The most recent iteration of MoMA PS1’s quinquennial ‘Greater New York’ exhibition is suffused with nostalgia. This is somewhat surprising, given that the show has previously been an aggressively of-the-moment affair, stuffed to the gills with work by young artists. This time, however, curators Douglas Crimp, Peter Eleey, Thomas J. Lax and Mia Locks have augmented the show’s young roster with a number of older artists – some firmly established, others relatively unknown – to suggest that art in New York today is best read through a scrim of longing for the halcyon days of the late 20th century.
New York used to be a city caught in a headlong rush towards its future – whether bright or bleak, it seemed not to matter. Buildings, subcultures and the character of entire neighbourhoods were routinely scrubbed from its surface to make way for the new. These losses may have provoked a passing twinge of sadness but, as E.B. White reminds readers in his love letter to Manhattan, Here Is New York (1949): ‘All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation.’ Now, it’s all the rage to try and scramble backwards, to wax poetic about New York’s bygone glory days, especially among those too young to have lived through them. They hungrily devour their copies of Patti Smith’s Just Kids (2010); their love of Jean-Michel Basquiat, they take pains to tell you, predates Jay-Z’s ‘Picasso Baby’ (2013),
but not, they admit, Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic; they just ordered a James Chance LP online. Who can blame them? Everything the city appears to have fallen conspicuously short of seemed bountiful in the 1970s and ’80s: freedom, space, time, even boredom. All are now rarer than an honest politician.
The show’s opening salvo, a video by James Nares entitled Pendulum (1976), makes this abundantly clear. Set in the desolate streets of TriBeCa, it shows a large wrecking ball, presumably suspended from an unseen pair of fire escapes, swinging dangerously back and forth, at times almost kissing the handheld camera’s lens. This video would be impossible to make today. TriBeCa has been transformed into a bastion for celebrities and multimillionaires, where Nares’s contraption would quickly draw police attention. And this is exactly what makes the work so metaphorically resonant: Nares’s wrecking ball is both a symbol of freewheeling experimentation and an augury of gentrification.
‘Greater New York’ contains plenty of backward glances to freer times and no shortage of visual jeremiads bemoaning the real-estate speculation that threatens to cauterize the city’s spirit. Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of this latter work tends towards the dour, drab and po-faced. Cameron Rowland’s trendily stark, tidy room of works, for instance, is typified by Loot (2014), an initially baffling, cardboard-lined milk crate filled with snipped lengths of copper pipe that the artist purchased from a scrap yard. A wall label written by Rowland referencing the creeping privatization of formerly public utilities like water and power, and the stripping of abandoned buildings, is ostensibly explanatory, but has the effect of rendering the work little more than a pious, ponderous footnote to the text, less a sculpture than an illustration. Slightly better are Nick Relph’s hand-held digital scans of the city’s metastasizing condominuims, which hold some conceptual interest but fall visually flat. While it’s interesting to note that the superficial digital ‘touch’ of the scanner mimics the hands-off CAD-rendered buildings that are its subject, the works themselves are drab and almost tacky, and not such that you sense this is part of their critical purpose. Redemption, if you could call it that, comes in a tour de force video by Loretta Fahrenholz titled Ditch Plains (2013). Shot in East New York and the Rockaways in the immediate aftermath of hurricane Sandy, the work features a cast of futuristically clad B-Boys who pop, lock and bone-break their way through post-apocalyptic streets littered with debris and, occasionally, bodies. In one particularly poignant scene, two dancers play-act an aggressive police stop-and-frisk, a reminder that the criminal police tactics that ignited Black Lives Matter protests last year did not begin with the high-profile deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others, but have long blighted America’s urban communities. Despite its grim overtones, however, the video manages to convey a sense that freedom is still possible in a crumbling society, even if it just means dancing on the rubble.
New York has a long history of jubilance amid destruction, as testified by several pieces from the city’s aforementioned ‘freer times’. Perhaps the most textbook of these is a series of photographs documenting a work by Gordon Matta-Clark, Doors, Floors, Doors (1976), which was included in PS1’s first major group show, ‘Rooms’. No show of this kind would be complete without the work of that heroic vandal, and his inclusion here is a double-dose of urban and institutional nostalgia. Elsewhere in the show, however, another Matta-Clark work furnishes a thornier and ultimately more interesting connection between the era’s vaunted artistic experiments and the gritty texture of life at street level.
In 1975, Matta-Clark produced Day’s End – a monumental pair of cat-eye cuts in the sides of Manhattan’s abandoned Pier 52, which would become one of his best-known works of ‘anarchitecture’. A few years later, the piece appeared in photographs by Alvin Baltrop, who documented the gay cruising scene on the West Side piers from 1975 to 1986. Seldom shown during Baltrop’s lifetime (he died from cancer in 2004), the large selection on view in ‘Greater New York’ is understated yet showstopping. The photographs immortalize the various denizens of the piers – the runaways, junkies, hustlers, artists and sadomasochists – in intimate close-up portraits and voyeuristic long-shots, which show them sunbathing nude, engaging in sex acts, posing for the camera and, in one instance, suspended in an elaborate leather bondage harness. There is a wild energy to these pictures, befitting the thrilling, sometimes dangerous, scene they document. But, as powerful works in the exhibition’s adjoining rooms by activist artist Donald Moffett and the collective fierce pussy indirectly attest, these pier scenes also augur the AIDS epidemic.
The inclusion of the aforementioned works by AIDS activists and others such as David Hammons’s defiant African American Flag (1990), which flies in the museum’s courtyard, attests to the curators’ desire to examine the city’s jagged edges. This is to their credit, but too often in the show the connections drawn between works across time seems based on aesthetic contiguity or a shared sense of bohemianism. Instances of the former abound and do disservice to a number of otherwise interesting artists. For example, funky and compelling relief paintings by Gina Beavers and photographs by Sara Cwynar partially inspired by 1970s graphic design, seem to have been included principally for their vintage feel. Ditto the resolutely strange, cartoony work of Jamian Juliano-Villani, paired with a painting by Peter Saul, and the enigmatic, fetishistically precise relief paintings of Greg Parma Smith alongside exuberantly painted tapestries by Robert Kushner. On the bohemian front, scrappy DIY fashion designer and artist Susan Cianciolo and voguish fashion house Eckhaus Latta are represented with similar mannequin-studded displays, as if to prove that the city’s independent spirit still thrives. This rare moment of continuity is belied by a Charles Atlas video on display, Here She Is … v1 (2015), featuring the legendary drag queen Lady Bunny. In it, Lady Bunny decries the political and social blights that now beset our world. She seems to be a party girl of the past, roughly washed up on the shore of the present.
Here we arrive at the unavoidable problem of nostalgia itself. It is tempting to fantasize about the past in isolated scenes or a gauzily filtered flashback sequence. It is tempting to think of New York in decades past as a gritty hotbed of creativity and ignore the violence, drug addiction, avarice, poverty and disease that were also a part of daily city life. ‘The nostalgic,’ Svetlana Boym reminds us in her book The Future of Nostalgia (2001), ‘desires to obliterate history and turn it into a private or collective mythology, to revisit time as space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition.’
The cause of this recent nostalgia epidemic goes almost completely unaddressed in ‘Greater New York’. Nostalgia is not simply born of longing for affordable real estate, or the allure of music and culture from another era: if it has always been an attempt to mitigate our dissatisfaction with the present by placing it in relation to a sentimentalized version of history, today it is just as much the melancholic by product of our fear of an imagined future.
First published in Issue 177