"Two Shows: Peeps / Pistoletto," May 15-July 12, 2009, at the Amie and Tony James Gallery, the Graduate Center, City University of New York, 365 Fifth Avenue (at 34th Street), New York, N.Y. 10016.
In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, pornography was cool. In Paris, there was a movie theatre in an unfashionable neighborhood that fashionable people sought out for the quality of its pornographic fare. Artistic pornography also had its heyday in those years, as the Philadelphia Museum of Art unveiled Marcel Duchamp’s Etant Donnés in 1969, a tableaux seen through two peep holes in a heavy wooden door, featuring the white body of a young woman lying -- dead or alive -- with her legs wide open, on a grassy mound.
That these years were also the heyday of "peep film arcades in metropolitan areas across North America" and of high art "that explores the act of looking as a phenomenological experience" is the starting point of "Peeps / Pistoletto," a pair of shows concurrently on view at the James Gallery, the new vanguard outpost of the City University’s Graduate Center.
For "Peeps," the art historian Amy Herzog has assembled several examples of films from the ‘60s designed to be viewed in peep film arcades, with titles like Starlight 369, Starlight 524 and Sexercise. In one of the films, a woman shows her sexual prowess by licking her own breast. The show also includes an excerpt of Andy Warhol’s The Little Rich Girl (1965), in which Edie Sedgwick primps in lingerie in front of a mirror, together with more recent works by other contemporary artists working with the "peep" form, including Peggy Ahwesh, Bjarne Melgaard and Margie Schnibbe (Tweak).
One peep hole experience worth queuing up for is a 25-minute-long film clip from Un Chant d’amour by Jean Genet from 1950, the story of a guard who falls in love with one of the prisoners under his watch. As the officer spies on his prey through the cell’s keyhole, the prisoner becomes aware of the love he inspires and makes use of it by exhibiting himself in increasingly alluring poses. The genet is visible only through a peep hole the size of a tennis ball, the only film given that treatment.
The other films are variously projected on the wall, shown on television monitors or displayed on large LCD screens in a maze of small, square cubicles with large circular entrances. Looking at the show while I was there was a man in a policeman’s uniform. Asked what he was doing there, he said that he was a university guard "just checking to see that everything was normal."
The unusual staging of "Peeps" was suggested by the artist Pierre Huyghe. His installation is meant to recreate an analogue for the ‘60s sex arcades where visitors indulged in private physical activities in public. With its white walls and explanatory panels, the structure is a formalized and even purified version of what it is modeled after, and has the look of an art gallery space rather than the seedy mysterious locales whose "politics of looking" is the exhibition’s ostensible subject.
The show sadly ignores the short naughty and charming films made by the Edison Manufacturing Company in the early 1900s. They too were shown in popular arcades, though in a social climate that was far more restrictive than those of the ‘60s, and hence less prone to literalness and vulgarity [see "Naughty Films, Prissy Art," Sept. 24, 2006].
For the second, smaller show on view at the James Gallery, titled Chances are there will be. . . potted plants, the art historian Romy Golan challenges viewers to make sense of photographs of early 1960s "Mirror Paintings" by the Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto, which, she notes, were often presented in Italian design and architecture magazines (the title is taken from a phrase in an Artnews review by John Ashbury). The fare is not particularly artsy but it does ask the kind of question that metaphysically inclined Italian artists are good at asking: Where does reality begin and where does it end?
More of Pistoletto’s art will be on view at the same gallery in 2010 in conjunction with a retrospective scheduled for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The prospect of both shows is quite exciting.
MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian.