Glory Days: Disco, Pigeon Graveyards, and the Opening of ‘Greater New York’

Detail of Ajay Kurian, Comfort Zone #3 (Heaven is for smokers and non-smokers), 2014.

Detail of Ajay Kurian, Comfort Zone #3 (Heaven is for smokers and non-smokers), 2014.


“I feel like Bushwick is over,” a MoMA PS1 security guard said at the public opening of
“Greater New York,” the fourth installment of the museum’s quinquennial. (He lives in Bed-Stuy now, where “it’s a lot nicer.”) The guard was, incidentally, watching over a room that contained a series of silkscreen text pieces by Glenn Ligon called Housing in New York: A Brief History 1960-2007. The Ligon pieces, though specific to the artist’s own history, could also be seen as a chronicle of a city that has been forever mutating; the neighborhoods (and boroughs) may change, but certain conversations are eternal.

This year’s show features the usual emerging talent alongside the new addition of multiple generations of mid-and-late career New York artists. The end result is rooted in reverence for the city’s overwhelming history. Inside of a black-walled room containing poppy paintings from Peter Saul and Jamian Juliano-Villani was Comfort Zone #3, a sculpture by Ajay Kurian made with, among other materials, wood, plexiglass, e-cigarette, and fog machine. I overheard someone call it “vape Mike Kelley.” It was one of the more overtly trendy pieces in the show, and the artist was born in 1984.

Elsewhere in the museum, Amy Brener’s stained-glass-like resin casts were on display. Nearby, I saw Tyson Reeder, who is from Chicago but in New York for an extended stay. Reeder was excited about his new steel-drum-based performance project called, somewhat naturally, Cold Steel. “I’m covered head to toe in tin foil and I play pretty high BPM’s,” Reeder explained. “I’ll do it on the street, I’ll do it anywhere.” (Around this time, a different PS1 guard told us to “keep it down.” They probably could tell we weren’t talking about art.)

Moving into the acoustically sound but vibe-challenged VW Dome (which has always felt more like a place to hear quarterly reports than experimental performance, but I’ve grown to like it), the composer and vocalist Paul Pinto bridged the generational divide by presenting two pieces, Love Is a Good Example and Wolfman, by the late Robert Ashley. They were both extreme in different ways. Love is a Good Example, from 1991, was first. Pinto sat behind a desk in front of the stage. He kept a low-key tone throughout the meandering spoken-word piece, casually turning pages like the world’s most soothing, abstract newscaster.

“Each performance is different. You got a picture in your head and you stick with it,” Pinto told me between the two sets. The late Ashley famously had a reputation for enjoying a drink or two before hitting the stage, so I asked Pinto if he imbibed at all before Love is a Good Example. “I didn’t, I should’ve,” he told me. “There’s a golden rule I grew up with, 3 p.m. is the cut-off.” This meant it was almost time to start drinking. “Pretty soon, yeah,” Pinto said, but “I can’t drink before Wolfman.”

Sandwiched between Pinto’s two Ashley performances were stunning, abrasive sets from M. Lamar and Pharmakon, but neither had the sheer room-clearing power of Wolfman; no small feat considering the piece was created over five decades ago. Wolfman threw loud, atonal moaning—at times bordering on Tuvan throat singing—over a bed of jagged, dissonant electronics. Pinto stood on stage and performed in a suit and wayfarers like an avant-garde Blues Brother; at the conclusion of the set, he took off his shades and what looked like tears could be seen streaming down his face.

A few blocks away from PS1 and inside of a decidedly rawer space was something called “The People’s Biannual.” When I walked in, the first work I saw was the phrase “I love drugs” written in sharpie on the wall (it should be noted that “love” wasn’t spelled out, but rather notated with a heart sign). Nearby, some folks struggled to log into a Skype account, projected onto a wall. The login name was “alabamahotpockets69” but nobody could remember the password.

I had to climb up a ladder to get to the main gallery, which until recently was, according to the organizer Bradley Kronz, a “pigeon graveyard.” Kronz told me that the artist Valerie Keane cleaned out the room and they were using it to throw a one-day-only show, synced with “Greater New York.” As for the name, “It’s just a biannual for the people,” Kronz explained, sort of. “Anyone who wants to be in it can.” I asked him if I brought him a piece of art right now he would put it on view. “One hundred percent, yeah,” he said.

Later that night, I ended up at the Loft, which is the multigenerational members-only party that has been thrown in New York since 1970 and is credited with laying the groundwork for disco music. Balloons fell from the ceiling and “Stand On The Word” by the Joubert Singers played to an ecstatic audience. I was reminded of a certain New York City cultural ideal discussed but never fully realized in the show I saw earlier. Greater New York, indeed.

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