Chelsea au natural
Ken Lum's video
in last fall's
SoHo Arts Festival
A Place Called
I recently traipsed to Chelsea, Manhattan's newest art district, where over the last few years about 30 galleries, many formerly in Soho, have set up their vast new shops.
I light-footed it over from the IRT, but coming back was a trudge. This new region of galleries is really only convenient to motorcar. This district weeds out the casual tourist.
In Chelsea, contemporary art has elbow room. It's free from the distractions of other competing commodities. The flea market has not yet arrived. Chelsea also evokes Soho of the `70s. Visiting Bound & Unbound, Barbara Moore's Fluxus-based bookstore in the Starrett Lehigh Building (601 W. 26th St., 12th floor) is like going to Soho's Puck Building 25 years ago, when it was full of printers. Blue-and-green-clad working men lounge and walk in and out of the aged dim-lit marbled lobby, and in and out of the diner for the $5 hot lunch. Savor the aroma of the evaporating proletariat.
What's going on in Chelsea is not a displacement of residential tenants but a repurposing of a warehouse and garage district. Already home to a night-time entertainment and sex-work business centered around nightclubs and bars, Chelsea is now to be a zone for the display of art, for the exercise of a very rarefied form of shop-keeping.
Like the art invasion of the East Village back in the `80s, this "gentrification" is highly self-conscious. More specifically, it has proceeded with numerous exhibitions by artists commenting on the process. Among them were Gary Hill's inauguration of Barbara Gladstone's new space (515 W. 24th St.) last fall with a room-sized video installation of a "shape-up," a line of laboring men simply standing there, waiting, staring out at the viewer. Similarly, Louise Lawler opened Metro Pictures (next door at 519 W. 24th St.) with an installation of large-scale color photos documenting the space before its renovation. And last summer, at American Fine Arts in SoHo, Art Club 2000 mounted a show about the migration, complete with replicas of SoHo landmarks like Kenny Scharf's Sharf Shak and interviews and photos of dealers.
The most recent art work to take this move as its subject is Sylvia Kolbowski's "Closed Circuit" exhibition at Postmasters Gallery this spring. Kolbowski collected clothes and other items from Soho shops and displayed them in a room in the gallery. The things, mostly of a tasteful linen-like beige color, are sealed off behind a doorway-filling plastic panel. You can't walk in, only gaze at these objects in the middle of the room. That room has a little vestigial fireplace, token of its own repurposing from some fire-warmed 19th-century room of uncertain use, a remnant of old Soho. Running outside this space is an inter-titled video verite of people walking around Chelsea. The titles derive from transcripts of Kolbowski's conversations with architectural historian Miwon Kwon, an e-mail dialogue printed in a catalogue of the exhibition.
Kolbowski is working in the "institutional critique" mode of Conceptual art. Her exhibition-as-essay makes the gallery into a "non-site" of both Soho and Chelsea, first materially through the room-vitrined goods, then virtually through the video verite.
Kolbowski is concerned with a circuit of consumption -- "Fashion, Furniture, Food, Art" is the subtitle to her show -- that came to clear notice after the development of the Soho art district. The fancy shops follow the galleries that follow the artists. By moving to Chelsea, the galleries have ditched the secondary growth of high-end retail like whales scraping off barnacles.
With this migration the regard of art is returned to something like a state of purity, uncontaminated by vagrant desires for objects of similar price -- like designer clothes -- and related usages, like furniture and the decorative and ethnographic arts.
Writes Kolbowski, "This move to Chelsea among a small group of dealers is to articulate a hierarchy of 'seriousness' in art appreciation, to demarcate a sense of exclusivity once again in relation to contemporary art -- I think the move to Chelsea in many ways allows for the repression of the commerce part of art's trade" ("Closed Circuit" catalogue, p. 10).
The artist asked the SoHo stores where she bought the goods to display her video. Not a single one agreed (somehow not surprising). Kolbowski's project was a kind of didactic replay of last fall's big project for the SoHo Arts Festival, in which Jeffrey Deitch and French curator Gerard Sans arranged for the display of various artworks in Soho stores.
That project, like the Brooklyn-born "Hardware Show" that was mounted in Soho during the same time, was intended to demonstrate the synergy of art exhibition with a variety of commerce. By contrast, Kolbowski's installation points to their incompatibility, or more properly, their separation as it has been engineered by the agents of art.
As the art world briefly recoups in Chelsea the industrial ambiance of its early days in Soho, many of the initial exhibitions have returned to the style of that era, specifically, Minimalism. Minimalism is the ground-clearing style that announces a repurposing of former industrial spaces and garages into galleries. In SoHo, Minimalism was the esthetic face of Capital's global strategies, in which working-class industries were first moved south and then abroad in search of lower wages, leaving their empty brick factories behind. These rust-belt relics became sites to be specified, spaces which art would explicate esthetically.
Despite (or because of) this close association with the emergent designs of global Capital, Minimalism remains today the baseline style of contemporary art. The style combines a purist abstraction evocative of the historical avant-garde with a sophisticated theoretical polemic learned in the academy. Minimalism disciplines Dada, absorbing its ironic industrial aspects -- the ready-made and executive production -- as the basic methods of modern art-making.
Thanks to its pivotal art-historical role, the style has also become the principal vesture of the contemporary art institution. Conceived of as an anti-institutional avant-garde style, Minimalism today is the very mantle of museumicity. Writes Rosalind Krauss of the Panza Collections Dan Flavins installed in Paris in 1990, "We are having this experience, then, not in front of what could be called the art, but in the midst of an oddly emptied yet grandiloquent space of which the museum itself -- as a building -- is somehow the object'' (October 54, p.4).
Minimalism might be seen as an enigmatic "capitalist constructivism'' that repeats -- or mimics -- the role of the Russian avant-garde entering into the structure and processes of industrial society with revolutionary intent. Of course it is only within art history that Minimal art fills this role. There is no political agenda besides that inherited from Greenbergian formalism, that is the anti-populist insistence upon the autonomy of the art object -- and by extension the cultural institution -- separate from direct social and political concern, pure and inculpable. From this art, even properly understood, there is only an upper atmosphere ideological effect within the elite, which, finally, is made to be the point of a high art style.
I am generalizing "minimalism" here, and conflating it -- a specific historical art style and esthetic -- with an architectural style of renovation of industrial buildings for commercial use. But this art, esthetic and its site of being seen are closely linked. The social space of the art exhibit is conditioned by a particular set of self-reflexive relations between behold/perceiver, object of art and the space that contains it, relations which were most comprehensively formulated by the Minimalists. This "minimalism" has bled deeply into the nature of the exhibiting space and the habits of attention we pay to art.
The Minimal esthetic is now so entwined with the aura of the museum that they seem naturally identical. The new galleries of Chelsea are filled with the light of reason, neutrality, objectivity. They are the scopic realm of clear seeing. Why should they be otherwise, how could they be otherwise?
Appropriately, the institution that pioneered the art world's invasion of Chelsea itself represents a kind of apex of Minimalism -- the Dia Art Foundation, now known as the Dia Center for the Arts (548 W. 22nd St.). Originally founded in the 1970s to install and maintain long-term (and lavish) art projects, Dia had a curiously mixed roster of lucky artists that reflected the taste of one of the Dia masterminds, German art dealer Heiner Friedrich. Back then, the Dia artists included Minimalists (Judd, Flavin and Fred Sandback) and Fluxus-ites (Walter de Maria, Terry Riley, Robert Whitman). To varying degrees of success, Dia set up all these artists with their own namesake museums, exhibition spaces or workshop headquarters.
Since then, Dia has become a slightly more catholic institution, bestowing its institutional favors on a broader range of artists and for a shorter period of time -- though the six-month-long runs of most of its shows still is more generous than most museums.
As its main stock-in-exhibition, Minimal art makes the Dia Center a space that ceaselessly performs itself. The Dia Center is a great gray naked site, waiting to be specified. The Metropolitan Museum, by contrast, performs its model of palace, one containing churches and temples, with the academy as court. In occupying this old warehouse, Dia performs a kind of continual institutional self-production rooted in the cultural supercession of the outmoded industrial. This is gentrification as recycling, a once-startling, now familiar mode of being for American and European contemporary art institutions.
The governing Dia esthetic of Minimalist site-specificity amounts to a continual self-effacement, the ultimate in discreet perpetual boasting about the fact of patronage itself.
Now, like a secure castle boosting the economy of a local fief, Dia has improved the art-world quality of the neighborhood. Chelsea is about the power of such sustained commitment finally to draw prestigious galleries and serious attention to contemporary art toward itself on the edge of the island, out where the corrals are.
Within this extraordinary private museum the exhibitions on view at the beginning of the summer were (from the ground floor to the fourth) Dan Flavin, Fred Sandback, Hanne Darboven and Juan Muñoz, with Dan Graham's permanent observatory and video cafe on the roof.
Sandback's stretched yarn works most perfectly perform the architecture. The yarns evoke snap lines, the chalk deposits carpenters make in cutting up wall board. They are temporary markings-out for something to be built here, some further project, which is left up to us, left up to our imagination. Like Mies' architecture this kind of Minimalism is in the details. The yarn itself looks like the best quality, maybe hand spun and dyed. The threads are somehow anchored in the floor into which they seem to disappear. You can see them because a light wash of concrete slip on the floor, a kind of architectural painting, highlights them.
Sandback's work -- which, in the approved style of Minimal criticism, I simply describe -- is very much about walking around the second floor of Dia. And it is a superbly appointed repurposed facility. In the stairway a monolithic, four-story work by Flavin does duty as lighting. Some of his pieces on the first floor compete evenly with the elegant ceiling fixtures. Only when it is monumental or aggressively eccentric does the work pull away from the source of its appropriations, that is, interior design. Of course, to pull hierarchies on Dan Flavin sort of misses the point. His work is a lot about that subsumption, a kind of garish recessiveness.
The Minimal interior speaks of all that could go on in it but didn't. Only the empty, the circumscribed but unused, is eternal, like the Rock beneath the Dome, or the porphyry circle in Hagia Sophia, constantly bespeaking the absence of the Byzantine emperor, the only one authorized to stand within it. This sort of incipient sacredness-by-absence is the sign of power. It is deeply allied with wealth, and in a consumer society with the appeal that its servitors make to wealth. Thus last fall did the Minimal become the style of installation in store displays of fashion, embodying and expressing the most extraordinary luxury of all in Manhattan -- space. In such display the "pure consumable'' is present for a specified amount of time. The temporal appearance of the isolated object strives for an impression of endlessness, of always having been there, a kind of temporary absolute being.
Writes Miwon Kwon of fashion, "There are always new versions of the timeless as the `latest.' The latest and the timeless -- both `positive' attributes, often evoked at the same time (i.e. the "new classic"), is the fundamental contradiction that defines fashion discourse" ("Closed Circuit," p. 17).
Back at Dia, Juan Muñoz's "A Place Called Abroad" also very purposely "performs the architecture." He's thrown up gray stuccoed walls and wooden stairways to convert the garage interior into a stage set for hunched, seated dummies. The final tableau with its striking lighting involves the perambulating viewer in "visual discourse" with a seated figure.
When Muñoz's grand construction of the indeterminate urban walls is suddenly explained as a stage set with the appearance of the first figure, the piece becomes principally a question of our relation to these figures, as if we had read about them -- who are they? Oh, from "abroad" -- What are they doing? Oh, suffering somehow.... The experience of our being in space is directed, propagandized.
In the context of a palace of Minimal art, this hyper-theatricality seems like an esthetic betrayed. But Muñoz also attempts something more ambiguous. A huge faint "A" in the over-sized elevator shaft can be seen through a heavy casement window built into the elevator door. The letter reappears on a wall in his set, and the elevator in a kinetic miniature placed furtively between two walls. The elevator shaft set-ups theatricalize the installation as a whole, putting it into play throughout the building, and -- since the "A" is painted to be seen from afar but can't be -- not beyond. This mysterioso-ness plays against the predominant Minimal esthetic at Dia by equating incomprehension with progression through architectural space. The by-play with the "A" in the hidden shaft extra-murally asks the question in a whisper, "where are we?"
This esthetically cross-grained work could be an anomaly, or it could be a sign that the captain is attempting to turn the institutional ship. The Muñoz installation, with its generalized concern with unfreedom, seems like part of Dia's social face. It is too easy to characterize Dia as an instance of a pre-democratic mode of patronage. Dia is an elephant in ballet shoes, ponderous, impossible, yet indisputably graceful. It is the carefully crafted anonymous face of Texas patrons who began with a sense of mission to wed Catholicism and modern art. Dia's patrons have opted for the Islamic mysticism of Sufi. Does this Minimalism, as the "style" signature of the Dia, remain as a kind of grand empty signifier for the unacknowledged ultimate reality of religious devotion? Do Dia's recurrent social impulses as expressed in its symposia and publications align with the spiritual socialism of the Catholic Workers, with liberation theology, and more recently with the economic justice agenda of the Vatican?
In this rumination I've sought to point to Minimalism as a style of art which, through the frequent exhibitions of the style's practitioners, has announced the creation of a new art district. By its historicity the style aligns the new district with a relatively recent avant-garde past.
In polemical terms, we are being laved with the esthetic nostalgia of the boomer elite, a style that connotes the imagined purity of '60s art, not that era's heterodoxy, but a "post-formalist" moment, a lost youth of American art, when geometrically clear definitions -- both formal and political -- seemed possible.
At this moment we see Minimalism in a twilight, its forms blurred and no longer clear. The luster of Minimalist avant-gardism is dimmed in the smog-filled retrospect of its erection in an evacuated industrial arena of the military-industrial complex. The style has become so pervasive as to be nearly invisible, a garment of the art institutional status quo. Its original avant-gardism is now only an artifact of critical history; Minimalism has been smoothly reabsorbed into modernism.
To observe the style's dominance and revival at the inauguration of this new art district is disturbing, for what seems to be inscribed here are the familiar features of an exclusionary pact about what is to be considered the bedrock of contemporary art. If an art market revival is indeed in prospect, and Chelsea is to be the matrix for its expansion, it seems it will unfold in a manner which undergirds institutional modernism, and an elite high art in all its hierarchical separateness from life and people. Minmal art is a sign for this fear, an impulse of throwback to an art world that was less populated, cleaner, richer, whiter, and more male.
To return to Kolbowski, her work of "institutional critique" is concerned with the circulation of commodities within circuits of consumption -- "Fashion, Furniture, Food, Art." In executing the work, Kolbowski describes "a `failure' strategy" due to lack of store participation; her recent works "seem to be dependent on `failure' for the critique to succeed" (p. 12). I don't think the stores' non-participation is so revealing. The analysis Kolbowski was seeking to render in the material form of an exhibition at Postmasters was highly inconclusive. In part I think this is because the art she practices, "institutional critique" rooted in the anti-formalist conceptual art of the `60s, work directed against the "cultural confinement" (as Smithson termed it) of art practice, is itself now part of the adjustment process in Chelsea. The methods of institutional critique help to sand the rough edges off the new development. This exhibitable self-reflexivity, this commercial introspection, is closely allied to sophisticated corporate advertising and patronage strategies that seek to displace attention from the obvious unpleasant side effects of corporate actions, or to ameliorate past abuses. This demonstrated sensitivity of the corporate organism is offered as a kind of "democracy effect" to salve our pain at the failure of the political system to sustain a meaningful public sphere.
So two avant-gardes modes of the '60s, the Minimal and the Conceptual, are entrained to explain, to naturalize and estheticize the new art district of Chelsea. This district, this kind of urban formation, is, like the esthetics enlisted in its formation, international. Chelsea is the outcome of a "Soho-impulse" that has become a global western urban phenomenon. The expanding institution of modern art sales and exhibition, the collection of high-end material culture by the elite, needs this extra space to explicate post-modernism.
Like the expansion of New York's museums, the inauguration of the Chelsea district is part of an expansion of the "carrying capacity" for contemporary art in the city, something many years longed for, at last coming to pass. A new site of exhibition might enable new kinds of art to come into being -- but the terms under which the district is being inaugurated include a reinscription of the old terms of avant-gardism, the uncompleted agendas of the past.
These agendas write not people, and not spirit, but space and matter, places and things. The anti-idealist anti-metaphysical avant-garde celebrates Chelsea on materialist grounds and in phenomenological terms
(Thanks to Lisa Schiff and Lai Orenduff for key ideas.)
ALAN MOORE is a New York critic and art historian.