Fire in a Bronx Piano Factory: At Lucien Smith’s One-Night-Only Show, ‘Macabre Suite’

Lucien Smith, with Keith Rubenstein. COURTESY BFA

Lucien Smith, right, with Keith Rubenstein.


On Thursday evening, there was an unusual amount of activity at an abandoned piano factory in the South Bronx, on the not-so-pristine banks of the Harlem River. A battalion of security guards clustered around the loading dock, and through the old factory’s entrance a few hundred cater-waiters in tuxes set up a dozen bars in nearly as many cavernous rooms There were atriums flooded with a thousand candles and corridors draped in foliage. There were pianos covered in red roses and gas canisters on fire. The rusted chassis of two cars were flopped in the middle of a cement warren. And standing by a massive stage where floodlight poured from 19th-century wooden rafters, was Lucien Smith, the artist who had masterminded it all, in a orange cardigan, staring at a seizure-inducing light installation.

“I don’t want to do shows anymore—the opening, the dinner, all of that,” Smith said, turning around to take in the massive wing of the space, where even an taxicab-sized disco ball seemed dwarfed. “You can never do an art show like this all the time, but everybody is going to remember this.”

In an hour’s time this would become “Macabre Suite,” a one-night show-slash-performance-slash party—or, in Smith’s words, an “art happening”—stuffed with new paintings and installations and performances. This constitutes a striking break for Smith. At 26, he is perhaps still best known for a series of abstract works on canvas created by spraying paint from a fire extinguisher, the “Rain Paintings.” They were made when he was 21 years old, and almost immediately started selling at auction for nearly $500,000, ushering in a small bubble for work that has been maligned as “Zombie Formalism.” But since a show at Skarstedt, his New York gallery, in May 2014, one of the art world’s best-known young artists has been essentially silent.

A scrap metal work by Lucien Smith. COURTESY BFA

A scrap metal work by Lucien Smith.


That silence came to an end rather defiantly by the time rapper Travis Scott came on stage around 2:00 a.m., capping a night in which the art world’s traveling band of partygoers and hangers-on was lured all the way to the Bronx, a trip that attendees fretted over as if it involved a transatlantic flight.

The seemingly odd choice of location came courtesy of realtor Keith Rubenstein, who owns a number of buildings in the area and is trying to prop up the South Bronx as the next neighborhood for the fashionable to flock to. (No small task, though a few attendees did compare the unpolished feel of the thing, with handfuls of nostalgia, to Williamsburg loft parties in the ’80s.) When he was trying to figure out how to get some quick cache for his holdings, he turned to Salon 94 founder Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, the dealer who first discovered Smith at his Cooper Union thesis show.

“I was working with Jeanne, and she knew we were always looking at spaces to do something,” said Smith, now sitting in a tiny room with a sign for a bygone shoring engineering plant still on the wall. “Keith and Jeanne are close, and he approached her about doing a show here. I said, let me come and see it, and it made sense.”

And so the rather expensive advertisement for a building was arranged. With this unlimited space, Smith decided to combine all the aspects of his practice and let them loose for a night. There were video installations—found footage from mental institutions—playing on old TVs sitting in ponds of gravel. There were small paintings dotting the room. The hulking old cars were a work from a show he had at Bill Brady in Kansas City. The performances included a dance he choreographed with the Paris–based Butoh master Kobe Kanty. And so on.

An installation show of 'Macabre Suite.' COURTESY BFA

Installation view of ‘Macabre Suite.’


“With this, I get to pull all these references and really create something, and that’s really hard to do with just a painting show,” Smith said. “And I had to learn that lesson—it’s hard to get guided rhetoric from an exhibition.”

Though perhaps many of the visitors didn’t really notice the art at all: it was, above all else, a party, and one that featured a few dozen personalities listed as co-hosts: billionaire Ron Burkle, former Sotheby’s chief auctioneer Tobias Meyer, and Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak among them.

And despite any outer-borough phobias, thousands of people came in, the same crew that one would see on a night at openings in Manhattan airlifted to the Harlem Riviera, with a VIP section swollen with models in leather jackets and club promotors and movie stars and Knicks point guards and—very incongruously—a suited up Per Skarstedt, who shouted at a reporter, “I love it all, and I’ve never been to the Bronx before!”

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