Source: Courtesy the Artist/Courtesy of MoMA PS1

Behind the Virtuous Folly of Curating MoMA PS1’s Insane New Survey

Hundreds of artists in one show: what could go wrong?

When MoMA PS1 sent out the list of artists for its new show Greater New York (October 11, 2015–March 7, 2016) readers could be forgiven for thinking there'd been an error. The list went on and on ... and on ... with a final tally of 157 artists and over 400 artworks. (For context, the New Museum Triennial, which is also a survey, but with a global rather than regional perspective, included just 51 artists.)

Collier schorr, the painted chair (jordan), 2015

Collier Schorr, The Painted Chair (Jordan), 2015

Source: Courtesy the Artist/Courtesy of MoMA PS1

Perhaps it's because of the exhibition’s scope. The last three Greater New York shows (the first was in 2000) were meant to showcase new, younger talent. In the last few years, however, the art market has done an excellent job of doing just that, which PS1's curatorial team readily acknowledges in the introductory text: "With the rise of a robust commercial art market and the proliferation of art fairs, opportunities for younger artists in the city have grown," they write.

And so, beaten to the punch by the art market, the team has instead turned to the past, focusing on "points of connection and tension between our desire for the new and nostalgia for that which it displaces." (Read: old New York artists, and new New York artists, too.)

It's as broad a mandate as they come. Accordingly, the artists run the gamut from the deceased pop/conceptual/minimalist artist Richard Artschwager, whose art is shown in the mega Gagosian Gallery, to the living Jen Rosenblit, a queer-centric performance artist whose work is staunchly anti-commercial both in its content and as a matter of course.

“When we started working on the show, the first question was always: what is a survey like this, and what purpose should it serve?” says Peter Eleey, the leader of the show’s curatorial team, in an interview. 

Amy brener, dressing screen, 2015

Amy Brener, Dressing Screen, 2015

Source: Courtesy the Artist/Courtesy of MoMA PS1

"More generally, we started asking ourselves about what’s changed the city," he continues, since the last Greater New York survey in 2010. “One thing that’s noticeable is the degree of heightened nostalgia for the '70s and '80s.”

And so the curatorial team decided that the work would range from 1976, when PS1 was founded, to the present.

‘Missing the way things used to be’ is as reasonable a curatorial impulse as any, though the obvious concern is coherence: Is this even supposed to feel like a fluid show, with one room flowing to the next?

“There are definitely certain thematics,” says Eleey. The preponderance of figurative work in painting, photography, and sculpture, for instance, is meant to stand in contrast to the most recent fad among young artists (now petering out) of colorful, abstract painting and sculptures. 

Alvin baltrop,

Alvin Baltrop, The Piers (with couple engaged in sex act), 1975-86

Source: Courtesy of Third Streaming, New York/Courtesy of MoMA

One room is almost entirely filled with 30 photographs by Alvin Baltrop, a photograph who chronicled pre-and post-AIDS gay New York. The images are crisp black and white, and invariably, the photos from the '70s are much more interesting than the photos from the 1990s and early 2000s. 

At the other end of the spectrum is a room-sized installation of jagged foam pieces by Lutz Bacher, the totally inscrutable conceptual artist who had a solo show at PS1 in 2009. 

There are also some genuine young artists—though no one was born after 1990. Cameron Rowland (born 1988), an artist who rents his conceptual art rather than sells it, has six pieces in the show; Devin Kenny (born 1987), whose work chronicles and occasionally mocks youth culture, has three pieces.

Lutz bacher, magic mountain, 2015

Lutz Bacher, Magic Mountain, 2015

Photographer: Pablo Enriquez/Courtesy the Artist and Greene Naftali, New York/Courtesy of MoMA PS1

All of this added up to a monumental undertaking. So how'd they pull it off?

“There’s a ton of people who end up working on these kind of shows,” says Eleey. While most museum exhibitions are organized by one or two curators, this show had four, including Douglas Crimp, the art history professor, Thomas Lax, an assistant curator of media and performance art at MoMA, and Mia Locks, an assistant curator at PS1.

Luckily, New York as a topic made it easier, if not as a location the key to being possible. 

“A huge amount of work is made in New York,” he says, “and while a lot leaves it, a lot stays. So while other museums would have to truck things from around the country, we have an enormous wealth of art and artworks to draw from right here.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.