) opens at 230 North 6th Street. “A community gallery for artists of all ages and backgrounds,” it’s generally recognized as the first in Williamsburg. This venue, opened in 1982 and operated by Marguerite Munch, is where Chris Martin remembers meeting James Harrison, a legendary Brooklyn eccentric who worked the desk and ended up becoming a mentor to many young artists in Greenpoint and the ‘Burg. Other alumni include Kathy Bradford, David Kapp, Tom Bills, and Rick Briggs. Though not a commercial success, A Place Apart gives local artists a focal point around which to hang out and begin forming a network.

Certain buildings become havens for dozens of artists. Though too numerous to list, a crucial pair are 252 Green Street, a former potato chip factory in Greenpoint, and 85-101 North 3rd Street. The Green Street space is home to Cecily Kahn and David Kapp, and provides studios for a group of sculptors that include Judy Pfaff, Tom Bills and Robin Hill. Kahn remembers a studio on the third floor that “had a 3-inch layer of blackened potato starch on its floor which would soften in the summer months.” 85-101 North 3rd Street, with it dozens of studio spaces, has a rotating roster of artists including James Biederman and his N3 Project Space, Russell Roberts, Michael David, and Kristen Baker, as well as the notable Berlin artist and founding member of Critical Realism, Wolfgang Petrick.

When you’re overshadowed by the likes of Manhattan’s cultural conglomerates, you’ve got to try a lot harder to get a sliver of the spotlight. In 1983, the Brooklyn Academy of Music inaugurates its Next Wave Festival, a three-month annual presentation designed to focus the attention of the international avant-garde on this stretch of hardscrabble downtown Brooklyn. BAM is now the American home of world-class artists and companies like Peter Brook, Needcompany, Sankai Juku and William Forsythe/Ballett Frankfurt. But it’s their homegrown productions and revivals, like Philip Glass’ Satyagraha and (with Robert Wilson) Einstein on the Beach, and Trisha Brown’s Set and Reset with original score by Laurie Anderson and design by Robert Rauschenberg, that have gained worldwide acclaim. The list of collaborators at BAM is a virtual Who’s Who of the art world: Roy Lichtenstein, Louise Bourgeois, Keith Haring, Steven Reich and Mark Morris, who opened his own studio/school next door in September 2001.

The entire East Village scene booms, crests and crashes in the five years between 1983 and 1987, leaving the city with a gaping hole where there was once edgy, sexy and subversive work. With the stock market crash in 1987 and the art market following suit in ’89, what better time or place to open an art gallery than the desperate and crime-ridden area of West Williamsburg?

A smattering of galleries emerge with names evoking the busted down and abject nature of the locale: Minor Injury in Greenpoint, founded by Mo Bock in 1985; Brand Name Damages, a cooperative started by The Justice League of America, a group of mostly Pratt Institute grads showing works by friends and members; Ammo; and The New Waterfront Museum, located between the anchorages of the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges and run by another small cooperative that rents studio space and utilizes the hallways for exhibitions. LedisFlam on North 6th Street is billed as the first “commercial” gallery. Founded in 1986 by Lori Ledis and husband Robert Flam, this space raises the bar for the district during its four-year run there. Due to the scarcity of foot traffic and the difficulty of attracting clients, they relocate to Soho in 1990, but not before giving early exposure to Amy Sillman, Terry Adkins, David Mann and Peter Acheson. Lori Ledis dies prematurely in December 2000 of a heart attack; she’s forty.

One individual who played a decisive role in raising the self-esteem of the ‘Burg was East Village gallerist Annie Herron. I’d met Annie several times at Semaphore Gallery on West Broadway where she worked as director in the early eighties. She was known as someone on the move with a good eye and a soft touch. Remembering her pursuit and very public courting by the then unknown Mark Kostobi still gives me giggles. Mark painted a large portrait of her and stuck it in the show window of his Broome Street studio. He hoped Annie could assuage his loneliness and boost his career at the same time. When the East Village took off Annie, as usual at the center of things, was dispatched to open Semaphore East on Avenue B and 10th Street where she showed Ellen Berkenblit, Martin Wong, Mike Cockrill, Mark Kostabi and Jane Dickson. When the East Village bubble bursts in 1987-88, Annie is already looking ahead to the “next new thing.” Having tripped over the bridge to sample the action out East, she’s convinced that with the right grooming the ‘Burg could be ready for its close-up.

Brooklyn also has its share of tragedy. In 1987, Christopher Wilmarth, a visionary sculptor who used the weight and balance of unique materials like etched glass, steel sheets and cable to capture light and arrest space, moves into a beautiful, spacious new studio in my stomping ground overlooking the waterfront at the northern end of Red Hook. With a career that seems charmed and a high level of critical and institutional recognition, it appears as if Wilmarth is poised to begin a sustained midcareer phase of creativity. During a studio visit, Patterson Sims suggests we give Wilmarth a welcome-wagon introduction to the neighborhood. Within a couple of months Wilmarth, who is apparently being treated for depression, hangs himself in the studio. He’s forty-four.

The BMA Steps Up

Despite the scenes on Sex in the City where taxi drivers refuse to take fares across the East River bridges, The Brooklyn Museum of Art has long been a destination for serious art tourists. Regardless of its quirks, it’s proven itself as a wonderful museum of last resort, hosting important exhibitions that haughtier Manhattan institutions are ether too fully booked for, uninterested in, or see as box-office losers. A personal favorite is the Albert Pinkham Ryder show, organized by Dr. Elizabeth Broun, that opened in September 1990. Ryder, although a longtime denizen of the West Village / Washington Square neighborhood, is a quintessential inspiration to many a scruffy reclusive local painter. Though cited by Marsden Hartley and Jackson Pollock as the essential American Proto-Modernist, this is his first revival since a Whitney retrospective in the 1940s. The show includes not only his signature nautical scenes under looming night skies, but also a display on the strange physical condition of some paintings due to his unusual material sensibility: the cracking, oozing, slippage, and general decrepitude of some pieces that miraculously keep them bound in perpetual death throes. This local love affair with Ryder leads to an homage exhibition curated by Phong Bui in 2000 at State of Art Gallery (an early outpost in Greenpoint) which includes adoring Ryder fans from the ‘Burg like Bill Jensen, Margrit Lewczuk, Chris Martin and Kathy Bradford, as well as Gregory Amenoff and others.

Also in 1990, the Brooklyn Museum hosts Joseph Kosuth’s installation The Play of the Unmentionable, a protean manifesto that probably wouldn’t happen at our less “offensive” institutions. With the culture wars raging and the controversies over government funding of “progressive art” driving the Moral Majority nuts, Kosuth, working with the BMA’s team of curators, hangs works from the museum’s vast holdings on neutral gray walls, paired with blown-up quotes from some of our favorite fascists, moral reformers and do-gooders. This sardonically stinging institutional critique is one of the best-attended and critically well-received exhibits of the season

Things Get Crazy

Like the street warning “don’t corner a rat,” with the Manhattan scene in a slump and no prospects on the horizon, Brooklyn hipsters feel they’ve got nothing to lose. More people open their studios to happenings and exhibitions. A communication tree forms to spread word of impromptu raves and potlatches in vacant warehouses and the dilapidated piers fronting the East River. More ad hoc galleries and art spaces like Jimenez & Algus on South 11th in 1989 and 4 Walls Project, founded by Mike Ballou, Adam Simon and Michele Araujo in 1991 (relocating from Hoboken), appear. These “projects” have more esoteric programs and a greater commitment to “keeping it real” than turning a buck. Coteries based on shared aesthetics and approaches to the public begin to distinguish artists and activists who will eventually rattle the world beyond the borough.

As the momentum builds, ambitions and liabilities increase, and impromptu events soon outgrow studios and begin to migrate to the waterfront. Cat’s Head, an “interdisciplinary rave happening” is so notorious that word spreads though the international underground, and its organizers are invited to re-create it in Dublin, Ireland. Other mass actions like Lizard Tail and Fly Trap keep the energy flowing and begin the process for a more sustained scheme, something with a legally sanctioned location.

“Organism,” a watershed occurrence, is the brainchild of a group of Williamsburg art activists who were part of a meeting in the loft of Ebon Fisher on February 15, 1993: Philip R. Bonner, Megan Raddant, Al Arthur, Ruth Kahn, Stevie Allweis, Robert Elmes, Jeff Gompertz, David Brody, Yyvette Helin and Anna Hurwitz. In subsequent meetings they’re joined by Fred Valentine, Don Gibson, Matthew Schneider, Michael Henry and soon others. The idea is to pool their money and rent a space large enough to house a number of projects dealing with the concept of an organism’s systems. The vacant Old Dutch Mustard Factory at 70 Metropolitan Avenue fits the bill. Numbers of artists contribute projects, and an estimated 2400 curious revelers join in for an all-night fest. As Fred Valentine writes in an e-mail, the impetus was “Let’s do here what we and others can’t do anywhere else. What we became was a combination of Bacchanalia, anarchy, social club and creative space.” An extensive web site documenting Organism can be found at

During the remainder of the lease, the Mustard Factory becomes a testing ground for creativity, a laboratory for exploring just how much an arts community can tolerate. With abundant media coverage and growing international recognition, it also baptizes the ‘Burg as having arrived as a destination for the cultural cognoscenti. As of this writing, the location of the Mustard Factory is a fenced-in construction site awaiting the completion of yet another luxury condo tower.

The ‘Burg Goes Button-Downed

What ever you might think of Rudolph Giuliani, his campaign to clean up and tame the city after a decade of devastation from crack wars, rampant murder statistics and the AIDS plague, comes at an opportune moment for a district trying to attain a level of respectability, or at least give the impression of stability and a ceasefire. Snazzy bars and boutiques begin to show up. By 1993 Williamsburg becomes a favorite backdrop for trendy fashion shoots, and references in movies and TV put it on the lips of the nation. Even so, the physical challenges and financial drain of trying to maintain a gallery force many spaces like Test-Site and Jimenez & Algus to fold after a couple of seasons. Regardless, a group of more “professional” venues begins to take shape, forming a strip near Bedford and Metropolitan Avenues where visitors can drop in on four of five shows, drinks, shopping and maybe hear some poetry or jazz during a weekend safari.

Rumblings from other areas are heard with shoestring operations like Florence Neal’s Kentler International Drawing Space, specializing in works on paper by local and international Red Hook artists coming on the scene. Relocating from Soho, Arena in Carol Gardens brings an elegant if diminutive sensibility to Cobble Hill courtesy of Reneé Riccardo. In 1995, Smack Mellon debuts in Dumbo with loft shows organized by visual artist Andrea Reynosa and musician/composer Kevin Vertrees. Thanks to support from the Walentas Family and Two Trees Management, Smack Mellon shows hundreds of artists’ works in some of the city’s most dramatic venues, while providing studio space to hard-strapped artists. GAle GAtes et al., a performance and visual arts company started by Michael Counts, tests the boundaries between artists and audience and winds up on the résumés of bunches of artists in 1999 with Size Matters—a marathon group show curated by Mike Weiss, an ambitious young dealer now ensconced with Chelsea’s big boys on West 24th Street. Dumbo Art Center starts up during 1997 in the wake of the first Art Under the Bridge festival. Their program solicits proposals from independent curators, arranges for site-specific installations and publishes local guides and organizes studio tours.

Meanwhile back in Williamsburg, Annie Herron is busy scurrying about being midwife, den-mother and stage manager, organizing various happenings in the burgeoning environs. 1992 sees Salon of Mating Spiders, an Art-Palooza extravaganza at Test-Site, a major signpost on the history turnpike. Check it out—half the artists in Williamsburg’s Curriculum Vitae begin with Mating Spiders, a street fair, New Music performance, picnic and art happening, all rolled into one. Even with community recognition and press coverage, Test-Site folds. Herron retreats to Soho for a brief stint with Black + Herron but can’t resist the pull of Bedford Avenue. While curating a multi-site show, Dyad in 1994, she convinces a recent arrival from California, disappointed with the difficulty of breaking into the art world, to participate.

Joe Amrhein gets hip and takes Annie’s advice. Deciding to open Pierogi 2000, he begins to assemble what will become the world-famous Pierogi Flat Files, currently representing over 700 artists. By 1996 word of the Flat Files and other developments reach the BMA, and Current Undercurrent, a Working in Brooklyn show organized by Charlotte Kotik, features the collection. Moving east on North 9th Street and opening a new space in 1998, Pierogi becomes the cornerstone of the Williamsburg scene, and is credited with promoting the “big drawing,” massive works on paper that has been recognized by critics as one of the few commonalities to distinguish local work produced during this period. Along with debuting and / or showcasing artists such as Jim Torok, Dawn Clements, Jonathan Schipper, John J. O’Connor, Kim Jones, Jane Fine, James Esber and Ward Shelley, Pierogi is instrumental in promoting the seminal conceptual drawings of Mark Lombardi.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in art history from Syracuse University, Lombardi moves to Houston where he runs a small gallery and works at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Though still practicing painting, he becomes fascinated with diagramming financial and political scandals collected from the popular press, interpreting them through the lens of Herbert Marcuse’s theories of social activism. He shows these drawings for the first time in 1995, and receives greater public exposure in 1997 when he’s included in an exhibition at Soho’s Drawing Center. He moves to Brooklyn in 1998 and has his first Pierogi 2000 show, Silent Partners. At forty-eight he’s taking off like a rocket, with a supportive dealer, international curators knocking and inclusion in the career-making Greater New York 2000. Friends and admirers are struck dumb when word comes of his suicide. It’s reported that he hanged himself in his South 5th Street studio on the 22nd of March, 2000; years later, rumors still circulate suspecting foul play.

Strength in Numbers

The mid-nineties is a period of consolidation and recognition. Other galleries, some with public funding, join the fray and form a core community. Momenta Art, begun in Philadelphia by Eric Heist and Laura Parness, pitches camp in 1995 on the north side and features a program of conceptual work, much of it with a biting institutional critique. Feed, founded in 1992 by Lisa Schroeder and Barry Hylton on North 3rd, starts casually and goes through several mutations, eventually partnering with Sara Jo Romero and absconding to Chelsea as Schroeder Romero in 2006. Roebling Hall is kicked off in 1997 by Joel Beck and the controversial Christian Viveros-Fauné. Taking their name from their Roebling Street location, they move in 1998 to larger digs on Wythe Avenue and present artists Eve Sussman, Christoph Draeger, Sebastiaan Bremer among others before heading to West Chelsea in 2005. The Williamsburg Arts & Historical Center at Broadway and Bedford anchors the south end of the Bedford strip. Housed in the landmarked Kings County Savings Bank, this edifice was home and studio to the notorious time-traveling art team of McDermott & McGough before being purchased for the museum by Yuko Nii in 1996. Under the direction of “eccentric anarchist” Terrance Lindall, the WAH Center presents Brave Destiny in the fall of 2003. Bombastically billed as the largest Surrealist exhibition in history, Brave Destiny includes nearly 400 artists, with big names like H. R. Geiger and Ernst Fuchs taking part. Though originally skeptical of the gamy tang of this “outmoded” genre, I’m now thinking that Brave Destiny could, in part, be credited with many local artists’ current infatuation with Pop Surrealism.

As Soho fades in the late nineties and the colossus of Chelsea embodies a new paradigm, a flock of galleries join the Brooklyn chorus. Some have deep ties to the community, while others see Williamsburg as training camp for the big leagues. Galleries to the east spring up, including Flip Side, Dam & Stuhltrager, Front Room, Naked Duck and Jessica Murray Projects.

Annie Herron teams with Larry Walczak’s “eyewash” in 1998. Over the next ten years “eyewash” presents over 125 artists while pioneering some challenging collaborations with local businesses, like the current ARTWALKING: Bedford Avenue, a project employing 28 store windows. In 2002, Annie—with her indomitable energy and organizational and social skills—is unexpectedly stricken with leiomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer. Though continuing her hectic non-stop schedule of curating, lecturing and travel while under going chemotherapy, Annie, at age 50, succumbs in September 2004. With the ‘Burg’s big sister gone, a drifting away begins.

The Williamsburg Gallery Association decides to cash in on their outsider status and in 2000 organizes Elsewhere (the rubric that the ‘Burg is listed under in the New York Times). It’s the first neighborhood-wide collaborative celebration, with late-night openings, shuttle buses, food, drink and performances. At this point, the WAGMAG Guide lists over twenty-five galleries. But with increased desirability, pressure from real estate development makes it tougher to stay in the district. Bellwether, Black & White, Plus Ultra, 31 Grand, Foxy Productions, LMAK Projects Monya Rowe, Jessica Murray Projects and Priska C. Juschka all exit to Manhattan nirvana (though some still maintain Brooklyn presence).

Sensation and Beyond, the Wrap

In March 1997, The Brooklyn Museum announces its selection of Arnold L. Lehman as its new director. Though a Brooklyn native, Lehman left the borough at the age of eight and had spent the previous thirteen years heading the Baltimore Museum of Art. Lehman is seen as an innovator who, it is hoped, will nudge the BMA out of the doldrums and spearhead the museum’s massive renovation project. But these lofty expectations are eclipsed in 1999 as Sensation raises the hackles of local conservatives and brings down the wrath of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The prime target of contention was Chris Ofili’s painting “The Holy Virgin Mary,” a glittering expressionistic rendering which included porn-mag crotch-shots and rested on two lumps of varnished elephant dung. The museum is picketed daily, the Mayor threatens to cut funding, and the show becomes an international cause célèbre signaling the rise of the Young British Artists and the power of a new breed of “art capitalists.” Controversies surrounding its sponsorship by Charles Saatchi and the subsequent sale at auction of a number of pieces call the Museum’s ethics in to question. You can’t buy this kind of press.

In spring 2004 the Museum unveils it $63 million Polshek Partnership-designed entranceway with choreographed fountains and a gleaming glass rotunda. Brooklyn’s front stoop is pimped extraordinaire, and this world-class collection finally looks the part.

Like any ecosystem, art scenes ebb and flow. As the Bedford/Metropolitan nexus is swamped with pricy towers, a group of rugged down-and-dirty spaces have emerged in Northern and Eastern Williamsburg with names like Brooklyn Fire Proof, The ‘temporary Museum of Painting, vertexList, Janet Kurnatowski, English Kills, Pocket Utopia and Ad Hoc Art.

Despite what William Powhida proclaims, tongue planted very firmly in cheek, in his “Williamsburg Eulogy” delivered in 2006, Brooklyn will survive. In personal research I’ve compiled a list of over 140 arts venues operating in the neighborhood since 1982, far surpassing the East Village in number and duration. With thousands of resident and visiting artists showing here, Williamsburg has long ago hit the “tipping point.” If and when the Broadway musical based on the ‘Burg comes out, rather than a dramatic ending, in tragedy and death, like Rent, the ‘Burg will, more likely, fade and crumble without a whimper, burdened under its own ennui and the pressures of the real estate boom. To all the pundits and historians seeking to “streamline” the story and clean up the narrative, you’re going to have to get a bigger airbrush.

I’d like to thank the following for their suggestions and contributions: Peter Acheson, Mitchell Algus, Joe Amrhein, Kathy Bradford, Mike Cockrill, Jennifer Junkermeier, Stephen Maine, Licha Jimenez, Cecily Kahn, Chris Martin, Ward Shelley, Fred Valentine, Don Voisine and Larry Walczak


James Kalm

JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene.  In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2008

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