In Luc Sante’s downtown classic Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (1991), he described how real estate reputations linger in Manhattan for centuries. The Bowery, for instance, has been a “capital of dissipation” for generations, the only major thoroughfare in New York never to have had a church built on it.
Only, the Bowery does have a church now. The consecration, for the art-religious, occurred in December 2007, when the New Museum opened its luminous new building. Now, the Lower East Side—formerly a scruffy outpost for alt-spaces like Orchard, Participant, and Reena Spaulings—is littered with commercial galleries. One recently published map includes 36; another, put out by the Lower East Side Business Improvement District, lists 54.
The first edition of the New Museum’s triennial, Younger Than Jesus, and a gallery crawl on April 18, organized by an outfit called Artlog, seemed like further evidence of the neighborhood’s demise into a gentrified Bobo art-entertainment mecca. Before signing off on that idea, however, I decided to do my own diagnosis, visiting as many LES art spaces as I could in one weekend.
My first stop was Sunday, a small gallery that shows a lot of good, young painters, including Lauren Luloff, whose canvases encrusted with rumpled bedsheets offer smart reconsiderations of Rauschenberg’s combines (237 Eldridge, 212-253-0700, through May 10). They’re also an interesting counterpoint to what I saw next at BLT, a gallery that shows older, under-recognized artists. (Their next exhibition is Wiser Than God—a rejoinder to Younger Than Jesus—featuring painters born before 1927.) Stephen Rosenthal’s minimal, white paintings are obvious peers to Robert Ryman, while Paul Mogensen, a Brice Marden contemporary, works in the old-school shaped-canvas tradition, making big, black paintings with circular cutouts (270 Bowery, 212-260-4129, through May 17).
The frontiers of photography were at Jen Bekman, with Beth Dow’s platinum-palladium-print photographs of Ruins—actual sites in the Wisconsin Dells based on ancient ruins, like a faux Greek temple housing “My Big, Fat Greek Pizza Joint.” Dow exemplifies the new ethos in photography, both its 19th-century-revivalist aesthetics and the tactic popular among young photographers of using digital technology for processing, but not for compositional trickery (6 Spring, 212-219-0166, through May 16).
Further down the Bowery, Janos Gat is showing works by Judit Reigl, an octogenarian Hungarian who’s lived in Paris since the ’50s. From a distance, Reigl’s paintings are somewhat humdrum abstractions. Up close, you see the effects made by allowing paint to soak through the canvas—from both sides. Upstairs, if you can persuade Gat to take you there, are more of Reigl’s works from the ’50s and ’60s, including an amazing “fossilized” painting made from a canvas used for a while as a floor covering (195 Bowery, 212-777-2426, through May 30). Or you can go to the Met, where one of her works from the ’50s was recently installed within striking distance of Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm.
I stopped in to look at Luke Murphy’s mesmerizing, painterly videos at Canada (55 Chrystie, 212-925-4631, through May 3) and Michelle Lopez’s lovely sycamore suspended from the ceiling at Simon Preston (301 Broome, 212-431-1105, through May 17), then Sarah Crowner’s simple but elegantly sewn-together, retro-modern canvases at Nicelle Beauchene (163 Eldridge, 212-375-8043, through May 3).
Crossing Allen Street, Matt Sheridan Smith’s strong show at Lisa Cooley subtly and intelligently probes the greatest hits of the ’60s and ’70s: minimalism, conceptualism, and structuralist film. A video made from spliced-together footage of all the scenes in which a door is opened, closed, or passed through in Robert Bresson’s L’argent (1983) is a good example (34 Orchard, 212-680-0564, through May 24).
Star curator Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Unbuilt Roads, 107 proposals for unrealized artworks, is in the new E-Flux gallery—everything from a house in the shape of a banana by Claes Oldenburg to Dinos and Jake Chapman’s Stephen Hawking Oracle in Trafalgar Square in London (41 Essex, 212-619-3356, through May 16). At Dispatch, issues of intellectual property, creativity, and piracy—a local Chinatown economic staple—are explored in a quasi-collective exhibition through hybrid bootleg designer handbags, a pirated fragrance, and three terabytes of information downloaded from corporate and cultural websites (127 Henry, 212-227-2783, through May 10).
This is only a fraction of what I saw. (Several worthy-of-mention spaces like Participant, Reena Spaulings, and James Fuentes didn’t have shows up that weekend.) But from my perspective, the “new” LES isn’t a hopelessly degraded, homogenized one. Traditionally an immigrant district, it’s still populated with shops and markets selling curious, sometimes unidentifiable products. Walking between galleries, you’re blindsided with stimuli. It affects your perception, which is why artists have historically flocked to neighborhoods like this. Art, in this context, has competition; it has to work harder to make an impression.