‘Thinking from the Present Allowed Us to Get to the Past’: Peter Eleey Talks the New Embrace of Old Work in ‘Greater New York’


Peter Eleey.


“How does an artist live in New York City in 2015?” asked MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach, clad in a velour jacket in the foyer of that museum, addressing a few dozen art reporters. Perhaps this was a rhetorical question (no one volunteered a response) but it also serves as a way of approaching the institution’s newest show, unveiled Friday morning: “Greater New York,” a series that pops up at PS1 every five years and has in its last three iterations acted as a CliffNotes guide to what young artists who live in the five boroughs are up to these days.

Except, this time around, the old guard has come along for the ride, too: the list of 150 artists included in the gigantic, ambitious show, which opens to the public on Sunday, has a fair number of established names, some of whom have achieved levels of success that surely would have barred them from “Greater New York” shows in the past.

(How does an artist live in New York in 2015? Glenn Ligon lives in a TriBeCa apartment “around the corner from movie stars,” as his text-based work in the show, Housing in New York: A Brief History, 1960-2007, explains.)


Lutz Bacher, Magic Mountain, 2015.


But even if show-goers are greeted by the work of 72-year-old David Hammons outside, and a piece by the 62-year-old James Nares upon entering, there are plenty of standout offerings from young artists, including the glowing metropolis of e-cigarettes constructed by Ajay Kurian (age 30), the randy figurative sculpture of Elizabeth Jaeger (age 27), and the playful market prankings of Cameron Rowland (age 27).

After the press conference, we caught up quickly with Peter Eleey, the PS1 associate director who led the curatorial team, to speak about the new tack for “Greater New York.”

ARTnews: How do you think the inclusion of older artists and older works of art has made “Greater New York” more effective, in terms of its original aims?

Peter Eleey: The show was conceived of as a show that would survey a broad base of creative practice in New York City, an emergent portrait of New York and the creative community over the last five years. Particularly in the last five years, it’s felt like older artists—or, let’s say, history in general—has entered the present in a way that, to us, felt hard to exclude. Younger artists kept talking to us about it, we kept seeing it in the way they wanted to contextualize their works. In a way, it was thinking from the present that allowed us to get to the past.

I know that you’ve discussed how you would have done past ‘Greater New York’ exhibitions differently. I believe you had some complaints regarding the 2005 edition in particular. And then, when I was walking upstairs, I saw a work titled Lesser New York [by Fia Backstrom].

Ha, yes that’s right.

It was purposefully rejected from that “Greater New York” in 2005…

Yes it was!

And now, here it is, in the institution instead of fighting it. Is that commentary on how this “Greater New York” is different from past iterations? It just struck me as funny, that you would go and put it in after its original exclusion.

When you go through the show, there are certain moments that touch on histories of both inclusion and exclusion in the institution’s past. There’s a number of artists who appeared in the “Rooms” exhibition that Alanna Heiss organized to inaugurate this institution. With [Lesser New York], we wanted to engage the recent past, not just a deeper history, and that was a way to do that.

The show coincides with the announcement that admission to PS1 is going to be free for all New Yorkers, which is quite amazing.

It really is.

Is there some aspect of this show that is trying to speak to the kinds of New Yorkers who wouldn’t usually come to MoMA PS1 if there were a high price to get in? With the free admission, do you see any sort of populist mission here?

We always want a broader audience than we have. Every place I’ve worked has strived to achieve that. I think for us, part of the decision around trying to make admission free for people across the five boroughs was another way that we can expand that sort of access. We’re privileged to be an outer-borough institution because we get a different kind of audience. That includes the tourism audience, for sure, and while we’re very glad about that, it also very much includes people from the artist communities in North Brooklyn and even Long Island City.

Do you think these new kinds of visitors will be affected by this show in particular?

Yes, to the extent that we have occasions to reflect on a version of the city that’s bigger than the art world, it’s always nice for us to take that. When I organized that show about 9/11 four years ago, I was doing something similar, and expanding the kinds of stories that might reach different sorts of audiences.

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