New York art dealer Ronald Feldman first met the young Columbia University student Jeanette Ingberman in the late 1970s, when she came into his gallery seeking information on painter Ida Applebroog for an art-history paper. A few years after she graduated, she came back for another favor -- she was launching an alternative art nonprofit called Exit Art, and would Feldman be on its board of directors?
“I didn’t remember her at all, but she said everyone here was so kind and helpful and asked if I’d serve on the board. Not knowing enough to say no, I said yes,” said Feldman, who’s still on the board today. “You couldn’t not like her. She was very real and, as it evolved, you recognized that she and her partner Papo Colo were afraid of nothing.”
Feldman worked with Ingberman, who served as executive director, and Colo, the artistic director, to assemble an advisory board, including comics publisher Jenette Kahn, former ARTnews editor Amy Newman, art-law attorney John Koegel, collector and marketing strategist Leslie Moran and others. In 1982, they opened their inaugural exhibition, “Illegal America,” highlighting an international group of artists whose work caused run-ins with the law. Among those first names were Vito Acconci, Gordon Matta-Clark, David Hammons, George Maciunas, Carolee Schneemann and Dread Scott.
Over the next 30 years, Exit Art became one of the city’s biggest champions of the art-world underdog, focusing almost entirely on work by minorities, women and non-mainstream artists. Now, that era is drawing to a bittersweet close. Last August, Ingberman succumbed to her long battle with leukemia. And though the doors are closing for good next month, Colo, whom she married in 1992, and the staff are staging one last extravaganza in her honor. The retrospective “Every Exit Is an Entrance: 30 Years of Exit Art,” opens tonight, Mar. 23-May 19, 2012, while “Collective / Performative,” a concurrent performance-art exhibition, is set to take place in the front window of the gallery. On the final night, May 19, 2012, Colo is staging a “ritual cleansing” performance with his Trickster Theater.
“I want to close,” Colo said. “Exit Art was a love story, a wonderful magical moment, but like all great love it was an anomaly. All great love ends in tragedy because one of them has to die.”
Colo saw this exhibition as a way to immortalize that story in history. Six months ago he asked independent curator Rachel Gugelberger to undertake the sprawling task of organizing 30 years of artworks, writings, videos and ephemera into a cohesive exhibition. “I spent three months in the archives and the digital files just getting lost,” she said.
The gallery has shown more than 2,500 artists over the years and Gugelberger has narrowed that number down to about 200 Exit Art stalwarts. After the space closes, its archives are being transferred to New York University’s Fales Library and the dealer Sean Kelly is moving his Chelsea gallery into the space.
Organized chronologically, the exhibition begins in 1982 with documentation from the “Illegal America” exhibition, which was held in a space at the Franklin Furnace Archive. The black-and-white imagery is followed on the next wall by a set of eye-catching prints advertising Exit Art’s 1987 “Concrete Crisis” exhibition, designed by Acconci, Nancy Spero, Leon Golub and others.
The era culminates with two large, confrontational photographs by Adrian Piper of black men being hung and beaten. Piper, who showed several times at Exit Art, is indicative of the institution and its sensitivity to larger cultural currents. The same year as Piper’s solo show at Exit Art, the New York Times wrote, “If the fall season in New York can be said to belong to one artist, that artist is Adrian Piper.”
But if Exit Art started out with a knack for capturing talent on the brink, its second decade, when it moved to a large second-floor space on Broadway in SoHo, overflowed with stars in the making, many of whom are represented in part two of the show. It includes a spiral painting by Fred Tomaselli, a series of watercolors by Ida Applebroog, a painting Joyce Pensato made live in the gallery, an inked-over Shirin Neshat photograph and a framed set of putty blobs by Roxy Paine.
In the center of the gallery, Gugelberger has recreated one of Exit Art’s most remembered exhibitions, a 2002 open-call for 8x10-in.-sized works responding to the September 11 attacks. Every qualifying submission was accepted and ultimately hung by strings from the ceiling. It was so popular that the Library of Congress purchased the entire exhibition (for around $25,000, according one insider). Gugelberger’s rendition uses color copies.
The question remains, can any of the city’s other alternative spaces fill the void left by Exit Art? Colo’s not certain, noting that the kind of idealism he and Ingberman shared in the 1980s is harder to come by in the current economic and political climate. Many young curators and artists are interested in opening up such spaces, he said, but “I tell them when they come talk to me, you have to give everything and expect nothing.”
Feldman was a little more optimistic, recalling a 2010 exhibition at the gallery that examined the history of alternative art spaces from 1960 to the present. “There were a huge number of new alternative spaces that most of us had not heard of -- out in Brooklyn and other places,” he said. Nothing will be exactly like Exit Art, but “you could feel it -- these younger folks were the same, and just as dedicated as Jeanette.