Insiders’ Outsiders: Clocktower Gallery at Pioneer Works


Getting to Red Hook’s Pioneer Works can be something of a trek. Nestled among warehouses on the Brooklyn waterfront, far afield of subways and high rises, it’s the scrappy sort of environment that one might readily associate with emerging New York artists and the spaces which support them. But this year, Pioneer visitors will be encounter a more established art world name: Clocktower Gallery, the recently uprooted TriBeCa mainstay, founded by Alanna Heiss in 1972, is setting up shop in Pioneer Works’ expansive building.

Following a long struggle with real estate developers, Heiss closed Clocktower’s historic doors last November. Once it had been confirmed that the gallery’s home of 42 years was to be converted into luxury residences, Clocktower’s staff devoted its energies to finding new venues for its programming. Dustin Yellin, the founder of Pioneer Works and a longtime admirer of Heiss’s work, soon came knocking. He invited Clocktower to be Pioneer Works’ first “institutional resident”-a program devised specifically for Clocktower, which would provide Heiss and company with space for offices and exhibitions for the 2014-15 season.

The first foray of this partnership is an exhibition titled “Dale Henry: The Artist Who Left New York” (on view through Mar. 9), which explores the legacy of a painter whose involvement in the alternative spaces of the city’s 1960s and ‘70s art scene is now all but apocryphal. It is the show’s second iteration, as it was also the last show in Clocktower’s original space. Fortunately, the curators’ careful presentation of Henry’s work and story make this restaging more than just a recycling of resources: they include some works not seen in the first, and moreover make good use of these works’ sensitivity to their sites of reception.

Press materials cast Henry as “an insider’s outsider,” a forgotten figure of New York’s avant-garde heyday. A longtime friend of Heiss’s, he participated in “Rooms” (1976), the inaugural exhibition at Heiss’s other landmark institution, PS1. There, Henry stood out as a painter in a show that established site-specific installation as a leading artistic practice. After years of increasing frustration with the art market, Henry left New York in 1977 and ultimately settled in Cartersville, Virginia. During this time, he ceased painting and began archiving his extant works, drafting meticulous instructions for their eventual posthumous exhibition. Following his death in 2011, Heiss received a letter from Henry entrusting his life’s work to her, with the sole stipulation that his paintings not be sold.

Clocktower’s dual exhibitions are the letter’s outcome, and its Red Hook iteration is monumental. The bulk of the show resides in Pioneer Works’ bright main hall, providing an overview of his work in one vast space. This staging helps unify Henry’s clever experiments, which often approximate monochromes but forgo minimalism’s hands-off approach in favor of subtle, cerebral craftsmanship. His work also anticipates many gestures of installation art: pieces are “hung” on the floor, flirt with other mediums, and prompt shuffling between images and texts (one particularly brainy work provides an Uffizi Gallery catalogue as a reference guide for a series of white monochromes). Taken together, Henry’s gestures feel demurely prescient.

“The Artist Who Left New York” is further vivified by the bustling activity of Pioneer Works’ concurrent programming, with artists’ studios, workshops, classrooms and science labs enveloping Henry’s exhibition. Joe Ahearn, Clocktower’s curator of performance and installations, finds this context a refreshing change of pace. “The old space was great because it was kind of tucked away, a place where artists could retreat and reflect,” he recounts. “But with Pioneer Works, we’re excited to be in a ground floor space that brings together so many different groups.”

Ahearn feels these two contexts have prompted very different ways of looking at Henry’s work: “Before, experiencing each individual work was more intimate, one-on-one. But the energy of Pioneer Works reminds us that all art needs a community and a social aspect to thrive.” Clocktower is still exploring different ways that its residency might fit into the larger Pioneer Works community. They are in the process of building new audio facilities for ARTonAIR, Clocktower’s internet radio station, but further programming is not yet confirmed.

Pioneer Works will be only one of Clocktower’s outposts in the coming months. The gallery will organize public art installations and performances as part of Times Square Arts’ After Hours program (the first announced intervention will be a site-specific dance piece by dancer and choreographer Biba Bell on Feb. 19). Heiss and her team are also working with Knockdown Center, another vast, warehouse space in Maspeth, Queens, along with Playland Motel & Gallery in Far Rockaway, and Neuehouse and Red Bull Studios in Manhattan. Those who remember her early work with Institute for Art and Urban Resources will know that this nomadic approach of engaging underutilized buildings is familiar terrain for Heiss. As Ahearn remarks, “If there’s anything Alanna loves, it’s old, strange spaces.”