“Buy a condo or die,” says the cursive wall drawing by Jessica Diamond at the top of “Beneath the Underdog,” a terrific jumble of a group show at Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue. Put together by Nate Lowman and Adam McEwen, two neo-conceptualists with art-world social cachet, the show has work by 50 different artists dating from the 1960s to this minute, and treats the gallery as a piece of property up for grabs in every way.
Monica Bonvicini, whose spatial interventions often make a mockery of architectural machismo, has supplied a raised floor of sheetrock into which she has cut shallow holes at odd intervals, à la Gordon Matta-Clark. When I was in the gallery, the holes were covered with brown paper so unsuspecting visitors could trip over them and further tear up the floor. Barry Le Va, a postminimalist whose work doesn’t appear in public half enough, deposited a seven-layer stack of 28 panes of green-tinted plate glass on said floor, then took a hammer to it. Michael Joachin Grey, a sculptor who’s been largely absent from galleries in recent years, has created another sort of obstacle at the entrance to the same room. It’s a cast of Rodin’s Balzac—the same Balzac that seems to recoil in horror from the lobby of the dispiriting new Museum of Modern Art (as any sane person would). But Grey has cast his version in bright orange resin and attached its base to the ceiling, from which it hangs upside down at an angle giving it the unmistakable look of an erection.
Much of “Beneath the Underdog” (the title comes from an autobiography by jazz bassist Charles Mingus) has to do with what it means to be alone and upright, in both moral and physical terms, in a city where the unfathomably rich buy into taller and glassier buildings to experience New York as far above the street as possible. Lowman and McEwen attempt to counter that trend, advanced by an almost entirely male species of developer, by emphasizing the flat, the horizontal, and even, at times, the feminine.
There’s a backstory. It involves Aby Rosen, an aggressive collector of contemporary art who owns such marquee properties as Lever House, the Seagram Building, and the Gramercy Park Hotel. A few years ago, he bought the five-story 980 Madison Avenue, where the Gagosian Gallery is located. Last year, Rosen unveiled a plan to piggyback a pair of oval glass towers on the building’s roof, up to 30 stories of super-luxe housing designed by Norman Foster. Rosen presented the plan as a public service, offering to restore the building’s original facade and roof garden, where the Gagosian Gallery is now, and dedicate 24,000 square feet to free public exhibition space, presumably for his own collection. But the addition proved too big for the Upper East Side gentry, and in January the Landmarks Preservation Commission shot the plan down.
The story had legs for Lowman and McEwen, who have seen the forces of gentrification price a large number of creative people out of a Manhattan that now privileges consumers of culture over its producers, and the perpendicular over the squat. “Underdog” means to redress that imbalance, but it doesn’t quite succeed as social critique. At Gagosian, it seems more like a private collection acquired by astute and entertaining eccentrics who allow few gaps between art and life.
The variety, though, is bracing. A series of small color photographs that’s part Buster Keaton, part Edouard Manet show Bas Jan Ader picnicking inside the shelter of a large wooden crate propped open on the grass. Eventually it falls, removing the artist from view but leaving the structure in place. A half-dozen small, black-and-white photographs record Eleanor Antin’s 1973 march of a hundred pairs of black rubber boots to sites that include a bank, a supermarket aisle, and a parked car. It leads to a marvelous torn-poster collage by the late Raymond Hains, a French New Realist little known in the United States, and a realistic car bumper by Kaz Oshiro that’s made not of hard rubber, but stretched canvas and paint.
It’s mighty unusual to run across a commercial exhibition that so felicitously connects such disparate and largely unsung parts. Who would ever expect a castration-themed Madonna and Child by Sue Williams to share a wall with a quiet portrait by Gwen John? In fact, the curators appear to be tracing their artistic legacies as much as laying out concerns for historical or economic displacement. Generally, they have chosen work that involves a lot of tearing down, building up, assembling and dissembling, keeping the focus on action—or activism—over idea or theory. “Mafia (Or One Unopened Pack of Cigarettes),” a show-within-the-show imported from Oslo, contains objects and images that carry the threat of violence. In two videos, Aaron Young and the sisters Hannah and Klara Liden kick the shit out of everyday tools of technology like computers, iPods, and cameras.
Over the entrance to 980 Madison hangs an aluminum sculpture of a woman raising a torch above a recumbent young man. Supposedly, it represents a Manhattan just waking up to Art. What presides over “Underdog,” however, is a 1975 bust by George Gach of New York master builder Robert Moses—depending on your view, either an urban visionary or the devil incarnate. Seldom have the two poles seemed closer.