REMEMBER A TIME in the New York art scene when money talked but did not drown out every other sound? When “uptown” and “downtown” signified not just geography but lifestyle? When a clash between establishment artists and younger avant-gardists was a rite of succession? While these characteristics were commonplace throughout the 20th century, by its end a new (art) world order was firmly in place.
In November 1998, I wrote a piece for this magazine titled “On Edge: Alternative Spaces Today,” examining the 1990s demise of numerous alternative spaces and the transformation of many others. I took for granted the notion of an alternative space movement that was born at the end of the ’60s, provided noncommercial venues for the exhibition of then-new art forms such as video and performance, and initiated curatorial practices that empowered artists. Alternative Histories: New York Art Spaces, 1960 to 2010, however, proposes a very different reading of the past, one based not on shared historic cir- cumstances but on temperament: namely, artists’ heroic— nearly genetic—devotion to convention-shattering ideas and activities. This take echoes the modernist notion of the avant-garde, which applies to only some 19th- and 20th-century artists—and not at all to either premodern or postmodern practices.
Alternative Histories derives from an exhibition of the same name held at the New York nonprofit Exit Art in 2010. Jointly curated by the now-shuttered venue’s cofounders and codirectors, Papo Colo and the late (and much lamented) Jeanette Ingberman, as well as staff curators Lauren Rosati and Herb Tam, the show had an intriguing design. Each of the nearly 140 featured initiatives or groups—not all were physical spaces— was accorded a cardboard box filled with primary documents related to its history and, in 60 instances, the transcript of a recently conducted interview with one of its organizers or other insiders. The boxes were set on a gargantuan table in the gallery, whose walls were papered with pictures and posters. Talk about an alternative archive! This one vividly reflected the casual and exuberant do-it-yourself spirit that characterized the first generation of alternative spaces during the 1970s.
The book partially mirrors the show—more than three- quarters of it is devoted to the “spaces” and the other quarter is divided between excerpts from 13 of the interviews conducted by Tam (with subjects such as Irving Sandler, Alanna Heiss and Ann Philbin) and a slim section of essays and commentary. These include brief introductory remarks by co-editor Mary Anne Staniszewski (best known for The Power of Display, her thoughtful book on MoMA’s exhibi- tion design history), an essay by veteran alternative space founder Jacki Apple and an historical overview by former Exit Art curator Melissa Rachleff, supplemented with a few paragraphs each from Ingberman, Colo and Rosati. The democratic format of the show has been translated into the book’s early 21st-century layout of choice: a single picture printed full-page and, facing it, a short text about the space’s mission or history—sometimes nothing more than organizational boilerplate. The effect of the volume’s unvarying design is less democratic than leveling and so does not support the “ongoing process of mapping, recording and analyzing” that Staniszewski posits.
STANISZEWSKI’S FORMULATION suggests the casting of a wide historical net intended to capture little- known primary materials. However, except for the flavorful interview excerpts, only a few real source documents have traveled from show to book. Most of the essayists seem to have succumbed to the general habit of ignoring everything that isn’t available online. Among the records of events of the 1970s and ’80s that ought to have been consulted are firsthand accounts and reviews from the Village Voice, the SoHo Weekly News and the East Village Eye.
On the other hand, the book’s wry and likeable interview clips do provide the beginnings of a social history of downtown Manhattan starting in the late 1960s. (The interviews in their entirety are housed in the Exit Art Archive at NYU’s Fales Library & Special Collections.) They range broadly from the recollections of Carol Goodden, cofounder of FOOD, who describes the artist-run eatery’s strictly tangential rela- tionship to feminist politics, to comments about the contrast between nonprofit groups and commercial galleries by Martha Wilson, whose invaluable Franklin Furnace programs were at the center of many First Amendment-related conflicts of the era. Tam, who occasionally brings a few questions from his Exit Art colleagues into the exchange, neither mentions how high-flown the anticapitalist rhetoric of the day was nor identifies the central role of urban-life activists and others in saving SoHo from Robert Moses’s demolition plans. Despite this, he elicits from the witnesses an engagingly intimate view of SoHo—the geographical (and sociological) hub of New York’s early alternative scene.
Composer Rhys Chatham, the first music director of the Kitchen—the space for video and (electronic) music founded by video pioneers Woody and Steina Vasulka—describes a multidisciplinary SoHo milieu populated by loft-dwelling musicians, photographers, dancers and visual artists. These (often illegal) residents made the isolated neighborhood a beehive of activity during the day, Chatham recalls, and at night “a place to dream,” where people like Yvonne Rainer and Joan Jonas would perform. In 1971, the Kitchen opened in one of the five theaters in the Mercer Arts Center com- plex on Broadway. “My idea was that instead of people doing concerts in their loft,” Chatham says, “they could do it at the Kitchen where we had a good sound system and a beautiful grand piano.” His concert series was an immediate success and survived the building’s physical collapse in 1973.
The impetus for opening many of the downtown venues arose from specific, local circumstances—such as cheap rents, easily available part-time jobs, and the scarcity of experimental commercial galleries and new-music venues. Other conditions reflected national trends, including the postwar flight to suburbia and the deindustrialization of cities. The period also brought a startling embrace of youth culture and an apprecia- tion of the U.S.’s preeminent role in virtually every realm. In art, this was reflected in the public’s (and the media’s) growing fascination with the art that began to emerge in New York in the late 1940s—and, by the 1960s, with the stratospheric auction prices paid for it. Consider also the rise of doctoral dissertations on living artists and the founding of museums devoted exclusively to contemporary art, and the message was clear: Good-bye Rembrandt! Hello Rauschenberg!
IN MY “ON EDGE” ARTICLE, I referred to a network of nonprofit spaces such as Buffalo’s Hallwalls, Atlanta’s Nexus and San Francisco’s New Langton Arts, highlighting the new professionalism of their policies: “Most relied on artists to curate shows . . . [and] most radical of all, artists received fees for curating and exhibiting.” Although public and private funders mandated such fees in exchange for financial support, the practice was dropped by the commercial East Village spaces that sprang up in the 1980s to present accessible, pop-culture-inspired artworks and cabaret-style performances. Generational change destroyed the old consensus about what cutting-edge art was and where it could be found. Was the action now taking place in the commercial East Village venues? Or in the pioneering, nonprofit alternative spaces founded during the ’70s?
At the same time, another possibility emerged—that of a second wave of nonprofit alternative spaces. Like Exit Art itself, launched in 1982, they opened after many of the problems that led to the founding of the original alternative spaces—such as most museums’ lack of interest in video or installation art—were largely resolved. The founders of the new spaces pursued a variety of approaches, including Exit Art’s multicultural orientation. All that linked the new spaces was the broad nonprofit mandate to provide artists with exhibition and performance space and other forms of assistance. During the 1980s, the new spaces simply assumed their complementary roles within the New York art ecosystem, and making distinctions between the generations of nonprofits became unnecessary. In 1998, looking back, I wrote that “the term artists’ organization began to seem more appropriate, if far less precise, than alternative space.”
My use of “artists’ organization” referred to the National Association of Artists’ Organizations (NAAO). Based in Washington, D.C., NAAO ably fostered communication among its more than 700 members, lobbied congress on their behalf and helped to organize the team of savvy First Amendment defenders who fought for the rights of artists and exhibitors in the culture wars of the day. Despite numerous mentions of these conflicts—key words: Artists Space, David Wojnarowicz, Senator (and censor) Jesse Helms— NAAO is never cited in Alternative Histories.
In this and many other instances, Alternative Histories is disappointing, a surprisingly small step in the telling of a very big story. The problem seems fundamental: the idea of histori- cal causation has been sidelined, especially by Ingberman and Staniszewski, in favor of the implausible notion of a spirit of the alternative—a yearning for progressive change—that transcends time and place. Although I entirely sympathize with the desire to foster social advances through art, their words come across as a pep talk addressed to today’s art world denizens—albeit a much needed one, given how few of us joined the art-identified contingent of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, in contrast to the days of the Vietnam War, the Central American incursions and the AIDS crisis.
This idealistic goal invites attention to the project’s inclusions and exclusions. How is one to account for the absence of certain groups (admittedly not “spaces”) that fit squarely within—even epitomize—the alternative model? The missing (to name only a few) include: Women Artists in Revolution (WAR), an early feminist response to the male dominated antiwar movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s; Visual AIDS, the collective that produced artworks and events, including A Day With(out) Art and the Red Ribbon, intended to galvanize action in response to the global AIDS crisis; and Artists Talk on Art, the now 40-year-old group devoted to maintaining the art of cultural conversation (exem- plified in Mutiny and the Mainstream: Talk That Changed Art, 1975-1990, an anthology of 250 lecture and panel transcripts by speakers ranging from Harold Rosenberg to Adrian Piper).
Unfortunately, such omissions seem like a trade-off for the inclusion of spaces founded between 2005 and 2010, many of them no longer extant by time the Exit Art show opened. These latter-day projects—mostly beneath-the-radar curatorial, pub- lication and exhibition initiatives such as Cleopatra’s, the Dirty Dirty and Famous Accountants—suffer from cursory treatment here, when they deserve to be more fully considered in light of today’s new social realities. While these spaces provide an up-to-date coda to the exhibition, they simply seem out of place in the book, given its primary focus on the downtown New York art world of the second half of the 20th century.
Of the numerous contributor views, Ingberman’s are the most personally expressed and most poignant, given her recent passing and the widespread respect and affection for her:
One of the impulses to do the [Exit Art] show was the fact that the museums are now the alternative. They are exploring similar ideas and producing projects similar to the ones we have created. The Marina Abramović exhibition [at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010] could have been at Artists Space fifteen years ago. But MoMA is producing it with a lot of money. The staff at the museums also come from places like Exit Art, or from international organizations, as is the case with MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach and others.
One could argue that she overestimated the symbolic value of the Abramović show, but it is impossible to dismiss her view of the formidable influence of alternative-space- originated ideas about curatorial and exhibition practices (even as one wonders why the alternatives exert so little influ- ence in our current market-driven era). In any case, it is hard to contest Ingberman’s conclusion, which summarizes the 30-year campaign of Exit Art, its archival exhibition and the present volume: “We now need to question what our ideas are, and what our purpose is. We all need to figure out a new way to be alternative.” Her inquiring spirit will be missed.
ROBERT ATKINS is an art writer living in California.
PHOTOS: (left) Opening reception for the exhibition “Alternative Histories,” 2010. Courtesy Exit Art, New York. (right) Poster for the exhibition “Carnival Knowledge,” 1984, curated by nine women artists and activists. Courtesy Franklin Furnace Archive, Inc.