Public Space in a Private Time
Storefront for Art & Architecture
97 Kenmare Street, New York, New York
Until December 17, 2022
On the evening of September 18, 1982, culture vultures, downtown hipsters, and the generally curious clumped together outside the Storefront for Art and Architecture in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood. The pocket-size gallery at 51 Prince Street was too small to accommodate everyone who had turned up to see and hear the multimedia artist Arleen Schloss twiddle a synthesizer for half-an-hour. In a photograph depicting the happening, the sidewalk performer looks cool in leather, while an oneiric film still projected from within the gallery floats overhead. Onlookers keep a respectful distance.
The Schloss performance was the first in a month-long jubilee planned to usher Storefront onto the downtown scene. In addition to near nightly arty exertions from the likes of Carolee Schneemann and Tehching Hsieh, there were film screenings, exhibition openings, salon talks, and, presumably, lots of cheap beer and white wine. The hard facts of that boisterous time are disclosed at Public Space in a Private Time, now open at Storefront’s wedge of a gallery on Kenmare Street.
The displays, which commemorate the 40th anniversary of the institution’s founding by Kyong Park and R.L. Seltman, are for the most part modest. Among the few snatches of visual dynamo mounted to the walls are a raffish poster by Jean-Michel Basquiat for a 1983 fundraising initiative organized with the Soup Kitchens Committee and the Coalition for the homeless and a playful 1988 graphic by Nam June Paik eulogizing the DMZ. A third point of interest are the pink triangles contrived by the group REPOhistory in 1994 to demarcate nine historical queer sites in Manhattan; of these spaces—which denote largely post-Stonewall actions and collectivities—just one (99 Wooster Street, the former headquarters of the Gay Activists Alliance) has received landmark status.
Visitors are otherwise invited to scan the numerous table-straddling texts. Somehow, the experience—small, semi-faded type and inscrutable marginalia notwithstanding—never segues into tedium. Perhaps it’s the charmingly maladroit syntax of an archaic form of art speak that keeps one engaged; take, for instance, the oddly pitched prosody of Storefront’s founding credo, which claimed “to expand the role of art and architecture by merging the esthetic quest and public life.” Manifestoes with weighty titles (“The Monument Redefined”) abound. No less plentiful are dossiers, memorandums, and, especially, solicitations for speculative proposals, examples of which blur the line between good and bad taste, earnest speculation and clucking provocation.
In their time, these paper projects mostly served as forms of publicity, seductive ways to engage the public about the spatial, cultural, and political forces shaping city life (though for “city” insert “Manhattan”). Storefront director José Esparza Chong Cuy has cherrypicked hot-button issues from a period of activity spanning some 20 years, beginning in 1982 and running through the early aughts. At times, the activist impulse produced trivial results and at least one or two own-goals, as happened with a 1985 prompt for bespoke graffiti stencils to be used for raising awareness about the homelessness crisis. Armed with their signs and spray cans, a group of artists tagged the area around Columbus Circle, aerosolizing well-meant and anguished missives about the plight of the unhoused. Only, no one seemed fazed or tried stopping them. Glenn Weiss, who succeeded leadership of Storefront from Park, complained to a Times reporter that “I don’t think the police care about this,” after failing to receive a summons.
Esparza’s selections were evidently motivated by their contemporary resonance. But the heated row over the removal of Richard Serra’s titanic Tilted Arc from its station at the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building Plaza in Lower Manhattan is virtually forgotten today, relegated to art-history trivia. The episode formed the basis of one of Storefront’s most significant efforts; staged in 1985, After Tilted Arc anticipated the unmooring of Serra’s rusted steel wall by four or so years. But any ramifications of the fracas—not least the very real, dubious rewrites to copyright law governing artistic works it inspired—are left suspended. Another major show, about Michael Graves’s top-heavy expansion to Marcel Breuer’s suave, not-to-be-mangled bunker for the Whitney Museum of Art, foregrounded similar concerns over artistic freedom, while advancing a curious tri-partite agenda of “Unification of Art and Architecture, Architecture as Social Identity, and The Reformation of American Architecture.” Big, capitalized words that have little to do with Christo’s loving proposal to cosset the Breuer in goose down, as if to insulate the building from the discursive murmuration surrounding its potential (and ultimately canceled) disfigurement.
There’s too little context-setting in Public Space in a Private Time, which keeps exposition in the form of wall labels to a minimum. What comes through instead is a sensibility, a kind of studied impertinence, or, less charitably, a schtick. The gallery’s savvy young proponents, particularly Park, leveraged big names like Serra to raise Storefront’s profile at a time when the art scene, riding on a wave of crass and cash, was becoming increasingly crowded. Still, the gallery found itself outpaced by competitors like the New Museum, founded in 1977 and now situated in a tower on Bowery with an operating budget many times higher than that of Storefront. (Once-thriving organizations like Fashion Moda, always on the edge of the financial abyss, simply vanished.)
In 1986, Storefront moved to its current location, though it didn’t gain its celebrated operable facade until 1993. Devised by the late artist Vito Acconci with the architect Steven Holl, the frontage incorporated flappable panels that ostensibly dilated the exhibition space to include the sidewalk and even Kenmare Street itself. Over the years, however, the movable wall has congealed into a static logo for the institution, which supports a handful of exhibitions annually. A blown-up, grayscale reproduction of the Schloss image covers the inner side of the entrance panel, as if to draw a straight line of institutional continuity.
But the plein-airisme that characterized Storefront’s early years is now mostly limited to periodical openings, like the one that unfolded over a couple hours in the late afternoon of September 17. This lapse is no one’s fault in particular. Rather, it speaks to an urban reality and a political economy that makes cynical use of the public-private dichotomy. The notion of a mutual, two-way benefit between government and privateers could only ever be conceptualized. Venturing outside one’s “private” orb anywhere in the five boroughs today is to risk a penalty akin to a tax. Ordinary interactions take the form of transactions, and at every juncture of one’s itinerary—aimlessness also being something to suppress—one is compelled to fork over some sum of money. The Acconci aphorism emblazoned on another wall panel (“The establishment of certain spaces in the city as ‘public’ is a reminder, a warning, that the rest of the city isn’t public”) is thus passé, cloyingly so. We no longer require reminders or warnings, not, at any rate, from artists with little inclination to render this fact in meaningful form. New Yorkers, and urban dwellers more generally, readily intuit imbalances of power, future foreclosures, vibe shifts; whether something can be done to undo the present state of things is an open question.
Perhaps a more relevant question is whether cultural institutions can point beyond themselves toward new horizons. In Storefront’s case, its tradition of outreach remains one of its greatest strengths. It has, over the decades, cultivated a public, even if it is a self-selecting one. There’s no greater evidence of this than the gallery’s continued existence. But piquant moments crop up here and there across Public Space in a Private Time, notably in the “mail art” format to which proposals like Lebbeus Woods’s concentric terrace houses for NYCHA and architect Julie Hacker’s topsy-turvy send-up of Graves’s Whitney project adhere. From event and panel notices divulging the participation of philosophers (Félix Guattari, Manuel de Landa), artists (Carl Andre, Nancy Spero), and many non-initiates, as well as correspondences from James Wines, Mel Chin, and non-New Yorkers like Alison Smithson, we can adduce an intricate web of actors, often chipping away at a single problem or challenge. At times, the stakes must have felt low; prompts to redesign the US dollar and the Statue of Liberty amount to brittle forms of iconoclasm. A lack of interest in tracing archaeologies—unescapable in the academy—is apparent. Esparza, for his part, has gone some way toward imbuing the gallery with some of that methodology, though a small dose goes a long way.
Tucked away in the gallery’s acute corner are materials documenting its showy, articulate wrapper. The Acconci-Holl facade unsettled many Storefront habitués, who understood that, for all its animating qualities, it would fix the institution’s identity in place. No longer would its stained and tattered envelope be appropriated in the manner of Unprojected Habit, a 1992 installation that raised the problematic dearth of public restrooms in the city to a palpable, stinky presence. Innocently, Park maintained that the facade was “about the dissolving of public and private, and the contradictions that govern our social and urban spaces.” Alas, that dialectic cannot so easily be unpicked.