One recent weekday afternoon at David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea, the artist James Welling was in his element peering at a portrait of a photographer looking through a lens to a future that only the camera can see—a sort of postmodern stare-down fit for a Pictures Generation pioneer. The object of his eye was none other than Faye Dunaway, preening in a scene from an old movie about a shutterbug who sees murders through her viewfinder before they happen. The film, Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), served as the source for the conceptual photo work, Woman with a Camera (2009), by the artist Anne Collier. The piece is striking, sly, and layered—and for sale as part of a 65-work benefit show for the storied Foundation for Contemporary Arts that is on view at Zwirner through January 28.
FCA has operated in New York since 1963, and its list of founders and early supporters is formidable: Jasper Johns, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Marcel Duchamp, Barnett Newman, Morton Feldman, Willem de Kooning, Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, and many more. Its purpose since the beginning has been straightforward: for artists to give grants to other artists whose art would not be the same without such support.
Grants from FCA range from unrestricted awards of $40,000 to smaller but more immediate emergency grants—applications are reviewed monthly—in sums typically between $500 and $2,000. The origin story for the entire enterprise owes to an emergency grant of sorts assembled by Johns, Rauschenberg, and others from the sale of their work to help fund a financially strapped tour by choreographer Merce Cunningham’s dance company in 1962.
The sculptor Robert Gober, who has been an FCA board member for five years, described the group’s mission as a noble pursuit. “One of the most valuable things we do is provide financial assistance to artists whose lives are dedicated to disciplines that might never be financially remunerative,” he said. “Poets, performing artists, choreographers—I take great pride in supporting artists like that.”
A primary source of FCA’s funding is the sale of work donated by artists and exhibited on occasion in thematic shows, the first of which was held at Allan Stone Gallery in New York in ’63. This year’s exhibition at Zwirner is “65 Works Selected by James Welling,” with pieces dating back to the start of the group and up through the present day.
“I was not aware of the foundation until I started making dance photographs in 2014 and 2015,” Welling said, adding that FCA is “hiding in plain sight.” Its legacy is so rich and expansive—and attached to so much of epochal worth—as to be hard to separate from the whole of mid-20th-century art in New York. The group helped present “9 Evenings,” the series of technologically abetted performance events by Experiments in Arts and Technology (E.A.T.) in 1966 at the 69th Regiment Armory in Manhattan; theater and dance at Judson Memorial Church; lectures by Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller; concerts by David Tudor and La Monte Young; and scores more.
It turned out that Welling had, in a sense, benefited from FCA in his youth without even realizing it. While in college in Pittsburgh in 1970, he saw a Cunningham dance performance that had been supported by the group. “I talked to Cage after. It was a life-changing event,” Welling said. “He denigrated one of my professors.”
Welling’s work in and around photography in the decades since informed his choices of FCA art to sell, and one of his own pieces is also on offer, Hands (1976), a series of six photograms of fists and fingers in different arrangements. “This is the work closest to my interest in dance,” Welling said. “I was doing a dance with my hands.”
But many media are represented in a store of artworks that caught Welling’s eye.
“This is a poster by an artist I don’t know, but I’m very interested in psychedelic imagery right now,” he said of a fantastical blue-and-pink-streaked silkscreen poster by Tadanori Yokoo, from 1971. On another wall is what, by chance, coalesced as a grouping of profile views of people, by Jasper Johns, Carrie Moyer, and Kara Walker. Across the room is a curious piece involving the paperwork sent to participating artists that has been crumpled up, covered with light-sensitive material, and exposed by Walead Beshty, one of 16 artists that Welling invited to join the FCA collection. Nearby that is an old poster for a dance performance in Paris in 1823. “I like it,” Welling said, “because it looks like a Glenn Ligon.”
Ligon himself is a member of the FCA board, having taken up an invitation to join from Jasper Johns and Agnes Gund. “I was drawn to the idea of direct helping that’s not filtered,” Ligon said. “Usually money doesn’t go to artists,” he added, referring to the many grants that go instead to institutions, aiding artists only at a remove. “The major difference for me is that the foundation is really funded by artists who are generously donating work that gets sold.”
Gober, his colleague on the board, donated a work of his own from 2007, a small woodcut engraving on paper titled Urology Appointment. Asked about the provenance of a doctors-office appointment card with the name “Kenneth” scrawled across its center, he laughed. “It came my way by accident,” he said. “I bought something on eBay and, within the packaging, this card was in there and tumbled out. It was an unexpected gift.”
The main grants from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts work in a similar way. “You don’t apply—it’s a blind nomination,” Gober said. “You get a call out of the blue saying you’ve been chosen by your peers to receive an award that is $40,000.”