‘Greater New York’, a spectacle of the moment, inhabits the radical past

Three things stand out from the current edition of “Greater New York,” a MoMA PS1 survey of artists living and working in New York City, which takes place every five years: perfect politics, intense nostalgia, and disappointing exposure of new art.

Organized by a team of curators led by Ruba Katrib, “Greater New York” – which opened on Thursday – is both a show of our time and one that tries to escape it through the trap of history. In the art world today, it is safer to celebrate the under-known, under-recognized and under-recognized artist who was radical half a century ago than to dive into messy politics. current of the present.

The best work here, for the most part, is art made decades ago, not in recent years. This is unfortunate, because it gives the impression that great art is not currently being done. Meanwhile, art in New York is vibrant, which you can see on any day, especially in the galleries of the Lower East Side, Chinatown, and TriBeCa, and in the pockets of Queens.

However, it is still a deeply political spectacle. Each major exhibition teaches you to observe it, and here you quickly learn to look at the wall labels, which often emphasize the ethnicity of the artists. This is interesting information, but the risk is that art will be transformed into a rhetorical instrument rather than a carrier of enlightening or speculative ideas.

The exhibition presents the work of 47 artists and collectives and bridges documentary photography, surrealism, painting and video. Here are the dominant threads and the most notable contributors.

The excavations of history weigh so heavily in “Greater New York” that they recall the classic tales of our metropolis: the masterpiece of Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 ”(1999); “Low Life: lures and traps of old New York” by Luc Sante (2003); the film “Downtown 81” (2000), which starred a young Jean-Michel Basquiat and a pre-gentrified Lower East Side.

Some of the work here relates directly to these stories. Alan Michelson (a Mohawk artist) created an installation, “Midden” (2021), in which a video created along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn and Newtown Creek on the Queens border slides over a pile of oyster shells, a mainstay of food in New York for millennia, until oyster beds were destroyed during colonization and industrialization.

Two installations by the Shanzhai Lyric collective draw inspiration from the history of Canal Street, which began as a swamp and a waterway and later became an artery for commerce, including luxury goods and t- counterfeit shirts. A room dedicated to MoMA PS1 displays the contents of the “Canal Street Research Association” collective storage unit: foam statue of Liberty wreaths, miniature Empire State Buildings and other tourist curiosities. Near the entrance to the museum, their installation of Chinese-made T-shirts printed with strange English phrases creates a rambling “poem”.

The best paintings in the exhibition are hands down the bright and colorful abstractions by Paulina Peavy (1901-1999), an artist who said she encountered a UFO while attending a shoot in California in 1932 and then moved to New York, where she lived and worked until the age of 97. Peavy’s paintings here, done between the 1930s and 1960s, are part of a wave of resurrections of lesser-known female artists in the 20th century, including Agnes Pelton, Hilma af Klint, and Emma Kunz, whose abstract paintings were based on spiritual or healing practices rather than the formal arguments and battles of traditional art movements.

The best photographs of “Greater New York” are also historical photographs. Hiram Maristany was the official documentary photographer of the Puerto Rican Young Lords, a group that emerged from the Black Power movement in the 1960s. His black and white images from this period are a powerful portrayal of an artist “preserving his own community,” as it says in the wall text. After a year of the most documented protests in history (Black Lives Matter), it would be nice to see more recent documentation of the current social justice movement.

Marilyn Nance traveled to Lagos, Nigeria, in 1977 to document FESTAC ’77, the second global festival of black and African arts and culture that drew thousands of artists, writers and activists. A series of his New York street photographs from the 70s and 90s are on display, capturing people jumping from subway turnstiles, musicians and circus elephants strolling through a nighttime city street.

A 1989 video of poet Diane Burns (identified as Chemehuevi and Anishanabe) reciting a punk poem on the Lower East Side crackles with humor around Indigenous politics, gentrification and displacement. Regina Vater’s two “Saudades do Brasil” videos from the mid-1970s and mid-1980s compare New York City with serious Brazilian cities. There are also drawings, photographs and paintings from the 80s by artists like E’wao Kagoshima, Julio Galán, Peter Hujar, Andreas Sterzing and Luis Frangella that offer a window into a more daring New York, largely pre -AIDS – as well as the rise of various aesthetics around graffiti and LGBTQIA art.

While many of these artists have been overlooked, a fraction of the historical exhibits would suffice. They do, however, allude to art being produced at the moment. Stop by the Higher Pictures Generation gallery in Dumbo for a tutorial on contemporary photography. For queer art and work that explore and celebrate intersectional identities, check out Queer Thoughts, Company, Fierman, PPOW, or the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art. For little-known artists of all stripes, visit Ortuzar Projects at TriBeCa. And to paint emerging artists, check out small galleries like 56 Henry, Jack Barrett, Charles Moffett or Housing, at 191 Henry, which aims to support black artists in particular.

A wave of anti-Asian hate crimes, Donald Trump’s presidency and the reinvigorated #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have challenged conservatives and institutions to highlight diversity and right historic wrongs. Here are some notable presentations that intelligently address these questions.

The excellent works on paper by author and artist Seneca G. Peter Jemison refer to the Treaty of Canandaigua of 1794, its impact on the Haudenosaunee – the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy – and the campaigns led by churches and schools. to eradicate culture and language in northeastern North America. . Her use of humble paper bags is what is most exciting about her work.

Likewise, Curtis Cuffie’s sculptures from the 90s are aimed at places where art flourishes and is exhibited. He considered the sidewalk to be his main place and used salvaged materials – clothes, objects and trash. They were originally settled around Astor Place and the East Village, in the midst of gentrification. (If Cuffie, who died in 2002, was a young artist today, his witty assemblages and costumes would likely appear on Instagram or TikTok.)

Yuji Agematsu’s hard-hitting wall of trash collected from daily walks during the pandemic and stuffed into cellophane cigarette box wrappers is a scruffy update to On Kawara’s conceptual Date Paintings, which marked the days, from the Vietnam War.

“Similarity” (2019) by Steffani Jemison is a tongue-in-cheek commentary on cultural appropriation filmed on anonymous sites across New York City. The video, featuring a black actor trained in mime, recreates the gestures and actions of people performing daily activities. The policies here are drawn from everyday life and question the idea of ​​language and mimicry.

Some of the most powerful aesthetic statements of the past year have come in the form of monuments covered in graffiti, demolished or removed. Images of activists in Bristol, England removing the statue of slave trader Edward Colston last year have suggested a wave of community action, joy and possibility.

I thought about it while looking at Doreen Garner’s sculpture “Lucy’s Agony” (2021), which refers to gynecological experiments carried out on African-American women by doctors like J. Marion Sims. A statue honoring The Sims was removed from its prominent site on Fifth Avenue in 2018, but it has not been destroyed.

Garner’s sculpture borrows the shocking ’90s installation tactics of artists like Mona Hatoum, Robert Gober, and Pepon Osorio, but it also evokes battles over the Covid-19 vaccine and modern inequalities in medicine.

A typical phenomenon in large surveys is to include art that is simply acceptable by extraordinary artists. Too often, it gives a lukewarm introduction to people who have made exceptional contributions but whose best works may not be available. That challenge was met here by curators presenting paintings and works on paper by Milford Graves, who started out as a percussionist and went on to become a visionary healer, teacher, visual artist and martial arts master. Graves, who died in February, is opening an exhibition in a few days at Artists Space, where I think he will be better represented.

Also look for works on paper by Rosemary Mayer (1943-2014), although her recent exhibition at the Gordon Robichaux Gallery features examples of her best work: swollen tissue evoking female anatomy.

Much of the art here by younger contemporary artists unfortunately reproduces, without much vision, the dreamy, quirky and surreal surrealism of artists like Marc Chagall, Leonor Fini or Remedios Varo; early modernism abstract painting and sculpture; experimental photography from the 1920s and 1930s; and the body sculpture by Kiki Smith.

One of the most enduring and important factors in the art world – class – remains largely invisible in this exhibition. Rents are still high in New York City, and artists are expected to have expensive graduate degrees. The wealth of patrons and museum administrators has become a sticking point among protesters and groups like Decolonize This Place. While the wall labels describing the ethnicity of artists seem odd at this point, what would be really drastic would be to include the indebtedness of the artist, which literally determines the ability of many contemporary artists to participate in the world of art. art in the studio. (Moreover, the mistaken assumption that artists in so-called developing countries are not among the well-to-do classes of their home countries is a huge oversight.)

One of the must-see books for the class is Marie Karlberg’s satirical video “The Good Terrorist” (2021), which updates Doris Lessing’s novel of the same name in 1985. It features several well-known artists ( Nicole Eisenman, Jacolby Satterwhite) playing title revolutionaries occupying a luxury apartment on the Upper East Side.

Here, identity politics – the actors include people of color and some gay men – are seamlessly integrated into a work in which radical leftists attempt to coexist and bring about change in the world. Perhaps the most telling feature is that their privilege – as famous artists at ease in the museum world – is not mentioned in the text of the wall.

Greater New York 2021

Until April 18, 2022, MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Ave., Queens; (718) 784-2084; moma.org. Admission to MoMA PS1 is by ticket in advance.

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