A Summer of Blockbusters and Sleeper Hits

Museum of Modern Art
Museum of Modern Art

Phew. That was quite a summer.

Richard Serra’s massive sculptures tested the strength of the renovated floors at the Museum of Modern Art, while those of Frank Stella looked ready to float off the walls at New York's Paul Kasmin Gallery and spruced up the rooftop garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Across the pond, calendrical coincidence made the summer a blockbuster for the world’s leading art fairs, with Art Basel in Switzerland, the 52nd Venice Biennale, Documenta XII (which takes place every five years) and Sculpture Projects Munster (held once a decade) opening within weeks of one another.

But two of my favorite shows of the summer were smaller affairs that winked knowingly at the art world—and exhibited some impressive works in the process. The lower Manhattan arts organization apexart hosted “The Most Curatorial Biennial of the Universe," which boated 217 curators and 355 works (all of them up for bid, starting at $10). Meanwhile, at Chelsea’s White Box art space, “Nightshift II: Hidden Hands" brought together works created by those who toil behind the scenes in the galleries, design firms, and artist studios that keep the art world chugging along.

The modestly named “Most Curatorial Biennial of the Universe" originated when apexart invited would-be curators, defined as “artists, writers, or anyone so inclined," to submit two works (each no larger than 8" by 10") by two different artists for an exhibition that would aim to address “two pervasive issues of our time": biennialessness and poverty. Now anyone, whether or not he or she has ever dreamed of headlining the American Pavilion in Venice, could participate in that rarified form of art fair. All accepted works were available for purchase, with funds going to New York City’s Robin Hood Foundation.

The resulting exhibition excited the eye and mind like a vast flea market or an overwhelming outlet store that has just received a fresh delivery. While Documenta was guided by the theme of “utopia and its violent end" and artistic director Robert Storr organized the Venice Biennale around the theme of “Think with the Senses—Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense," The Most Curatorial Biennial of the Universe offered utopia, dystopia, past, present, future and everything in between—in doses that never exceeded the size of a sheet of loose-leaf paper.

“This was a very interesting project for us and the quality of work was surprisingly high and quite personal," says Steven Rand, the founder and executive director of apexart. “Unlike the ‘other’ biennials which tend to depress me (so much for so little), I found the ‘new things’ one hopes to encounter in repeat visits with our show and acquired some pieces." The event attracted bidders from around the world and raised about $14,000 for the Robin Hood Foundation. “And we received many notes of appreciation from the artists for doing the show which we didn't expect," adds Rand.

Similarly unexpected was the superb quality of the work in “Nightshift II: Hidden Hands," a show that could have gotten by on its conceptual gimmick: exhibiting the artwork of those who happen to hold day jobs working for the likes of artists Robert Ryman and Mel Bochner and such galleries as Metro Pictures and The Kitchen. For David Howe, the show’s curator, it was an opportunity to put the spotlight on “the man behind the curtain that you’re not supposed to see." Avoiding the salon-style hanging of the original “Nightshift" show two years ago, Howe’s skilled selection of 38 paintings, drawings, sculptures and installation pieces ensured that “Nightshift II" stood on its own.

“When you have conversations with the people who actually work in West Chelsea, sometimes they’re appalled by the work that is actually marketed and sold, and a lot of that informs the kind of stuff that they do on their own," says John LaRocca, who conceptualized the show and organized its original incarnation in 2005. “They’re working very hard for their employers but the whole idea of ‘nightshift’ is that they go home and burn themselves out to some extent working after hours and weekend, just so they can sustain their own career and make work."

“Hidden Hands," a video by LaRocca that acted as a sort of mascot of “Nightshift II," directly addresses the challenges of working a day job in the art world’s hub while harboring artistic ambitions of one’s own. The work combines text, visuals, and music (a tweaked loop of “(Last Night) I Didn't Get To Sleep At All," a positively infectious 1972 hit by The 5th Dimension) to call attention to the blurry line that separates artist and artist’s assistant, luck and skill, hobby and career, “hidden hand" and “art slave."

“The art world likes to beat people up, to see if they can survive," says artist Rick Savinon whose striking Cubist-style portraits were part of the show. “If you’re determined to stay around and can prove that you’re not a fad, you’ll win them over." The only thing that’s consistent, adds Savinon, is the constant change. “It’s always evolving," he says. “The art world is an artwork in itself."

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