IN LATE 2017, after being gone from New York for a year (and mentally away a fair bit longer), I decided to start my reimmersion in the city’s art world at the Goethe-Institut’s Ludlow 38. The gallery, which opened on the Lower East Side in 2008, right as the neighborhood began to supplant Chelsea as the destination of choice for new galleries, runs a yearlong curatorial residency that consistently draws the young, sharp, and on trend. Ludlow could be depended on to clue me in to what I’d been missing, quash that panicky-urgent sense of falling behind to which we’re all so prone.
Open the door and voilà: a squad of mannequins in outlandish outfits. One was shrouded in a perforated pink knit cowl-midriff combo connected with thick woven cords and decorated with oversize notional bands. Another sported a melony orange skirt-jacket business suit mumped all over with little swells, topped off with a wrenched turban. What I assumed was the debut of another Isa Genzken acolyte turned out to be “The Overworked Body: An Anthology of 2000s Dress.” I’m wildly unqualified to evaluate an exhibition of fashion, and so you’ll find no assessment of the show here. But its larger gesture, crystallized by its curatorial statement, posed several salient and lingering questions about the construction of history, touching on questions of how we perceive time in the contemporary moment.
The text, authored by Ludlow 38’s then-curatorial resident Saim Demircan and guest curator Matthew Linde, began by setting out the show’s inspiration, a 1971 exhibition organized by fashion photographer (and so much more) Cecil Beaton at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “Under the connoisseurship of a bon vivant, fashionable modern dress received its first museological moment,” it read—a little shade thrown at the idea that an institutional consciousness could be trusted to properly take stock of fashion, or, more broadly, perhaps, that a historian could be trusted to create a history. The text then generalized briefly about the clothing of the early 2000s—only to immediately trouble the very possibility of those descriptions. “What makes fashion from the aughts so debatable,” it said, “is its proximity to the present. It is only through the machine of history that fashion finds protagonists.” In the end, rather than attempting a summary of the recent past, the show was “an effort to obstruct our tendency to assign a specific style to a decade.”1
This statement on “The Overworked Body” conveyed, in my reading, an impatience with the process of the formation of history. Was this stance simply the eruption of familiar vanguardist impulses, an articulation of a desire to be free from ossified and ossifying conventions? Or was the text expressing something else, a kind of bewilderment in the face of history, a declaration of the impossibility of producing a coherent vision that might propel the past—however recent—into connection with the present or a future? Fashion itself, its very name connoting ephemerality, is the perfect field in which to examine these concerns. And the time frame of the show was a period that, as the text pointed out, “saw the industry of fast-fashion massively expand its market.”2 Fast fashion à la H&M and Forever 21 is notorious for parroting runway designers and selling stylish but flimsy knockoffs at cut-rate prices, thus encouraging gluttonous cycles of consumption and disgorging. The industry’s breakneck pace confirms an observation that we make commonly, if not constantly, regarding media and daily life—that they’re speeding up—in the form that most richly expresses this onrushing in a material and aesthetic way.
“The Overworked Body” created a nonhistory of a period in which concept-to-product commercial supply chains radically increased in speed. It was also a period in which time itself frequently seemed to be rapidly accelerating, inducing a panicky-urgent condition. The compulsion to engage with the artifacts of the recent past, as well as the tensions attending the effort, suggest the complications of dealing with time in a seamless, speeding era when our aperture for viewing experience has narrowed.
BUT BEFORE H&M, there was the Gap. The chain opened a store on Saint Marks Place in the East Village in March 1988, much to the outrage of local residents, who rightly saw the shop as a new and ominous front in the gentrification that was taking place in the area and the corporatization of New York City overall. According to one giddy account, objections were expressed in human feces.3 The Tompkins Square Riot, incited by a neighborhood cleanup campaign focused on removing the homeless and transient who were squatting in the park, occurred in August 1988. We all know how things went from there. Looking back in 2004, the reliably blunt Gary Indiana put it thus: “The rents kept soaring, driving some places out of business. . . . The East Village had already become a zoo, and NYU would go on to plant some ugly dormitories down and unleash thousands of rich kids whose idea of art was grazing the streets and poking into boutiques while asserting their pathologies by screaming into cell phones. But hey, shit happens.”4
Nineteen eighty-eight was also the year that Pat Hearn and Colin de Land uprooted their still-young galleries from the East Village and moved them to SoHo. The rents were too damn high; too, the connotations of the East Village were a little pigeonholing for two art dealers who began there literally but whose programs never really shared the ramshackle, street-influenced tenor of the neighborhood’s art. Hearn had already established some bona fides, de Land was on his way to doing so; the pair had begun dating in 1987. With their relocation, they would in different ways go on to become two of the most influential dealers of their time, key in launching new modes of galleristic practice—or even inventing the idea that a gallerist could have a “practice” at all—and etching themselves into the history of downtown New York and the transatlantic art world. Many of the artists they showed were and remain critically acclaimed. They made smart cool in a way that has branded New York art ever since. They became icons of a sort, inspiring the artists they worked with, other dealers, their circles of friends and admirers, their friends’ circles. Both their lives were cut terribly short, both by cancer, Hearn dying in 2000 and de Land in 2003. These sad facts give a narrative concision to their histories, a periodization (dubious or otherwise) as that of a long 1990s. This concision obtains as well in the current exhibition “The Conditions of Being Art” at Bard College’s Hessel Museum of Art, which focuses on Hearn and de Land’s careers—and I use “careers” doubly, to take up the sense of a brisk pace to god knows where.
The 1990s kicked off, lest we forgot, in the 1980s, with the Berlin Wall falling in November 1989. The Soviet Union itself was erased from maps two years later. As these events fade from memory, and more recent upheavals seem omnipresent in their effects, it’s easy to forget that these collapses were perceived as epoch-making. They famously prompted neoliberal/neocon Francis Fukuyama to declare that capitalism had been proven to be the only practicable economic system and, likewise, that no society would choose any other form of government over liberal democracy. His 1989 essay “The End of History?” and subsequent treatise The End of History and the Last Man (1992) make for a few good chuckles when read today—which has hardly stopped him from dining out on the book and its bogus oracularism through the present.
Despite the wrongness of that particular prediction, and his take overall, Fukuyama wasn’t wrong in observing that the history had received a profound jolt—and his interpretation of events, drafting like a stock car on the analogous pronouncements of postmodernist theorists of the time (Lyotard, et al.), provided an intellectual fig leaf for the rapid advance of neoliberalism that occurred thereafter. To what degree the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it any plausible ideology to compete with capitalism, was actually causal as opposed to symptomatic or codetermined is hard to say, of course. Metanarratives had indeed become suspect (which Lyotard observed back in 1979), and the sense of history and temporality that people had was shifting. French historian Pierre Nora discussed in the 1980s the tendency to offload the process of recollection into tangible sites like memorials and archives—which predicted the rise of offloading to digital devices that began to occur in the 1990s with rise of home computing and the internet.5
The web of connections between the economic substrate and technological developments in the ’90s and ’00s is nicely articulated by Jonathan Crary in his polemical 24/7 (2013), a book as similarly summary (and hence as well cited) as Fukuyama’s wildly different one. Today we exist, Crary argues, in a nightmarish matrix wherein capital sells you tech objects that quickly become junk less for the sales than to keep you always disoriented. Existence becomes increasingly depersonalized despite the illusion of customization and despite seemingly constant connection to others, and your time is rendered increasingly available to capital’s machinations. It’s a “smooth” world where subjects are perpetually visible, perpetually engaged, perpetually available to be sold to or to perform labor, or have their information extracted for subsequent monetization. Among the results: a vitiating new temporality that embodies “an exorcism of otherness that is the motor of historical change,” “a sweeping abandonment of the pretense that time is coupled to any long-term undertakings, even to fantasies of ‘progress’ or ‘development,’” and “a duration without breaks . . . a time that no longer passes.”6
Crary’s analysis dovetails with what the historian François Hartog calls presentism—what happens when we all turn into archivists of ourselves, constantly snapping photos, creating data traces, and relying on our electronic tools to keep continuous records of our actions. In this regime of constructing time, the past and the future recede from significance in favor of an endlessly extenuated and preoccupying present. Records are excreted behind us like a kind of snail’s trail, lubricating our transit, not allowing us not to remember the past for long or implement any lessons we might learn from it to plan for the future. Instead of emulating Benjamin’s angel being blown into the future, facing backward toward the past, we gaze downward, mesmerized by what flows beneath our feet. (The recent past may hang in our peripheral vision, vexing and occasionally preoccupying, as it did for the curators of “The Overworked Body.”) The future, meanwhile, has abandoned the glorious utopianism of communism and vanguardistic modernism to become something too nebulous to conceive, like the world outside one’s darkened bedroom after a hangover.
THE SHIFTING SANDS of the 1980s and ’90s thus make “The Conditions of Being Art” is an intriguing object of study, with the milieux of the Hearn/de Land scenes unfolding at a peculiar, significant moment of transition in perceptions of the past, present, and future. The exhibition offers a syncretic history of Hearn’s eponymous gallery, active 1983–2000, and de Land’s American Fine Arts, Co., which operated under this guise and fleetingly under others from 1984 to 2004. It is a very good show. Occupying half the Hessel’s deceptively large building, the exhibition diligently presents not only the first-string lineups of Pat Hearn Gallery and American Fine Arts—a subjective and incomplete list would include Lutz Bacher, Mark Morrisroe, Mark Dion, Renée Green, Andrea Fraser, and Moyra Davey—but also lesser-known artists and curveball contributions from unexpected sources. One room features a gorgeous and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) brainy canvas by Philip Taaffe; great pride of place is given to a large, dense 1992 installation by Lincoln Tobier about the machinations of (I can’t believe I’m saying this) pre-Fox Roger Ailes. The “retrospective” presciently pinpoints Ailes’s diabolical role in American politics via his consulting work for, among others, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, omitting neither Ailes’s horse’s-mouth 1989 tome You Are the Message nor an image of Michael Dukakis in a tank.
Hearn took a careful, balanced approach to her work, beginning with friendships, advancing a large number of queer and female artists, forging histories for those she represented by occasionally exhibiting figures like Louise Bourgeois, Mike Kelley, Dan Flavin, and Ana Mendieta.7 All was executed with a sheen of formal suavity reflected in showings of painters Mary Heilmann and Pat de Groot; even Kirsten Mosher’s conceptually rich installation of construction chutes titled Gutting Cycle (1991), dangling grossly out one window of Hearn’s third-floor Wooster Street space and back into another, had a strong formal presence and contradictorily pleasing curve. Hearn was, in a sense, a gallerist’s gallerist, with personal roots in art-making and performance. De Land, meanwhile, swerved into a fairly consistent formulation beginning in 1986—eschewing balance and historical or intergenerational connections to focus on idiosyncratic applications of criticality to the gallery model. Forget having roots in performance; he arguably turned running a gallery into a performance itself. “The Conditions of Being Art,” perhaps not entirely to the curators’ desired end, unites Hearn and de Land’s galleries under this one flag of criticality and self-reflection.
The panoply of styles the two displayed, as captured in the Bard exhibition, testifies to the fact that commercial galleries can’t be too narrow-minded about what’s good or bad if they want to survive. Expecting too much coherence in “The Conditions of Being Art,” then, would be absurd, and if it existed it would be curatorial malpractice. The curators, Jeannine Tang, Ann E. Butler, and Lia Gangitano, have let the diversity of works in their subjects’ histories live, even as they tailor the installation to present clear points. To the middlingly informed, there are a number of surprises—Hearn showed the biomorphic formalism of sculptor Tishan Hsu, examples of which were juxtaposed at the Hessel with Taaffe’s materialist, Wool-ish work and a dense Jutta Koether painting evincing her faceted, elusive intellectualism. De Land showed both the subtle, literary Moyra Davey, represented in “Conditions” by photos of New York news kiosks, and the polemical, pedagogic Peter Fend—a surprising choice, not for his work’s critical teeth but for its atypical directness. Fend’s 1992 installation outlining a bioenergy scheme, Site Simulator (Tivat Bay Montenegro), splays across one wall at Bard, its site plans and other documentation recalling an architecture-school crit, in stark juxtaposition to a vitrine including vitriolic correspondence between de Land and artist Roy Arden, who had left AFA and apparently badmouthed its business practices. The counterpoint suggests an effort to make clear that, his reputation for jokery and abstruseness aside, de Land took things to heart. It’s a rare moment of deep personalization of the show’s ostensible subjects, which the curators seem to have taken pains to downplay, probably because hagiographic treatments of the dealers since their deaths have often emphasized their personalities and personas.
What is emphasized instead of persona is the application of institutional critique and self-reflexivity to the gallery model. Typically, this distinction has redounded more to de Land. But in the exhibition, where the galleries’ rosters are mixed without italicizing the differences between the two, such concerns end up pervading all. Photographs by Morrisroe and Jimmy DeSana, who showed with Hearn, critique neither art markets nor systems, but they do operate in critical ways with regard to identity and public visibility, breaking down societal conventions that kept queer identities out of public view. Institutional critique is also reinforced by key curatorial choices. The exhibition declares its intent at the outset, with the first work encountered—Julia Scher’s striking I’ll Be Gentle (1991), consisting of a surveillance camera half hidden by a spray of gorgeous crimson feathers. It was first shown by Hearn as part of an entire surveillance-themed exhibition, where the viewers of the art would see themselves observed. Turn left, and you encounter Closed Circuit (1997–2000), a year’s worth of footage from a camera Lutz Bacher installed over Hearn’s desk, edited down to forty minutes. Both works are multivalent; the latter is particularly elegiac, given Hearn’s illness at the time. But the stress here remains on self-scrutiny, the constant interrogation of one’s own terms and the gallery model.
In 1993 AFA hosted the exhibition “What Happened to the Institutional Critique?” organized by art historian James Meyer. In discussing it, Tang perfectly describes the 1990s application of the approach:
Meyer defined institutional critique’s new economic context to include the local gentrification of SoHo (where loft buildings were rapidly being converted into restaurants, boutiques, and gourmet shops). A concurrent rise in the discourse around multicultural issues and new theoretical developments led Meyer to contend that the status of the political had become “the dominant ‘theme’ or ‘content’ of new work,” with the political “generalized” or rendered metaphorical in studio-based practices geared toward art’s marketplace.8
“The Conditions of Being Art” solidifies the interpretation of the two galleries as pioneering this generalization of the political so well that I left the exhibition feeling as if I had already had this understanding well crystallized in my head all along, when in fact it was only a vague sense among many.
Institutional critique is, of course, a complicated, even perverse endeavor to undertake when running a small gallery, as opposed to applying it to large vested interests like museums or academic institutions; for the only way one could truly offer proof of concept of one’s self-criticality would be to go out of business, a kind of self-immolation. One might say that conclusion is reductive, misunderstands the concept of institutional critique. But the notion of the freedom obtained by breaking down the self jibes beautifully with post-1960s ideas à la Deleuze and Guattari and others, which were building toward peak influence in the 1990s; to cite the title of one key work by the art collective Bernadette Corporation, part of the later AFA stable: Get rid of yourself. Judging from writing on AFA, de Land in particular took this approach pretty far, narrowly outrunning insolvency for seemingly his whole career.
Of course with a good artist, institutional critique isn’t a zero-sum game. But it’s difficult to imagine what the point of it is if it’s not to create larger societal change—otherwise, it can seem to be empty posturing. Hearn and de Land were unquestionably politically minded and engaged (the Tobier installation’s prominent placement seems meant to underscore this). But AFA in particular has a reputation for incubating ways of making art that have now become vitiated, mannerisms, or else a kind of lapdog nip that rears up in press releases barking about this or that artwork’s criticality. I think here of a stray line I read in a review recently that captures a larger sense in art at the moment: “Has critique run out of steam?”9
AS A TYPE OF history making, mounting an art exhibition posits an identity, a template for a way to be. The identity that “The Conditions of Being Art” produces could never be entirely coherent; various histories course through it all, somehow to be processed by coming to understand its two principals. Along with that strain of institutional critique, the show and catalogue tend to consolidate a playful orneriness, fuck-allism, and late post-punk wrangling with imperatives to commodify one’s dissent—very 1990s indeed. In its variety, the show also claims the true aesthete’s right to have—or even their essential, constitutional need to have—arbitrary, inconsistent, and sometimes bad taste.
To my mind, this constellation of qualities very much resonates with the stereotypical art identity of New York. A line may be drawn back to Paris, Vienna, and other modern world-capital bohemias, where freaks of various stripes could cross-pollinate, fuck and take drugs, subsist on crusts, and hope to make it rich thanks to raw talent or naked social-climbing ability. Despite appearances to the contrary, bohemia does perform a useful social function: it creates a space that allows different classes to mingle despite structures of control that seek to negate that possibility, parallel to what Samuel Delany finds in the social mingling that occurred in 1970s and ’80s porno theaters.10 In our Craryesque world, these spaces are eradicated; Delany’s beloved Times Square began to be “cleaned up,” like the East Village, in the mid-1980s. The 1990s heyday of Hearn and de Land was a critical period of consolidation of the neoliberal consumer-corporate New York we now are left with. The arrival of the Gap on Saint Marks in 1988 was an early watershed—and one that inspired one of the more iconic sets of works in “The Conditions of Being Art.” Art Club 2000, a collective of undergraduates from Cooper Union—students of Hans Haacke and Mark Dion, among others—fell in with de Land and began an annual series of summer exhibitions at AFA. For the first of these, in 1993, they created photos of themselves as satiric Gap “spokesmodels” posed in various NYC locations wearing clothing purchased on credit from the store and summarily returned post-shoot.
“The Conditions of Being Art” was not the only show in 2018 to offer New York some stock-taking of the city’s recent past, however. During its run, two other exhibitions covered overlapping time spans and milieux—a Jack Smith survey at Artists Space and a David Wojnarowicz retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. And just before these, in February 2018, the East Village’s Performance Space 122, founded in 1980, relaunched itself as Performance Space New York with a series of events dedicated to its home nabe. Artists and subjects included staples of the area’s short-lived high era such as Kathy Acker, Diamanda Galás, Ishmael Houston-Jones, and Dennis Cooper. Throw in the Whitney’s Warhol retrospective beginning in November, and 2018 has given New York a heavy and more or less continuous dose of self-reflection about its late twentieth-century bohemia, focusing on artists whose social presence was heavily bound up with their identity as artists. The identities these shows examine are all surprisingly similar, or contiguous. With the shifts among them, we also see shifts in the sense of historicity and time.
Warhol, queen of the imaginary realm of downtown, always seemed decidedly, eerily focused on the now, whether through his extraordinary films, which exist in fervent yet icy amphetamine-extended single moments or, moving into the 1970s, to his bleak, repetitive portraiture—a true neoliberal monetization of social relations capturing moments ripped out of time. Perhaps this tuning to a sense of time we find contemporary is one reason we all find him so inescapable and continually important. But for all Warhol’s prescience, whether resulting from his childhood illnesses or Catholic upbringing or being shot in 1968, the deathly, inevitable endpoint of the future was never far from his mind; he exhibited what François Hartog might characterize as a kind of apocalyptic Christian temporality. Jack Smith, Warhol’s strange twin, had an idiosyncratic, hermetic sense of time. He shared Warhol’s fondness for extension, famously unfolding in his Plaster Foundation of Atlantis (1969–71), which he transformed into “live cinema” with lengthy theatrical happenings involving performance, film, and slideshows. But until his death from AIDS in 1989, Smith’s aesthetic remained fixed in the past—the glamour of the B movies of his youth—and his existence drew no line between life and art. His reference points in the past seem not to have been references or citations in the sense we might theorize these concepts today but rather acts of love and absorption of the past into the present self. His final film, Sinbad in the Rented World, begun in 1972, was never finished, but in its anticipation, Smith transformed his apartment into a set. The future and past were drawn together into the everyday lived present, with any resulting artistic production offering little resemblance to the quotidian sense of the present you or I might experience.
Wojnarowicz, for his part, a generation younger than Warhol and Smith and one older than many of the artists in the Hearn/de Land world, exhibits what might be described as the modernist sense of temporality undergoing shock and transition. His iconic “Arthur Rimbaud in New York” photo series, in which his friends don a cardstock mask to quasi-incarnate the poet in the scruffy, sexy downtown of 1978–79, connect the past and its lessons to the present, attempting to create alternative histories. He wrote extensively about rejecting “the pre-invented world”—throwing off the weight of the past and its ludicrous, violent decrees for what and how people should be. He rejected Western “progress” over its ravaging of the environment and the assumptions of moral and intellectual superiority that led to Reaganite neocolonialist foreign policies. In previous times, this cluster of ideas might have been channeled into utopian visions for a reformed society. But confronted by, first, an implacable society that tormented him because of his sexuality, and, later, the plague of AIDS and his own eventual deadly diagnosis, Wojnarowicz could in the end only conjure a presentist utopia, the community of bodies existing together in moments, often sexualized ones. He created art in a situation where he literally had no future, only a present, and a shrinking one at that. His torrent of creativity in text and visual media, often ragged around the edges, suggests not the idea of making statements for some imagined future but rather a flow, a present, an energy channeled constantly in various expressive directions. The recent retrospective was marked by the publication of a book transcribing his audio diaries, as well as their release as recordings. Symbolically, these releases speak both to Wojnarowicz’s breathlessness and our own time’s focus on the moment, the spontaneous—something tendered on the breath and meant to disappear. Thanks to advances in record-keeping technology—Wojnarowicz’s tape recorder was a forerunner of our myriad devices, not to mention a descendant of Warhol’s omnipresent tape recorder—that moment is preserved for us, much as we are constantly preserving records of ourselves.
And what, then, of the art that falls on the other side of that fateful date of 1989? In “The Conditions of Being Art,” it is even more difficult to extract a single view of temporality and history—it’s a group show that ranges over almost twenty years. But one can see certain variations in the tuning of temporality on display. Perhaps the best example comes from the work of Renée Green, who makes one of the strongest individual showings in the exhibition, displaying a finely calibrated deconstructive sense across two adjacent rooms. In Bequest (1991), originally made for the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, Green examines American history and its repressions via a dense, stage-set-like installation shingled with quotations on blackness and whiteness from Melville, Du Bois, et al. In the very different Taste Venue (1994), she offered up Hearn’s gallery afterhours to whomever answered flyers and ads in a couple of newsweeklies promising “a cheap SoHo location” to “DJs, VJs, bands, writers, parties, etc.” In both projects Green amply displays the spirit of institutional critique, on the one hand vivisecting the museum and its historical functions and, on the other, questioning the role of the art gallery—who engages with it, and what it’s for. The distinction between the two works embodies the very shift to presentism that was taking place in the era: Bequest was a reformist, progressive project that engaged vigorously with history, while Taste Venue—much more typical of the art one finds in “The Conditions of Being Art”—operates decidedly in its now.
One way to frame the Hearn/de Land exhibition is to say that their galleries were deconstructing themselves and received art history in real time, operating in a constant state of autocritique. But there is another way to look at their occasionally shambolic situations: they were subject to constant pressure from external economic and social forces, and their programs manifested the resulting fractures. The small art gallery is like any small business or freelancer, concerned about the present and a practically delimited slice of future—paying the rent, cleaning out the flooded basement, lining up the next season’s worth of business. Ever zeitgeisty, Hearn and de Land responded to the precarity of their situation by founding what became the Armory Show, which helped pave the way for the contemporary art market’s current form: ever-increasing dislocation from place for both artists and collectors, commensurately increasing networking, encoding of biases regarding the types of work that are fundable and fungible. In the end, all these factors ironically make the mom-and-pop shop ever less tenable. In this context, what can critique in fact accomplish?
Hearn and de Land’s case also pointedly shows the perils of life without a safety net in what happened when they suddenly and unexpectedly had to deal with fatal illness. Like many precariously poised independent workers, Hearn never sought health insurance until feeling ill in 1996. When she attempted to enroll with Oxford Health, the company rejected her on the basis of a preexisting condition—lesions on her liver, of which Hearn herself had not yet been informed by her doctor.11 Living hand to mouth powerfully focuses one’s attention on the present rather than the future, let alone the seemingly useless past. More than anything else about “The Conditions of Being Art,” this all too familiar sense of temporality at play in their lives and work makes Hearn and de Land seem utterly, painfully contemporary.