The New York art world harbors an unshakeable nostalgia for the downtown scene of decades past, as commonly remembered: the deconstruction-smitten moment spread over the 1980s and 90s when young artists and critics worked in service of institutional critique; and curators ran amok in cheap, cavernous lofts. Back then Dia was one of several lonely outposts in an otherwise un-colonized Chelsea.
PHOTO BY TIMOTHY VOYTEK
The airy, stripped-down space of the former Dia space (and the tangible melancholy of the building’s almost-certain demise) lent atmospheric depth to the Independent, the invitational art fair co-founded by dealers Elizabeth Dee and Darren Flook, and the latest addition to the satellite events of Armory Arts Week.
Invited to contribute a piece to the fair, artist Devon Dikeou, whose site-responsive work focuses on the spaces and boundaries between artists, institutional contexts, and collectors, installed a photomural of Leo Castelli’s brass nameplate at Mezzogiorno restaurant in SoHo, with an empty table and chairs. Mezzogiorno installed the tiny memorial plate over one of its tables in 1999, the year the legendary dealer died. Dikeou noticed the plate while eating at the popular Florentine-style lunch spot, and was struck by the subtle commemoration, and wondered how many people would actually notice it. “When I saw the sign, I thought: this has to be an art piece,” she says.
Dikeou’s work is intertwined with the physical histories of the art world: its architecture and ephemera. In the 1980s, she was an intern for both Tibor de Nagy and independent curatorial team Collins & Milazzo, who would bring Castelli by their raw SoHo loft space to show him installations by then-emerging neoconceptual artists (Allan McCollum, James Welling, and Richard Prince). Dikeou was struck by the master dealer’s graceful and generous handling of his younger colleagues, remembering the generous amount of time he spent examining the work, Churchill cigar in hand.
For the artist’s long-term, ongoing series, What’s Love Got to Do With It, begun in 1991, she creates a black-and-white announcement board in the same format and materials as those formerly found in the lobby of Castelli’s building at 420 West Broadway, for each group show in which she’s a participant. The boards list the artists in the show, venue and curator, and the exhibition title and dates. “For me,” said Dikeou, “that building was a nerve center, a mecca… a place where human interactions happened, where energy was exchanged,” and a connection to which signified something in what was then a tight-knit art world. “That project is about the group and who’s in it.”
The original version of the photograph in Reserved for Leo Castelli matched those same dimensions, which the artist describes alternately as “human-scale” and “sofa-scale.” It was first shown in 2009 in the last show at SoHo artist collective and gallery Guild and Greyskul, a sprawling exhibition of 120 artists that, according to Dikeou, “was extremely significant to me in terms of the act of having your own career and being incredibly generous to other artists at the same time, then saying goodbye, and passing on the baton.”
The near-monumental scale of Reserved for Independent is a response to the dimensions of the Dia space—and a recognition of the consequential move of the art world from SoHo to Chelsea. Dikeou recalls, “In the late 1980s, there was an article in the Times that blasted New York galleries for not showing prices to the average Joe that might walk in-and the effect of battling that accusation, combined with the very human scale of gallery spaces downtown at the time, meant you could actually, without much difficulty, get a price and an interaction out of someone. Now these spaces are intentionally dispassionate, with as little interaction between dealer and visitor as possible.”
The rhetoric of Independent, which purports to be a “hybrid,” “collective” fair, in contrast with the hyped commercialism of art-mall culture, operates from a naturalized opposition between art and commerce. Dikeou’s piece suggests the two have always been in bed together—or at least, lunching at the same table. The combination of blown-up brass plate and empty table, where no business is happening, suggests a once-public, fondly regarded manifestation of that relationship now effaced and deferred. It also calls forth a maxim from another “master”: Warhol’s proposition that “good business is the best art.”