Museum  December 29, 2021  Howard Halle

MoMA’s "Greater New York" Captures the Good & Bad of NYC

Image courtesy MoMA PS1. Photo: Noel Woodford

Installation view of Shanzhai Lyric, Incomplete Poem (2015-ongoing) in Greater New York 2021 on view at MoMA PS1 from October 7, 2021 to April 18, 2022.

Like the Whitney Biennial and other pulse-taking surveys of contemporary art, Greater New York was conceived as a way for MoMA, via its PS1 satellite, to put its institutional stamp on the zeitgeist by measuring it through a recurring interval of years—every five in the case of “GNY,” a figure that once might have marked seismic shifts in the art world. Today market indexes have replaced stylistic revolutions as cultural barometers, the reason, perhaps, for why the exhibit’s current edition seems to frequently insert the past into the present, both as a subject and as an opportunity for resurrecting careers.

 Image courtesy National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (26/9746). Photo: NMAI Photo Services.

G. Peter Jemison, Indians Have Always Paid The Price, 2005. Paper, crayon, paint, graphite. 30 3/16 × 22 5/8 × 1/4 in.

Greater New York has always drawn upon locally-based artists and its stated objective here is to excavate the layers of identity and history that have been mapped onto the city by its constant rebuilding and incessant influx of immigrants (echoed by the show’s geographical diversity of artists). For each generation, New York alters itself beyond recognition, a capitalist palimpsest where one memory of the city “when it used to be great” is erased for another—a process that’s continued unabated since Henry Hudson first sailed up the river bearing his name in 1609.

The calamitous consequences for the indigenous population over the centuries that followed are noted by Indigenous American artists G. Peter Jemison and Alan Michelson. Jemison evokes a legacy of exploitation and ethnic cleansing with a drawing featuring a skull-faced figure wearing Mickey Mouse ears. Alan Michelson looks back more in sorrow than in anger with a video installation recalling the abundant oyster beds in the Gowanus Canal and Newton Creek before settlers ate and polluted them out of existence.

Image courtesy the Estate of Luis Frangella and Galería Cosmocosa.

Luis Frangella, Untitled (Torso and Lyra), c. 1984. Acrylic on vinyl canvas. 110 1/5 x 56 3/10 in.

But if pre-colonial New York was a prelapsarian interlude crushed by change, it’s not the only one being evoked in this exhibit. A similar nostalgia runs through the inclusion of works dating back to the New York of the 1970s and ’80s before the city was remade as a bastion for the wealthy. Andreas Sterzing’s photographs of David Wojnarowicz, Mike Bidlo, and Luis Frangella standing in front of murals they painted inside the crumbling West Side Piers testifies to the way artists treated the abandoned urban landscape as a sandbox.

That this also represented the point of the spear for displacing communities of color is evidenced in Marilyn Nancea and Hiram Maristany’s photos of Hispanic and African American neighborhoods struggling against the tide of gentrification.

Frangella himself was Argentinian and his raw, Neo-Expressionistic compositions are just some of the pieces by émigré artists on display. Other notable examples include E’wao Kagoshima’s erotically charged, Pop/Surrealist/Abstract paintings and drawings; Nicolas Moufarrege’s art-historical quotations created in needlepoint; Ahmed Morsi’s equine dreamscapes limned in acrylic; Yuji Agematsu’s tiny assemblages of detritus sourced from the gutter; and aggregations of T-shirts, souvenirs, and tchotchke harvested from Canal Street emporiums by the Chinese collective Shanzhai Lyric.

Hiram Maristany, Children in the funeral march of Julio Roldán, 1970. Photograph.
Image courtesy the artist.

Hiram Maristany, Children in the funeral march of Julio Roldán, 1970. Photograph.

Yuji Agematsu, zip: 01.01.20 . . . 12.31.20, 2020.
Image courtesy the artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York. Photo: Stephen Faught.

Yuji Agematsu, zip: 01.01.20 . . . 12.31.20, 2020. Mixed media in cigarette pack cellophane wrappers on wood backed acrylic shelf, latex paint. Installation dimensions variable.

 Image courtesy MoMA PS1. Photo: Noel Woodford.
 Image courtesy MoMA PS1. Photo: Noel Woodford.

Installation view of Alan Michelson, Midden (2021) in Greater New York 2021 on view at MoMA PS1 from October 7, 2021 to April 18, 2022.

The final takeaway of the show may be that artists, whether directly or indirectly, are inspired by New York precisely because they recognize that it continually remakes itself for better and for worse. And, that its greatness lies in always trying to make itself greater.

About the Author

Howard Halle

Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen's Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

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