From the Archives: The Return of the Red-Brick Alternative

View of the buildings and courtyard newly renovated by Frederick Fisher, showing a Richard Nonas wood sculpture on the ground at center, with wall texts by Lawrence Weiner and paintings by John Baldessari, all works 1997. Photo © Michael Moran.



This summer, MoMA P.S. 1 celebrates its fortieth anniversary with “Forty,” an exhibition organized by founder Alanna Heiss featuring work by many of the artists who participated in the contemporary art center’s first show in 1976. In October 1997, P.S. 1 reopened after a three-year renovation. In our January 1998 issue, A.i.A. contributing editor Eleanor Heartney took stock of the expanded and refurbished galleries, which featured eight exhibitions and over fifty installations and artist projects. –Eds.


The weather on Oct. 26, the date of P.S. 1’s long-awaited reopening, wasn’t very promising. Drizzling rain that turned heavier at times stymied plans for an open-air concert in the newly graveled courtyard, forcing musicians John Cale, Elliott Sharp and D.J. Lo-ki to retreat to the teeming indoor reception area. But the rain didn’t keep hordes of art lovers from pouring in from the subway and expressway. For most of the afternoon, a bottleneck persisted at the new walled entryway that now separates the familiar three-story red-brick school building from the surrounding Long Island City neighborhood. 

Conservative estimates put the crowd that Sunday at 10,000. The caterers reported that there were at least 3,000 people on each of the three floors at any one time. The roof, which had also been annexed for exhibition space, had to be closed off for fear of collapse. Visitors, ranging from the cognoscenti to the merely curious, shuffled shoulder to shoulder around mobbed drink tables, up the narrow staircases and into cubicles and mazelike corridors filled with newly minted art. It was a triumphant confirmation of director Alanna Heiss’s belief that her freshly renovated contemporary art center could pull in an audience to rival its formidable competitors across the East River.

P.S. 1’s exultant return is all the more remarkable considering its apparent decline in the years just prior to the institution’s closing for much-needed renovations in 1994. In part, the problem was physical—in the mid-’90s, visitors to the drafty former elementary school were confronted with roped-off stairwells, crumbling walls and sagging ceilings rather uncertainly propped up with I-beams. As conditions worsened, more and more of the building was placed off limits. But beyond the structural decline was a larger philosophical problem. During its heyday from the late ’70s to the mid ’80s, P.S. 1 gained the affection of New York art aficionados by offering, as critic Nancy Foote put it, “The Apotheosis of the Crummy Space.” The place was delightfully funky, cheerfully unorganized and remarkably open to the off-beat, the underappreciated and the just barely emerging. But by the early ’90s, art and commerce had formed an uneasy alliance. Museums were going global and many upscaling alternative spaces found themselves competing for artists with savvy commercial galleries. In this environment, P.S. 1’s let’s-all-roll-up-our-sleeves-and-make-an-art-center mentality seemed seriously out of step with the zeitgeist.

But zeitgeists change. Having shed various earlier appellations—The Institute for Art and Urban Resources, The Institute for Contemporary Art, P.S. 1 Museum—the newly rechristened P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center makes its return in a much more sympathetic art environment. Revulsion against the boutique invasion in SoHo has spurred an exodus to the still chicly unchic spaces of Chelsea on Manhattan’s far west side. Despite periodic announce-ments by art arbiters that installation, performance and site-specific art are passé, these anti-commercial forms of artistic expression continue to gather strength. And while the art stars of the ’80s, some of them slinking back to art-making after inauspicious Hollywood directorial debuts, have diminished in stature, the seminal figures of the ’70s are enjoying renewed attention.

Thus, it seems fair to read the tremendous turnout for the reopening ceremonies both as a sign of nostalgia for the kinder, gentler ’70s and as a vote for a less commercially focused art world. However, the reopening makes it clear that P.S. 1 has not emerged from the convulsions of the ’80s unchanged. In a recent conversation, Heiss noted that during the “money episode” of the 1980s, P.S. 1 did not share in the general largesse and hence was well equipped to weather the subsequent art-market crash. But with a staff enlarged to 10 or 11 (the exact figure seems in doubt), 40 percent more exhibition space, and a commitment to remain open year-round, she admits that the institution she heads “will need much more money.” 

In this respect, P.S. 1 shares the dilemma faced by other contemporary art spaces: how to balance necessary growth against the risk that expansion will dull the cutting edge by holding an organization hostage to fundraising. Any number of factors have fueled an expansionary trend among museums and alternative spaces, including the global scope of contemporary art and the belief that since “money follows money” a bigger institution has a better chance of attracting funding than a smaller one does. The issue Heiss now seems to face is whether P.S. 1 can compete for needed funding while retaining the anti-institutional aura for which it is famous.

The architectural renovation provides a visual metaphor for the slightly schizophrenic nature of P.S. 1’s new identity. The most dramatic change is the complete reversal of the building’s orientation, and the creation of a walled courtyard which leads to the new entryway. The old entrance was an inconspicuous door on what has become the back of the building—the flank that faces Manhattan. Now visitors pass through a grand labyrinth of high concrete walls which mask out the surrounding neighborhood. These lead into a vast open space which serves as a sculpture garden. Viewed from the courtyard, the rectangular masses of the building have the monumental and subtly diminishing quality of something out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. This effect is accentuated in the opening show by Marina Abramovic’s attenuated 35-foot-high chair, which towers over visitors approaching the main entrance.

Once inside the building and past the imposing new reception area, however, returning visitors will find that enough remains of the peeling paint, red-brick walls and eccentric spaces to conjure memories of the comfortably jury-rigged old P.S. 1. Los Angeles-based architect Frederick Fisher, who masterminded the renovation, notes that he went to great pains to retain the picturesque charm of the turn-of-the-century Romanesque Revival school building. (Among Fisher’s previous projects are the Bergamot Station Arts Complex in Santa Monica and L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice, Calif.) In fact, a large part of the $8.5-million renovation budget went for such items as replacing rotting beams, plugging leaks and updating antiquated heating and electrical systems. A state-of-the-art elevator was also installed. The remaining money has gone for refurbishing existing galleries and opening up more exhibition space, which has been increased from 84,000 to 125,000 square feet (20,000 of which is outdoors, in the courtyard). Exhibition space of one sort or another now comprises 85 percent of the building and its environs, a proportion Fisher claims is double that available in other museums.

Practical considerations dictated many decisions. Cubicles reserved for the International Studio Program have been consolidated into the south wing of the U-shaped building, so that participants can have 24-hour access. (This also has the effect of clearly separating the studios from the main exhibition areas—avoiding the old confusion between exhibitions and open studios, but also making them less accessible to casual visitors.) Thanks to a floor which could not be saved, the chimney flue adjacent to the reception desk has become a handsome two-story gallery. The second floor in the north wing is now an elegant, naturally illuminated sculpture gallery. Several areas which had been closed for safety reasons were reopened, the most dramatic of these being the bell tower on the northwest corner of the building. 

For fans of the old P.S. 1, the only real disappointment is the renovation of the third-floor auditorium space. This was formerly the most majestic space in the building—I remember with special fondness the installation of Magdalena Abakanowicz sculptures there in 1993. While Fisher’s design retains the room’s high ceilings and arched rear passageway, the elegant arched windows have been closed off to provide more wall space.

The eight opening shows were carefully crafted to cover the bases of the late-’90s art scene. The entirety of the south wing’s first floor is given over to the films, costumes, photographs, posters and drawings of the late filmmaker Jack Smith in an exhibition curated by Edward Leffingwell, J. Hoberman and Larry Rinder. Smith, who died in relative obscurity in 1989, is here given his due as a forerunner of the current obsession with gender-bending, thriftshop glamour and blatant theatricality.

John Coplans’s exhibition, installed in the ex-auditorium, offers an astringent contrast to Smith’s celebration of artifice. Large and small black-and-white photographic self-portraits made between 1984 and 1996 give us relentlessly unromanticized representations of the artist’s naked body. This exhibition would seem to signal P.S. 1’s ongoing commitment to the work of older artists.

Meanwhile, a second-floor exhibition devoted to the work of sculptor Jackie Winsor seems designed to reinforce one of the primary themes of this reopening extravaganza, namely the continuity between the ’70s and the ’90s. P.S. 1’s selection of Winsor’s Post-Minimalist sculptures demonstrates that her work is completely in synch with a younger generation’s explorations of organic stand-ins for the human body.

An exhibition of distorted self-portraits by photographer Martin von Haselberg further emphasizes the current artistic trend of corporeal self-examination. And an exhibition of sculptures by Lynne Yamamoto inspired by the life of her grandmother, an immigrant laundress who traveled from Japan to Hawaii as a mail-order bride in 1914, points to the prevalence of identity-based work and a growing Asian presence in contemporary art. The work employs photographs and evocative objects (starch-stiffened shirt sleeves, synthetic hair passed through a clothes wringer, tiny nails labeled with the names of domestic activities) to conjure a sense of Yamamoto’s grandmother’s difficult life. In a nod to the vogue for community outreach (and to P.S. 1’s past), this exhibition was curated by four high-school students, who also contributed two works of their own and designed a Web site dealing with Yamamoto’s work.

The group shows highlight other areas of current concern. Media and technology are the focus of “Heaven,” a two-part exhibition curated by Joshua Decter and Jean-Michel Ribettes. While the section titled “Public View” offers a rather uncompelling assembly of slide, video and photographic works, the other half, “Private View,” was a lot more fun. Located in the new café, it presents slides by over 100 artists. The slides are housed in small slide viewers (one slide per viewer) which dangles tantalizingly in groups above each table. The individual images become visible only when one grabs a slide viewer and depresses its light button, making for a highly personalized art experience.

“Vertical Painting Show,” curated by Heiss, pulls off a rather remarkable feat. It sets an intentionally eclectic group of contemporary painters loose on the peeling walls of two stairwells, each running the full height of the building, in the north wing. Turning painting into a form of site-specific installation, this exhibition allows P.S. 1 to affirm the current importance of painting without conceding its status as a precious object. The flanking walls of each landing present “canvases” to two artists, allowing for some interesting juxtapositions. For instance, Mary Heilmann’s cool blue minimal mural sets off a wall oozing with green landscapelike blobs by Madeleine Hatz. Alexis Rockman’s realistic image of a rat peering out from a trompe-l’oeil hole in the wall is across from Judith Hudson’s wildly undulating stripes. An eccentric composition of gesture and image by Fabian Marcaccio is countered by a very austere abstract study by Tobi Kahn. Carl Ostendarp covered his wall with colorful Pop-inspired rectangles and question marks. Directly opposite, Rebecca Quaytman contributed a severely conceptual mural which consists of a black-and-white photograph of the stairwell in which it is placed.

The banquet of shows is rounded out by the rather laconically titled “Some Young New Yorkers,” which confirms P.S. l’s continuing commitment to emerging artists. It was curated by Heiss and Klaus Biesenbach, who along with Michael Tarantino and Kazue Kobata served as members of the curatorial team for the entire opening program. (Although none of them are based in New York, Biesenbach, Tarantino and Kobata will have an on-going curatorial relationship with P.S. 1.) Despite the general title, the four young artists featured here all display architectural inclinations. Sarah Sze broke into the wall and constructed an intriguing miniature world which spills back out onto the gallery floor. Clara Williams erected a full-scale cockeyed front porch ca. 1940 against the gallery wall. Jason Rosenberg presents a series of small, architecturally inspired geometric collages. Seth Kelly assembled several impossible architectural models based on landmarks of the International Style. Their works are accompanied, at the far end of the gallery, by a large-scale, recent Rauschenberg print, suggesting perhaps that some New Yorkers remain forever young.

While the opening exhibitions offer a wide-ranging curatorial statement of purpose, the soul of the new P.S. 1 seems most evident in the special projects and site-specific installations scattered throughout the building. Many are located in out-of-the-way, hard-to-reach recesses in the roof, attic and basement, prompting more than one visitor to speculate about liability issues posed by exposed pipes and electrical wires, perilous ladders and unlit corridors.

Presiding over the installations is the ghost of a 1976 exhibition titled “Rooms” from P.S. 1’s maiden year. The original “Rooms” featured works by an impressive roster of 80 Post-Minimal artists. They created a series of more or less subtle interventions in the barely renovated school building which Heiss had leased from the city for $1,000 a year. For the reopening, she reinstalled and reexposed a sampling of these original projects. Richard Artschwager’s spherical glass ceiling lamps emblazoned in red with the word “Exit” were reinstalled along one corridor. Artschwager also contributed a series of enigmatic lozenge shapes, stenciled throughout the building like coded symbols. Lucio Pozzi recreated a work in which paint swatches were affixed along the old school hallways to match some of the building’s institutional paint colors. A dramatic pyramidal room off the bell tower was reopened to reveal a long-hidden and remarkably restrained Richard Serra consisting of an I-beam nestled into a slot on the floor. A ladder behind a steam pipe in the bell tower led the stout-of-heart up to Bruce Nauman’s understated contribution—several slabs of wood propped on stones and pieces of ceramic pipe, positioned on the topmost section of the roof. Throughout the building, Muntadas set up slide projectors to show the images of the original school interior, which he had first projected in 1976. Alan Saret’s contribution, a hole which the artist had dug out of the wall at the far end of a corridor and whose art status had lately been overlooked, was suitably relabeled.

Other “Rooms” alumni were invited to create new work. Among those who took up the challenge were Lawrence Weiner and John Baldessari, who produced nicely complementary text (Weiner) and image (Baldessari) works which were interspersed outside along the courtyard’s inner wall. On the ground nearby, Richard Nonas positioned a group of rough-hewn wood beams to form a double-barred cross leading to the entry stairs.

The “Rooms” esthetic of using subtle alteration to draw the eye to previously unnoticed aspects of the existing environment carries through to some of the new P.S. 1 installations. Of works with a more discreet presence, two of the most successful are by Aim Hamilton and Pipilotti Rist. Hamilton’s weeping wall located near the entrance secretes pinhole droplets of water which gather in pools on the floor and have to be mopped up each evening. Nearby, Rist sank a tiny video monitor into a knothole in the wooden floor. It shows a miniature woman imploring indifferent passersby to pull her out of her subterranean prison. Another below-floor-level work is Matt Mullican’s installation in an inactive boiler room in the basement. By embedding several specially designed steel grates in the room’s earthen floor, Mullican subtly hints at aspects of the elaborate metaphysical system on which his oeuvre is based. Nearby, Robert Ryman contributed two small paintings. Placed beyond the boiler room and beneath the sidewalk in a dungeon-like alcove, they quietly sparkle with light from an aperture above.

Other works, however, partake of the monumental scale and heightened theatricality that characterize so much contemporary art. The contrast between these pieces and the more modest “Rooms” installations suggests that one big difference between the ’70s and ’90s may be a greatly increased audience expectation. It is hard to imagine today’s contemporary-art public being completely satisfied by an exhibition devoted to holes in the wall and tiny stenciled lozenges.

Several of the new installations successfully combine theatrical presentation and emotional engagement. One of these is an initially deceptive toolshed which Ilya Kabakov constructed in one of the open-air enclosures formed by the courtyard wall. Tucked off to one side, the structure is easily mistaken for a shed used by those working on the P.S. 1 renovations. Only by pushing open its rough door and venturing through the darkness, past scattered ladders and piles of lumber, does the intrepid viewer reach the shed’s illuminated center, where Kabakov constructed a miniature city. This Lilliputian—and distinctly Russian-looking—city is magically presided over by an airborne angel.

Dennis Oppenheim’s contribution also appears utilitarian at first glance. It consists of a skeletal aluminum armature stretching from courtyard to roof along an outside corner of the building. It is actually a miniature elevator shaft whose Falling Room rises slowly to the roof and drops back to the ground with alarming speed.

In a rooftop loggia which had once housed the school’s bell, Julian Schnabel installed several large metal sculptures, one of which is hung in place of the missing bell. On the loggia’s peeling ceiling, he placed an ornately framed painting of an angel in priest’s garb, playing off the ecclesiastical associations of the bell tower.

In the attic, Nari Ward wove a dense web out of twisted garbage bags filled with building debris, which the viewer has to navigate to reach a restful open space in the center. Robert Wogan created a narrow, twisting labyrinth which shrinks to a cramped passage about 2½ feet high before opening into an expansive cathedral-like space. In the basement, Chen Zhen’s giant prayer wheel celebrates the sound of money when laboriously rotated by visitors. Patrick Killoran erected a combination guillotine/pirate’s plank in one of the administrative offices. It invites viewers to lie on a sliding platform which propells them half way out the window and over the street three stories below.

The reopening installations serve as a reminder of how closely P.S. 1’s identity is tied to the nature of the building that houses it. Other not-for-profit spaces may change location with little or no detrimental effect, but for P.S. 1, the rambling red-brick school building is a vital player in all programming decisions. Its eccentric spaces make unusual things possible, and the art it has most cherished plays off its distinctive architecture. The only other art space in New York that can make the same claim is its sister space, the Clocktower.

This may explain the widespread sense of relief expressed by longtime fans when they realized how much of the building’s original ambience had been maintained in the renovation. However, less visible aspects of P.S. 1’s operation will no doubt be very different. With the renovation out of the way, difficult questions about funding and programming cannot be avoided. The $8.5-million renovation was paid for by New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, which owns the building. The DCA will also provide a third of the projected $1.5-million annual operating costs, but the agency will not be contributing to programming expenses. Heiss is optimistic but vague about future sources of support, as the institution looks to board members, private donors, corporations, foundations and members for funding. Currently, P.S. 1 is in the second year of an $134,000 NEA Endowment Challenge Grant. 

Heiss is confident that the expansion will attract serious funders. However, P.S. 1 is not alone among New York City art institutions in its quest for increased support. The New Museum is also completing a major renovation and expansion. The Guggenheim continues its worldwide outreach. MoMA will be expanding as soon as it picks an architect. One wonders if all these institutions will be able to carve out sufficiently separate niches to allow for a beneficial coexistence.

A typically bitchy article on P.S. l’s reopening in the New York Observer asked the question: “Will people take the E train to Long Island City to go to another museum?” For the short term, of course, the answer is yes. Art lovers will come for splashy openings as they will go to openings in Bilbao, or Munster, or Kassel. But, more importantly, will they keep coming, especially if Heiss downplays the event-driven nature of programming in favor of projects that do not all open on the same day? Heiss insists that one of the big differences between the old and new P.S. 1 is that the focus is now much more on audience. Hence the increased emphasis on education and the new amenities such as the café and bookstore. But in this brave new era in which box office spells survival for cultural institutions, it remains to be seen whether the avant-garde can pull in the Spielberg crowd. [As this issue goes to press, P.S. 1 reports that post-opening-day attendance has been strong, averaging 500-700 on weekdays, 1,000 on weekends.]

Against this background, one finds it hard not to look for symbolic meaning in the text Scottish artist Douglas Gordon painted on a wall at the courtyard entrance. In large blue letters, Gordon’s contribution reads: “It’s only just begun.” For the new P.S. 1, this is both a promise and a prayer.