Beings in Time: With ‘Concept, Performance, Documentation, Language,’ Mitchell Algus Rewrites the Narrative


In 2003, critic Jerry Saltz wrote in these very pages that gallerist Mitchell Algus “should be given a MacArthur for his efforts in exhibiting artists who have slipped off everyone’s radar.” But unlike with the usual curatorial excavations — which mine for gold from earlier eras in an effort to hit the jackpot — Algus’s aims have always possessed a great integrity. “I’m interested in dismantling consensus,” he explained in a 2004 interview. He’s earned his platinum reputation because, quite simply, he walks the walk. Chalk that up, perhaps, to a certain independence from the art market: Until recently, Algus supported himself in part by teaching high school science in Queens. (He retired to devote more attention to his art work after Mayor Bill de Blasio increased teachers’ pensions.) Meanwhile, thirteen years after Saltz’s praise, artists of every generation seem to be presented as belonging to one of two categories: “blue chip” or “future blue chip.” In this climate, Algus’s particular genre of genius is more deserving of accolades than ever.

His current exhibition, “Concept, Performance, Documentation, Language,” is a vibrant, important show featuring works made from the late 1960s to the early ’80s by more than fifty artists, most of whom remain alive and well and working in New York today. On view are photographs, drawings, posters, collages, and other works on paper (it’s all on the wall). Some names will be familiar: Hannah Wilke, Vito Acconci, Carolee Schneemann, Lee Lozano, Adrian Piper, David Wojnarowicz, Jack Smith, Eleanor Antin. Others, perhaps less so: Stefan Eins, Roy Colmer, Karen Shaw, Bill Beckley, Duff Schweninger. Here, Algus unites them as a loose community creating art on the crest of Conceptualism’s second wave. Rather than reduce art’s rich and twisted narratives to a privileged Who’s Who, Algus widens the lens, broadening our focus. The show doesn’t genuflect to trickle-down theories of influence or tidy summaries of artists and their practices. He instead makes palpable the spirit of the bygone age in which they worked.

If the Conceptualists of the 1960s were a relatively serious bunch — almost academic in their approach to the making and unmaking of art — those who followed in their footsteps were driven by a far more playful spirit, dancing along the life/art divide. After all, ideas are living things too, fleeting, sometimes arriving only half-formed or at a weight, scale, and presence at odds with capital-A Art. Such is the lightness behind Gerald Hayes’s “Wind/Fence” series (1968), in which the artist let the air carry pieces of paper into a chain link fence and then documented how they stuck there. Such is the heavy-handedness of Gordon Matta-Clark’s Datum Cuts (1973), for which he chainsawed through the doorways and walls of an office hallway to construct vertiginous views of ordinary spaces.

If some artists were poets, others played the fool, with a healthy naughty streak and a subversive sense of humor. In the 1974 photograph Untitled (Chapter 4, Two Men in Parking Garage), Christopher Rauschenberg (son of Robert Rauschenberg and Susan Weil) stands facing a male cohort. Both are nude beneath their unzipped coats, one wild-eyed and the other slack-jawed as they touch the tips of their erect swords, so to speak. (There is surely an astute political something-or-other propelling this performance, but I for one was giggling too hard to care.) Then there’s the work of Neke Carson, performance artist and notorious painter in the sublime “Rectal Realist” style. (To those wondering how to master the craft of Rectal Realism, simply stick a paintbrush up your ass and get to work.) A couple of his works are on view, including a series of four photographs documenting his 1971 performance “Dandruff Exorcism,” in which the artist walked unannounced into the Leo Castelli Gallery, crouched, and shook his dandruff out onto a dark cloth. A funny photograph from 1972 titled Retrospective (Sonnabend Gallery, Vito Acconci’s Seedbed) perfectly captures his aberrant exuberance. As Acconci masturbated under a platform in the gallery, we see Carson on top of it, dancing with wild abandon to the sound of Acconci’s (ahem) beats.

Almost half of the artists in “Concept, Performance, Documentation, Language” are women, a virtue that must be noted against the dreary state of equal representation in the 21st century. Hung in the gallery is a vivid spectrum of ferocities, from Colette’s 1976 photograph Sleeping on a Carl Andre Sculpture, which catches her bare as Lady Godiva lying atop one of Andre’s morbidly solid wood constructions, to a pair of 1972 self-portraits of Martha Wilson dressed in male and female drag. From images of Lorraine O’Grady swanning around town as the mythical Mlle Bourgeoise Noire to Roberta Allen’s Pointless Acts #3 (1976), in which she photographs herself interacting with “pointless arrows,” small, sharp lines that she meticulously draws on the prints. One of the notable discoveries of the show (and there are quite a few) is an early selection from Morgan O’Hara’s “Time Study,” an ongoing project that began around 1974, for which the artist documents everything she does and how long it takes her to do it. Sleeping, reading, watching television, cooking, worrying, painting, having sex, counseling, teaching: All of her life’s labors are here accounted for in charts and pie graphs.

Algus has always prioritized that freedom from certain art-world constraints, and it’s this autonomy that also unites the artists on view. He isn’t presenting a simple survey so much as conducting a forgotten creative force — a model of how to be in the world. This isn’t about nostalgia. It’s about acknowledging the loss of a time when being an artist was a way of life more than a way to make a living — to be struck by how the fame- and approval-seeking that stunts so many young artists today is nowhere to be seen here. Revel in the fact that Algus’s artists produce something of far greater value: bliss.

‘Concept, Performance, Documentation, Language’
Mitchell Algus Gallery
132 Delancey Street, 2nd floor
Through May 1