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By Miriam Felton-Dansky
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Which brings me to how I come to be on a train with a pair of Bruces on the way to their solo museum show at Brown University. A kind of test run for their much bigger Brooklyn Museum exhibition, the Providence show also serves as a kickoff for a series of marquee events that include an exhibition at the "Future Moynihan Station" (a decommissioned post office) on Eighth Avenue; a fat-cat benefit auction at Carbone restaurant for BHQFU (with prominent Warhol dealer Alberto Mugrabi as auctioneer, it raised nearly $300,000 for their university); and a prominent presentation at the 12th Biennale de Lyon, one of Europe's more important art festivals.
These and other projects help shore up the Bruces' generative example as a possible alternative to contemporary art's domination by New York's auction houses and Chelsea's big-box galleries. If the Bruces can remake bohemia in the image of a bank robber's mask, the argument goes, others can, too. Best summed up by their pragmatic motto—"professional problems, amateur solutions"—the success of their punk philosophy serves the Gotham art world today as a kind of DIY pilot light.
"I have a great deal of faith in artists being different from other people," Scruffy Bruce says as the train pulls into Providence Station. "We have this one thing above other people: the ability to turn our disgust into a different vision."
Ironically, the work on view at Brown belongs entirely to billionaire hedge-funder Steve Cohen, whose firm, SAC Capital, is under investigation for insider trading by the Securities and Exchange Commission. One might think this would collide with the Bruce ethic, but the group believes otherwise.
"Artists have always figured out ways to beat the system," says a tall, gangly Bruce who exudes the easy confidence and conviction of an athlete. "And that's basically what we're trying to do."
Later, at the opening—which Cohen, his daughter, and his well-heeled adviser Sandy Heller attend—Scruffy Bruce catches me staring at a series of 10 black-and-white silkscreens of wives of convicted former financial titans called, fittingly, The Wives. "It's a work in progress," he says. "I honestly thought we were going to have put one up of Alexandra Cohen for the show."
When I look over at the short, doughy Cohen—the 34th richest man in the U.S. and the bank-clerky Jay Gatsby of our age—I'm momentarily reminded of Tennessee Williams's famous put-down for squares: "a pineapple ice cream sundae." Then I remember that the man's personal fortune is estimated at $10 billion. If nothing else, the Bruces are in the game with some of the world's biggest money players, and damn their complicated financial entanglements. (Mugrabi, the Bruces' erstwhile auctioneer, has also been accused of using insider information to manipulate prices for expensive artists like Warhol and Hirst.)
"It really is an incredible thing that they are so generous with their money," their dealer, Vito Schnabel, son of painter and filmmaker Julian, says about the Bruces. "They pay themselves a salary from a foundation they've set up, but obviously lots of money goes back into the school and other projects. They live very frugally, without much flash, and now one of them is having a kid. I think what they really want is to set up a situation where they're free to try new things independently of whether they succeed or fail. As far as I'm concerned, they're doing something that's never been done before."
Schnabel, whose lack of a brick-and-mortar space allows him an enormous amount of flexibility in setting up exhibitions, is in many ways the ideal dealer for the Bruces. Young, connected, smart, and curious to try new things, he has introduced them to some of the globe's top collectors, including boldface names like Cohen, Mugrabi, industrialist and publisher Peter Brandt, real estate mogul Aby Rosen, and the Swiss collector and dealer Bruno Bischofberger, who reportedly acquires their work with clockwork regularity.
Heller has speculated publicly whether Schnabel himself is "a member of Bruce," which lends discussion of the collective a cloak-and-dagger air. Their working method evokes the romance of radicals meeting in dark cafés, clandestinity, and the activist ambition of social and artistic revolution.
"We don't really expect alternative art practices by themselves to humanize global capitalism any," Tall Bruce says a week later inside their cavernous Sunset Park studio, which is full of paintings, sculptures, and Play-Doh replicas bound for the Brooklyn Museum show. "But it's not just the collectors' fault that the art world is led by money now. Artists need to step up and do their part."
A floor-through located in a 19th-century industrial building, the Bruces' studio is abuzz with activity as some 10 people alternately answer phones, put the finishing touches on works, and cut museum-like vitrines from plywood that will mimic the Met's more elegant displays.
Tall and Scruffy Bruce lead me to a miniature of their upcoming show. It contains tiny images of many of their earliest actions—like their 2004 restaging of Théodore Géricault's history painting The Raft of the Medusa on the East River—along with works that refer to actual history: 9/11, the 2008 stock market crash, the emerging distrust in social technology, along with references to the history of ideas, including Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and Friedrich Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy," which became the 18th century's "We Are the World" after it was scored by Beethoven.