Like the Whitney Biennial and the New Museum Triennial, MoMA PS1’s quinquennial “Greater New York” aims to capture that lightning in a bottle called the zeitgeist. That’s the hope anyway, since surveys of this type tend to be noisy affairs signaling—well, not nothing, exactly, but nothing terribly exciting, either, as the spirit of our age has been dispiriting for awhile now. Like the rest of their 0.01 percent cohort, collectors have been busily sucking up the world’s wealth, effectively reversing the revolution in culture, economics and politics that culminated in Modernism. Yet they still prefer artists who shellac their work with a gloss of radicalism—as long as it's hardened into convention.
Looking for the latest thing, it turns out, becomes a mug’s game when progress itself has been retarded, which may be why this year’s “Greater New York” departs from its previous “focus on youth” to concentrate instead on the “intersection between emerging and more established artists across New York, while also exploring aspects of earlier histories of the city.” If you’ve guessed that the “histories” in question involve the edgy Gotham of the late ’70s and early ’80s, treat yourself to an egg cream from Dave’s Luncheonette.
But then, nostalgia for the era has grown in direct proportion to the distance artists have had to travel to find affordable rents, so it’s no coincidence that the principal curator this year is Douglas Crimp, organizer of the legendary “Pictures” exhibition at Artists Space in 1977. He’s orchestrated a collision between old school and millennial sensibilities, which isn’t as horrible as it sounds: The result is neither a train wreck nor the curatorial equivalent of an old man shouting at you to get off his lawn, though either of those outcomes might have produced more energy than generated here. While it certainly contains a number of things to recommend it, the exhibit largely feels exhausted, even as it exhausts your attention.
Although the show features some galleries containing single artists, its intent is to create continuity between old figures and new, leading to comparisons that are, alas, too often unconvincing, self-evident or on the nose. In one room, for example, photos by feminist art pioneer Mary Beth Edelson are paired with a wall mural and a canvas by Mira Dancy. Dancy lays claim to the feminist heritage by filtering her female nudes through Matisse, German Expressionism and a thrift-store aesthetic. But juxtaposed with Edelson’s self-portraits as a resplendently naked goddess of empowerment, Dancy’s paintings seem reduced to mere fashion illustration. In another pairing, Nancy Shaver’s installation of collected objects has been surrounded with photos of collected, re-photographed images by Sara Cwynar, a combination that barely merits a shrug. A mix of Gina Beavers’s funky relief paintings of food and sexy torsos and Collier Schorr’s color photos of dreamy male models, meanwhile, is just plain obvious.
More successful is a room filled with (mostly) standing figurative sculptures by the likes of Kiki Smith, Lutz Bacher, Red Grooms and Huma Bhabha, and another of paintings by Peter Saul, Sue Williams and Jamian Juliano-Villani. Both groupings crackle with signs of life missing in most of the show, suggesting that historical correlations are better served by sticking to one medium.
Still, Crimp does viewers a service by reviving artists who’ve been mostly forgotten. It’s nice to see figures from the ’70s like Robert Kushner and Scott Burton back in action, and a roomful of black-and-white photos by Alvin Baltrop are particularly revelatory. They depict the abandoned, crumbling West Side Piers of 40 years ago, which served as the sexual playgrounds for gay males in the time before AIDS. Baltrop captures lithe young men in flagrante, or lounging languidly in the sun like the skinny-dipping youths in Winslow Homer’s The Swimming Hole—hedonistic moments lost to epidemic, re-development and same-sex marriage.
These photos are emblematic of an echt New York that Crimp is trying to recall while making the case that part of it still exists. But he’s certainly smart enough to know that in a world run by a rentier class that extracts its wealth from digitally-diffused assets, New York has been diminished to an investment, a place to experience a carefully-curated life of luxury—for two weeks out of the year, anyway. And while some of the works in the show allude to our present situation, the reality of it is too enfeebling for art to make a difference, even when it tries.
Not that’s there’s anything wrong with fighting the good fight, as ’80s drag diva Lady Bunny essentially does in a video by Charles Atlas. Against an unadorned backdrop, she faces the camera with her face encircled by a nimbus of fake hair as she performs a monolog about sex-change operations and corporate cupidity, among other topics. Waging her one-woman war in defense of fabulousness, Lady Bunny is aging well. Even with its surfeit of young artists, however, the same cannot be said for the current art world, making it hard out there for shows like “Greater New York.”