Every Exit is an Entrance: 30 Years of Exit Art
Exit Art, New York
Through May 19
by Marie-Adele Moniot
The first exhibition by Exit Art, the nonprofit art space founded by Jeanette Ingberman and Papo Colo in 1982, was an ode to illegal acts. Illegal America featured the work of a dozen artists, including Vito Acconci, Charlotte Morman and Chris Burden, who engaged in acts of art making that were against or in marked conflict with U.S. law. What was displayed at Franklin Furnace in New York City (in its early years, Exit Art was a nomadic gallery with no fixed home) was evidence of the artists' transgressions: photos, posters, police reports and other ephemera. Even the catalogue was a collection of typed pages sealed in a box with a dollar bill. To read it, the viewer had to rip the bill, another federal crime. From Exit Art’s very beginnings, we were all participants and accomplices. Illegal America set the tone, both in style and substance, of Exit Art that would last for 30 years.
One of New York’s original alternative art spaces, Exit Art is ending its storied run next month. Its final, exuberant show, Every Exit Is An Entrance: 30 Years of Exit Art, is organized by decade (1982, 1992 and 2003) in three distinct sections of its gallery in Hell’s Kitchen. The show includes a truckload of papers, photos, notes, press releases, catalogues and ephemera that fill a waist-high shelf that snakes along the gallery’s walls. The shelf creates a physical timeline and is accompanied by drawing, painting, sculpture and video from Exit Art's vast exhibition history. That history includes gut-punchers like Adrian Piper's Free #2 (1989), two stark photographs of police brutality, and artist-activist David Wojnarowicz's Something from Sleep (1987-1988), a mixed-media reverie about the American dream in all its fractured optimism and rootlessness.
It's difficult not to feel intense pangs of nostalgia and sadness about Exit Art's finale. After all, Colo has described the history of the gallery as a love story between himself and Ingberman, his companion of 30 years who died in 2011. But that heartbreaking story doesn't even begin to acknowledge the rigorous history of this bold, plucky space. Especially in its first decade (admittedly, it's not a competition, but the 1980s come out way, way on top here), Exit Art was having a blast, giving a forum to all sorts of impish ideas. It told the stories of local and international artists who were working with media like performance and video that didn't fit neatly in a gallery setting. In 1981-82, performance artist Tehching Hsieh spent a year living on the streets of NYC for One Year Performance, the third in a series. Exit Art displayed the photo records, Hsieh’s clothing—the stuff of the work—which became not only a record of the artist's performance and experience, but also a map or topographical history of the city. This is typical of much of the work in Every Exit Is An Entrance, too, where snippets and snapshots of past shows become a history within a history of both the city and Exit Art itself.
By the 1990s, the experimental, free-wheeling nature of Exit Art shifted to larger, political gestures. The art, too, became physically bigger, and in 1992, the gallery moved to a cavernous space in SoHo. A standout work from this era is Shirin Neshat's Allegiance with Wakefulness (1994), part of the artist’s well-known series of images about Muslim women. In this disorienting photograph, two delicate, female feet are captured in extreme close-up, inscribed with inked poetry and balancing the barrel of a gun. This image serves as a sort of axis of the show, and much of the work that follows seems to be influenced by or commentaries on violence (against man or nature). In its last decade, especially, Exit Art became dominated by painting, photos and sculpture about environmental crisis or terrorism. This period is profoundly despairing. Gone are the humor and mischievousness (the play) embedded in Exit Art's early days, and its curatorial philosophy seems unmoored. That's fine, and likely purposeful, because where else would Exit Art tread during a decade marked by endless wars and economic division?
Hardest of all to swallow, though, about Exit Art's impending exit (okay, nostalgia, you win) is that New York still needs it. Or it needs a version of its 80s self, one that moved well beyond the art object, the news or the market, and just let it all hang out with oddball shows about the engagement of the Statue of Liberty (yes, that happened). Revisionist? Absolutely, but with any vibrant, messy love story, the stars (and their fans) should be free to rewrite the ending as often as they please.
Marie-Adele Moniot is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York.