Our eyes have gotten so used to the blitz of the showstopping retrospective that it’s easy to miss the quieter detonations an artist can set off inside a museum. If you visit MoMA P.S.1 right now, you might just walk right by a modest exhibition dedicated to early performances by the multimedia artist and cultural superhero Papo Colo. But to do so would be to miss out on an introduction, or reintroduction, to singular works by a man for whom life and art and politics and love were (and are) so entwined as to be a much-needed presence right now — a role model who points to the possibilities of what it means to be an artist in this world.
Colo may be best known as half the brain trust behind the legendary Exit Art, which he co-founded in 1982 with his life partner, the formidable Jeanette Ingberman. For thirty years, Exit Art served as one of the city’s premier “alternative spaces,” giving a home to exhibitions, performances, readings, lectures, installations, and political actions by artists, writers, musicians, and others traditionally pushed aside by the straight, white, male cultural agenda. “Every exit is an entrance,” Colo would say, defining the spirit of the place, which proved that the so-called margins are always wider than the mainstream and often moving at a velocity that lands artists ahead of their time. David Wojnarowicz, Tehching Hsieh, Martin Wong, Elaine Lustig Cohen, Adrian Piper, Vito Acconci, and Shirin Neshat are just some of the 2,500 artists who exhibited there. These days, you’d be hard-pressed to meet a New York–based culture worker over the age of forty who didn’t at some point show at Exit Art.
While Colo was supporting the work of others, he was also creating his own: videos, drawings, actions, sculptures, performances, and more. The documents of select early performances at P.S.1 are too few, but potent: seven still images (four prints of contact sheets, plus three photographs) and a single video, Colo’s auto-portrait The Diferencia (1976–86), which splices footage from his seminal works, including Superman 51 (1977) and Against the Current (1983), and intersperses it with clips of Colo performing his daily ablutions. Colo focused on the body as a site of cultural, poetic, and political production — specifically, his own body, one that resides between identities, between his birthplace of Puerto Rico and his chosen home in the U.S. What and how does a body mean, and why and when does it represent more than just itself? He wound questions of visibility, legibility, and labor into actions that were as arduous and absurd (and sometimes as fruitless) as the political systems that shape our country, and within which our citizens struggle.
Colo performed Superman 51 the year that Puerto Rico’s bid for U.S. statehood failed in Congress. Black-and-white silent film footage captures the artist on the Westside Highway, standing as fifty-one pieces of wood, each painted with the name of an American state on them (including Puerto Rico), are tied to his legs and arms. The camera follows him as he runs at full speed and then falls to the ground, exhausted and panting. For Against the Current, Colo strains to push a canoe upstream in the heavily polluted Bronx River. For both performances, his body works against an order, whether natural or man-made, exerting itself to little or no effect.
Colo also created actions that elided conventional distinctions. “HOW SIMILAR WE ARE EVEN IF CULTURE PRETENDS THAT WE ARE DIFFERENT,” he writes in the prefatory titles of The Diferencia, which also includes a moving document of the artist’s 1976 public interventions on West Broadway, Walking Sculpture and Coronation. For Walking Sculpture, Colo fastened together long, pointed wooden stakes to create a skeletal sculpture that sits on the sidewalk as participants arrange and rearrange its form. For Coronation, Colo strung a series of stakes on a rope slung between two buildings on opposite sides of the street. Their silhouettes against the skyline, which can be seen in the film or in one of the exhibition’s still images, look a bit like a crown of thorns, a vision made eerie by the presence of the twin towers that once loomed over Soho and the downtown arts scene.
The art world has since re-centered itself in Chelsea, of course, and in conjunction with this P.S.1 show, Colo has for the past couple of months also been performing a new street action, “The Cleaner (or How to Launder Money and Disappear),” on the corner of Tenth Avenue and 23rd Street every Saturday afternoon at four o’clock. (Colo says he’ll announce other performances on his Facebook page.) For this piece, the artist throws fifty dollar coins onto the sidewalk, polishes each one, then draws a chart in chalk around them, diagramming the tangled paths across which art, money, and taxes meet in the world.
In the spring of 2012, Colo shut the doors of Exit Art following Ingberman’s death from leukemia the previous fall. He performed a public ritual cleansing of the space as a way of saying goodbye to his wife, and perhaps to an era that ended then too. “Exit Art was a love story,” he told Artnet that year, “a wonderful, magical moment, but like all great love it was an anomaly.” Colo, too, is an anomaly, an artist whose life and work are propelled by an ethic that can be summed up by a piece of advice he gives young culture workers interested in starting their own spaces: “You have to give everything and expect nothing.” The P.S.1 show leads up to a new performance he’ll give in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Park in January 2017. How lucky for audiences that he’ll be receiving even more space — more time and talk and attention — from an art world to which he’s given so generously.
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