Tim Griffin, Ralph Lemon, and Sarah Michelson reflect on the status of the alternative space
WHEN ARTFORUM generously invited me to contribute to the present issue considering the state of museums today, I suggested, as an alternative, a series of notes written from my perspective as director of the Kitchen, New York, a smaller nonprofit organization. While all arts institutions provide useful windows onto society more broadly—figured as they are within the latter’s contradictions, both economic and cultural—smaller institutions often embody such qualities in living proximity. Certainly, many prescient questions about how institutions may be oriented differently, and with an eye toward sustainability, have been posed continually (even if by necessity) for decades by nonprofits.
For me, this very legacy made the idea of composing any such “notes” by myself counterintuitive. So I asked two friends, Ralph Lemon and Sarah Michelson, if they would also reflect on the continuing role of smaller nonprofit organizations. Of course, just as I sought to recontextualize Artforum’s invitation, these artists aimed to reframe mine. What follows is a text comprising my prompts with their responses, represented here as both distinct and simultaneous—much as has been the case when we have worked together in a physical institutional space.
The results might ask for some reflection not only on nonprofits, but also on the valences of the term nonprofit. If the original formulation suggested an existence not participating in the mainframes of value in art and its economies—an outside that was never truly possible (or even sensical)—perhaps today it speaks to the potential of organizations to operate in a manner concerned less with offering answers than with sustaining questions for their times.
Going back recently to a 1986 interview with David Hammons by the scholar Kellie Jones, I was struck by a passage in which the artist describes his preference for artistic experiences on the street over those in a gallery—for the simple reason that “when you get [to a gallery] you’re already prepared, your eyes are ready, your glands, your whole body is ready to receive this art.”
The observation seems as pertinent as ever for any consideration of institutional spaces today, even though Hammons was offering a plainspoken turn on a line of thinking that had already been well established even a quarter century earlier. More precisely, Hammons implicitly summons a previous generation’s sense of how the architectures and economies of art give it literal form and shape. (In this vein, all you have to do is think of Broodthaers’s sly mussels and eggshells set amid shipping crates.) Yet he transposes the terms for a millennial moment that will be placing special emphasis on the person, choosing his words to describe the day’s common wisdom about how we all carry the institution within us—from the language we use to the habits by which we orient ourselves in space and culture alike. As Hammons suggests, the “art” in such a context can seem tautological, readily meeting all our expectations (such is the basic nature of legibility), with audiences, sometimes regrettably, doing much the same.
For me, it’s within such a register, and around this time, that nonprofit organizations might have discovered a crucial new front for their contrapuntal impulses—allowing themselves to be reconceived along different axes, historically speaking. Already by the 1980s, figures such as Hal Foster were writing about how such organizations were operating less as “alternatives” to mainstream art than as feeders for museums and the pluralistic markets underpinning them. (Nonprofits acted as gateways for the normalization of avant-garde practices—set under the rubric of the “new”—much as the historic avant-garde itself had rendered the stuff of mass culture more palatable within the circumscribed sphere of high art.) But, in the decades that followed, this linear pipeline from nonprofits to museums became more a matter of parallel worlds. Larger institutions increasingly devoted attention to the very kind of contemporary work—and even experimental efforts in interdisciplinarity—that had until then primarily been the purview of those alternative spaces. In turn, it was the question of scale itself that became a point of distinction between the museum and the nonprofit.
Put another way, the crucial questions for alternative spaces revolved not only around the art being shown, but also around the context being created. As important as anything presented within the walls was the question of how the audience was addressed and, more precisely, situated physically. Championing new art was important, but only while asking how to unlearn a space, and to allow bodies the possibility of being unprepared—as well as the possibility of other relationships and orientations in that space to emerge. The resonance, if not outright urgency, of these questions was underscored by how museums’ expanding interest in contemporary art was matched (and perhaps even made necessary) by an expansion in literal institutional scale, which altered the very ideation of audiences: This was now a public whose democratic profile was stamped by notions of capacity and circulation. The significance of the nonprofit as a site for another kind of public—steeped in intimacy, the relational, the local—was radically magnified. Some years ago, this role was all the more important given the fracturing and waning of a public sphere in society writ large. And now . . . as much as the nonprofit is a site for experimentation in art, it is a necessary experiment in organization. I think of John Cage writing about the “future of music” in 1937, saying that new centers of experimental music had to be established for new materials, and to allow for the sounds that had been ignored—or for that which, to use Hammons’s words, we are not yet ready.
“How do we look at, hold something not legible, intentionally illegible, private or public, and why should we?” —Ralph Lemon
(On the other hand, that prepared reception can be generous, to be ready to receive, to be available. And one could be pleased, satisfied by that surrender, art as some kind of perceived [premeditated] balm, placebo. One also doesn’t have to worry about being rained on.)
I’ve been rereading Kevin Quashie’s The Sovereignty of Quiet (2012), where he speaks primarily to the currency of a Black body interiority, quiet, the quiet of Black women in particular. A writing and thinking useful in my thinking about the vulnerability of artmaking and its publicness in general . . . the human economy of interiority, intimacy within the demanding social economies of the public(s).
“Quiet is not a performance or a withholding; instead, it is an expressiveness that is not necessarily legible, at least not in a world that privileges public expressiveness.”
His use of legible, legibility is key. How do we look at, hold something not legible, intentionally illegible, private or public, and why should we?
Unlearning spaces and languages, a preparation for being ready; the flow, the future (and dream languages). This from Duchamp, from 1961:
These various aspects of art today bring us to look at it as a whole, in terms of an over-developed exoteric. By that I mean that the general public accepts and demands a lot from art, far too much from art; that the general public today seeks aesthetic satisfaction wrapped up in a set of material and speculative values and is drawing artistic output towards an enormous dilution.
This enormous dilution, losing in quality what it gains in quantity, is accompanied by a leveling down of present taste and its immediate result will be to shroud the near future in mediocrity.
In conclusion, I hope that this mediocrity, conditioned by too many factors foreign to art per se, will this time bring a revolution on the ascetic level, of which the general public will not even be aware and which only a few initiates will develop on the fringe of a world blinded by economic fireworks.
The great artist of tomorrow will go underground.
2021. Duchamp would be very disappointed, or not. There is no underground, not for anyone within this particular conversation. And I can’t help but wonder what kind of underground Duchamp was imagining. So we wait. But there are, have been, moments, a history, that chart an inside to outside to inside . . . private to public intimacy (vulnerability) and the conditioned spectacle and the generative actions of what gets lost and gained. Art actions that encourage a certain kind of revolution. Works, some “masterpieces” (because of their scale, in my evaluation) that are clearly formulated within the hyperlegible parameters (attitude, privilege) of the white-walled art frame(s) but are also defiantly offered (differently) as a thing ultimately unseen. An underground, of sorts. The spaces they do encounter, museum or otherwise, are forced to contest some emphatic indeterminacy. A sublime tension. (A more innocent privilege.)
“Chicken don’t fly,” David Hammons said, in response to a collector, responding to a request for the loan of Flying Carpet, a large Persian-style carpet with a few hundred real deep-fried chicken wings attached (by fishhooks), some thirty years old. Last publicly seen as part of Hammons’s “Rousing the Rubble, 1969–90,” show, at New York’s PS1 in 1990, the work can now only be seen if you visit the collector’s house, where it hangs on a wall in his living room. There was a time when the collector offered to donate it to a museum, but the museum balked, given their preservation concerns about the thirty-year-old deep-fried chicken wings. Too late now; it won’t become public until the collector dies (when he will have little say, the collector says).
(Hammons has been, of course, a longtime stealth insurgent, in both his presence and his unequivocal absence. The rest of this list is made up of the work of all white artists because this particular art conundrum [koan] began with their particular artmaking hierarchy, its evolution. They own it. And because I only have so much space to think and write about what may be capacious within its very tight frame. The beautiful [and racially different body “quiet”] attempts of a retreat, and/or an escape.)
Rauschenberg called his very famous Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953, “poetry.” De Kooning, on the other hand, thought “such an exchange between artists should have remained private.” De Kooning’s gesture to Rauschenberg, surrendering a drawing that he really cared about, something he “would miss,” is perhaps the real masterpiece in this particular remarkable artwork exchange.
Like the “stowaway” de Kooning, Agnes Martin (1912–2004) considered herself an Abstract Expressionist, but I think she got that partly wrong. Her work got closer to the illegible, to a perceived nothing, silence, than the rest of those mostly white men. I’m never quite sure if I was first drawn to Martin’s work through her writings or through her paintings . . . both, no doubt. Her mind. Her emphatic, hard interstitial stance between nothingness and rigor; the precise, relentless meditation of the whole, all of it. It is work I care very much about because I’m not absolutely sure why I care about it. Ultimate freedom (hiding the mirror) is nothing without a frame and/or some disappearing grids, I suppose.
“To me it seemed that hiding the mirror was a positive thing, because it made for an entirely different kind of experience—the mirror reflecting and yet not being able to reflect the floor.” Bruce Nauman said very little else about his John Coltrane Piece, 1968. It’s refracted reflection unseen. At the bottom, underneath the Coltrane Piece, is polished aluminum, which no one can see (except the art handlers). An underneath where you can see everything. He did Coltrane’s mood good, the private honoring.
The great modern dancer (and one of my teachers) Viola Farber (a Black Mountain College alumna and original member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1953 to 1965) once told me a story about an incident between Steve Paxton and Cunningham, a rehearsal actually, during a ’60s European tour. Cunningham asked the company to experiment with a movement within a dance he was choreographing; he asked them to move as slowly as possible with a particular movement or phrase. Each dancer responded in their fashion, taking a movement, slowing it down. . . .
The rehearsal and time of day slowed down as well. “Once we each finished our experiments, each dancer deciding when that would be, we left the space and the rehearsal. All of us except Steve, the last one in the studio, alone with Merce, watching. Both of them determined to wait it out. Steve’s defiantly antikinetic response, ‘slow,’ almost unwatchable, except to Merce’s Zenlike gaze. I think they were there for hours, maybe all night, who knows,” she mused.
One summer while visiting Steve Paxton many years later, at his home in Vermont, I mentioned this story, and he remembered the incident. He got up from his kitchen table and placed his right leg to the front or to the side (I can’t remember which) and stood still.
The metamorphosis of these few works, their different manifestations of an expressive interiority, silence(s), might be as good as it gets. (There are other examples, of course, and some parallel “poetry” from all cultural body politics. And yes, “Broodthaers’s sly mussels and eggshells set amid shipping crates.”) The beauty ethic of “quiet,” these private agreements made public because the agreements/disagreements were so intimate and thereby perfect. Why we should try to “hold” them. A kind of transcendence(s) requiring (no real-space hierarchy) a white and/or scruffy art wall or on-the-street politic. The rest, invisible.