Think of him as Jorge “Puff Daddy” Pardo: a mixmaster, style sampler, recombiner of expensive tracks, set to the beat of modernism. Pardo’s work has the look and feel of money well spent; it’s radical without being revolutionary, confident enough to be taken only as design, yet gets by on street cred. A darling of the curators and critics, with more than 100 group shows and articles on his résumé, Pardo/Puffy’s a supersuccessful artist-producer who jobs out projects and gets things done. Like Sean Combs, Pardo’s got the name, and everyone wants to work with him.
Known primarily for his utilitarian-looking lamps and furniture, Pardo’s art-as-design is pretty tame: Home Depot for highbrows. At Dia, he outdoes himself. Entering his eager-to-please, quick-to-satisfy ground-floor “renovation” is sort of dazzling. It’s like walking into a Canaletto painting: Space recedes, light flickers, color delights, grace and balance are in ascendance, detail satiates the eye. It’s enticing to tourists and cognoscenti alike. You can almost hear the stylists clambering to line the place up for photo shoots.
Everything’s pristine; space flows; the mind wanders. Viewers stroll a floor of Creamsicle pink, saffron, and avocado ceramic tiles, all arranged in a tasteful grid that continues up the columns almost to the ceiling. The walls sport nondescript, computer-generated, multihued, ersatz-abstract murals. A full-scale, clay-covered model of the new Volkswagen Beetle is self-consciously placed at a discreet angle.
People move through the 9000-square-foot expanse in a receptive trance. A feeling of contentment and fun fills the air. Bookstore, exhibition space, and ticketing facilities are separated by handsome walls of gridded glass. The office is visible behind a similar partition. Commerce, bureaucracy, and art merge. The whole is so Arcadian it conjures the disembodied zone an e-mail travels on the way to its destination.
I imagine an abstract expressionist, Constructivist, or one of our own academic formalists looking with horror at this makeover. Pardo is their worst nightmare: the heretic who doesn’t believe in art’s causes—one who uses style for style’s sake, and who seems to say, “Modernism is empty, but look how beautiful its shell is.”
Pardo’s Project, as it’s generically called, trades on one of the 20th century’s oldest bugaboos, greatest contributions, and stickiest wickets: that mother of convention, feather in our cap, and fly in our ointment, the white cube. The subgenre known as “the exhibition space as art” stretches from Duchamp’s Mile of String and Schwitters’s Merzbau, through Dali, Kienholz, Christo, Kaprow, Samaras, and Segal, goes crazy with Dieter Roth and “Grandmaster” Martin Kippenberger, and crests with the almost all-boy band of Pardo, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tobias Rehberger, Carsten Holler, and the fabulous Björk-like backup stylings of Lily van der Stokker—call them Rirkrit and the Family Tiravanija. An unnamed ism, a gadget, a fetish—art as intervention is hot enough to generate whole books, the best of which is Brian O’Doherty’s must-read, Inside the White Cube.
O’Doherty says that art about art’s space wants to “wise us up,” but that it “depends for its effect on the context of ideas it changes and joins. It is not art, perhaps, but artlike.” In other words, these artists may not like the chicken, but they need the eggs. Now, wherever there’s space—and these days there’s more and more of it, the majority looking like the same McGallery or McMuseum—there’ll be an artist trying to overturn or alter the minimalist box we all know and love/hate.
Pardo caps one phase of all this. He skews more mainstream, glitzy, and high-production than his compatriots; he goes for gratification, not agitation. Nothing’s hidden, clues are delivered on cue. An amalgam of acceptable but slightly unstable midcentury styles are on hand. Kitsch does its star turn, Bauhaus tap-dances with Broadway and Baudrillard, formalism and functionalism tryst with crassness and money, theory sidles up to entertainment. Here, a perfect Alvar Aalto wardrobe from a Finnish tuberculosis sanitarium, there an Eames couch. Everywhere, the look and feel of art about utopia, design, architecture, exhibition, and utilitarianism. Quotation marks and buzz words parade like models on a runway.
And guess what? Dia’s never looked so user-friendly, inviting, or festive. It’s great to see them fooling around with their austere digs. In a way, Pardo plays Joe Lieberman to Dia’s Al Gore: He loosens up this sanctum of high minimalism and maximum taste, gussies up Richard Gluckman’s impeccable architecture. As with Lieberman, Dia’s choice is implicitly self-critical, without being disruptive, because Pardo—like Lieberman—talks less about the future than he does about the past; he’s a reformer, but a conservative one. Basically, he’s a high-yield alternative to a true avatar of revolutionary design like Vito Acconci, whose art comes more from anger, doubt, and paradox. Call Pardo the anti-Gluckman. Project is less Rage Against the Machine than it is ‘N Sync. Pardo was the man for the job at this moment; he got it done on time, and even with a whiff of radicality. It’ll be fun going to Dia for the next year or two.
Or maybe it won’t. Nothing ages uglier than utopia. Think about how checking into a hotel designed by Le Corbusier can make you want to wince, walking up Sixth Avenue can make you want to kill, or visiting SUNY Purchase can make you want to die. Utopias are closed, idealizing systems, frozen in time, bad at adapting. When Project‘s theatricality and cachet wear off, the residue could turn iffy. Pardo knows this; and that knowledge is at the permeable core of his installation, the reason it fails and succeeds so nicely.
Project is set in a dicey dual time zone. The exhibition space will be dismantled in a year or two (average in Dia time), but the bookstore is meant to last. The glass wall is the key. It will provide a view and a reminder that each part is living without its other, that this Siamese twin of an installation was separated after its second year and that the other half “died.” This will set up an interesting echo.
The gamble Project takes is what this echo will say to the future. We already know that in the present it’s successful and pleasurable. Someday, I think Project will say, “In the year 2000, money had come into the land, no war loomed on America’s horizon, none had besmirched its recent past. Design was the new fashion, style and real estate were religions. The period had an abundance of time to contemplate glamour, artifice, interior decoration, and design—the luxury of thinking seriously about unserious things.”
Project is beautiful, but its beauty is very specific. It’s not Keatsian, deep, terrible, or romantic. To his credit, Pardo avoids the pitfalls of art-about-art-as-design. He sidesteps satire’s finger-pointing, and skirts parody’s merriness. Pardo’s daring, if you can call it that, is that he is so utterly willing to occupy the devalued quality of pleasantness. He gives himself over, and makes himself vulnerable in so doing. This is courageous and, in the end, even a little radical. Pardo’s Project will provide clues about our ambivalence, capriciousness, ambition, and good fortune. Hopefully, the future will look at the more bottomless clues we’re leaving as well.