Across from a corner store selling live poultry on Harlem’s West 126th Street, two murals are painted in arched recesses in the battered brick facade of a former brewery. One reads, “The Lord Jesus is coming perhaps today are you ready.” The other advertises the Société Anonyme in the center of a colorful burst of painted rays. Because they blend into their surroundings, passersby are unlikely to realize that the murals are temporary signs produced by the nonprofit gallery Triple Candie. But they are not art. Nor is the show of some 1,200 images culled from the gallery’s recently acquired permanent collection, mounted in the cavernous space behind Triple Candie’s garage-door entrance.
“Museo de Reproducciones Fotográficas,” an all-embracing, densely packed installation of photos of artworks, extends Triple Candie’s recent practice of programming shows devoid of actual artwork.
“We’re serious about this—it’s not a publicity stunt,” says Peter Nesbett, who opened Triple Candie with Shelly Bancroft, his wife and the gallery’s codirector, in December 2001. With a roster of recent exhibitions too impractical for mainstream venues—an unauthorized survey of the work of the elusive David Hammons, consisting of Xeroxes taped to wood panels; approximate replicas of Cady Noland’s installations; a display of unspectacular everyday objects; and art made by a fictitious Post-Minimalist—Nesbett and Bancroft are reinventing the alternative space at a time when nonprofit galleries and their conventional counterparts are becoming more and more alike.
In the process, they are unsettling our ideas about art and the apparatus keeping it afloat. Their shows—featuring content they refer to as “ephemera” that is promptly destroyed afterward—question our fetishization of the art object and the myth of the artist as “autonomous, self-defining, and morally superior,” not to mention the concepts of originality, ownership, value, and influence. Although Triple Candie’s exhibitions are often interpreted as conceptual art projects, Bancroft insists that “we don’t define ourselves as artists. We are making shows based on history, drawing on our skills as curators. Our stance is educational.”
While the art lately on view at Triple Candie may not be the real thing, the couple’s curatorial expertise is indisputable. For “Museo de Reproducciones Fotográficas,” which was inspired by 19th-century museums of casts and copies, they assigned the 1,200 photos accession numbers that correspond to those in a 70-page inventory list. The checklist for the Noland show offers precise descriptions of how the knockoffs were fabricated. And for the posthumous retrospective of the fictitious Lester Hayes, Nesbett and Bancroft cooked up a detailed exhibition history and biography that includes a stint as a studio assistant for Richard Tuttle and a show at Richard Feigen. The couple met in 1991 at the University of Washington, Seattle, while pursuing master’s degrees in postwar and contemporary art. As an undergraduate, Bancroft, 44, studied studio art at Michigan State University, near her hometown of Lansing, but concluded that she was not interested in a career as a painter. “I realized painting was really hard,” she says. “I didn’t get the results I wanted, but I wanted to read about it, understand it.” As part of her search, she started a radio show while attending graduate school. “It felt like curating, talking to artists about their work, encouraging them to make the visual verbal,” she says. After completing her master’s, she moved to Boston and worked briefly as director of the cooperative space Boston Sculptors Gallery and then as exhibitions curator at the Boston Center for the Arts, where she organized shows featuring both emerging and established artists and launched a site-specific, large-scale installation program. While she drew on local talent, Bancroft says, “I very quickly thought how important it was to go to New York and bring artists back.” Nesbett had joined her in Boston, and the two (by then married) would regularly rent a van, drive to Manhattan, and pick up the work themselves.
Nesbett, who grew up in Connecticut and graduated from Cornell University, worked at Christie’s and then as an art handler at New York’s Gagosian Gallery. “Going to Seattle was the best thing for me,” he says. “I was so dazzled by New York. I was wrestling with the idealistic notion of art and my relationship to it. I needed to get out of that environment.” In Seattle he worked at Francine Seders Gallery while completing his master’s degree. There he met the late Jacob Lawrence, who taught at the University of Washington, and was inspired to found the Jacob Lawrence Catalogue Raisonné Project, devoted to the documentation and promotion of the painter’s work.
Drawn to New York—Nesbett with plans to establish the Jacob Lawrence Institute, a mentoring program for young artists, and Bancroft in search of a nonprofit curatorial position—the couple landed in Harlem, on West 144th Street, across from a now-closed bodega that eventually gave its name (and yellow and red sign) to the future alternative art space. “‘Triple’ means the best,” points out the 42-year-old Nesbett. “And who doesn’t like candy?”
The institute didn’t work out. Instead the two decided that a run-down storage facility on West 126th Street, in a small artists’ enclave north of Morningside Heights, would make a perfect outpost for their own nonprofit endeavor. They conceived of the space as a satellite for downtown venues, showing, for instance, new sculpture by Kiki Smith lent by PaceWildenstein. “In the beginning, we didn’t use the word ‘alternative,’ except when referring to our location,” says Bancroft. But they soon changed their business model and began curating their own exhibitions, quickly transitioning from the typical nonprofit group shows to solo shows dedicated to such artists as Polly Apfelbaum, Sanford Biggers, and Mark Lewis.
Increasingly, however, they became interested in challenging the system, and that led to their current programming, which eschews art entirely. “We weren’t powerful enough,” Bancroft explains. “The galleries didn’t want to share, and the artists wanted more money.”
The curators, who also own Art on Paper magazine, don’t foresee abandoning their commitment to showing nonart. Triple Candie’s next project, scheduled for late fall, is a re-creation of the 1969 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition “Harlem on My Mind,” notorious for (among other things) its substitution of secondary material for actual work by African American artists. Nesbett and Bancroft are consulting with Thomas Hoving, who was director of the Met at the time of the show.
Are Triple Candie’s re-creations and reproductions sincere homage or, as one critic put it, a slap in the face? The nonprofit space poses more questions than it answers. But the directors have made one thing certain. By challenging our assumptions about art and its relationship to both its audience and the market, Nesbett and Bancroft have brought the alternative space back to the fringe.