The Wrong Gallery, New York, USA
Almost everybody has written resignation letters from a job, a love affair or (most painfully) a friendship. When we write them, we do so self-consciously, aware that every word will be read and reread, the meaning mulled or sobbed over and almost inevitably misunderstood. There’s never a good time to resign, but January - with its mix of newness and wintry whispers of discontent - is perhaps the least bad. That’s why, I suppose, the curator Bob Nickas’ resignation letter from The Wrong Gallery (co-directed by artist Maurizio Cattelan, curator Massimiliano Gioni and critic Ali Subotnick) is dated 7 January.
Pasted up in The Wrong Gallery’s space, Nickas’ handwritten letter reads:
‘Dear Maurizio, A new year. New possibilities in a world as troubled as we have ever known. Nothing seems permanent, and it’s no use pretending otherwise. After much thought and careful deliberation, I have decided to leave the Wrong Gallery. I hope you understand that this is not easy for me. I value our friendship and would never do anything to call it into question. The art world - not a world at all - is never more important than the people in it, and so it is that much more difficult to say that I have to go. Please know that I am not leaving the Wrong Gallery for another. I simply need to declare my independence….’
At first glance Nickas’ letter appeared pretty straightforward, but peering closer there was something about it that wasn’t quite right. Cattelan, Gioni and Subotnick’s space is, frankly, not much of a ‘space’ at all (it certainly has no administrative wing, no room for a curator’s office or a cadre of willing interns). In fact, it’s a white-painted, metre-square exhibition nook glimmering behind a permanently locked glass door on New York’s 20th Street, and its press-on signage is identical to that of the neighbouring Andrew Kreps Gallery. From time to time inattentive visitors to Kreps’ place mistakenly try the wrong entrance (or, to be precise, the Wrong entrance) and, finding it firmly shut, perform a fazed double take. This, though, is only one facet of The Wrong Gallery’s wrongness. Run by an artist, a curator and a critic, the not-for-profit space is a closed-off, self-referential, quasi-utopian art world in itself, in which the potential buyer (and, by extension, the whole problematic business of the art market) is left on the pavement, able only, like the most penniless of passing schmucks, to press his nose against the glass.
While The Wrong Gallery is an imperfect simulacrum of the art world as it is, its imperfections point to an art world as we might (in our most down-on-capitalism moments) like it to be. It’s a seriously funny joke, and one that’s lent a jagged set of teeth by Nickas’ letter. As an ‘independent curator’ - of the brilliantly named, Tyrannosaurus Rex inspired ‘My People Were Fair and Had Cum in Their Hair’ at The Team Gallery, New York, ‘Collection (or How I Spent My Year)’ at PS1 and a portion of the 2003 Lyon Biennale - Nickas’ ‘need to declare my independence’ seems at best tautological and at worse tetchily misanthropic. Is even The Wrong Gallery, with all its freedoms, too asphyxiating for him? Is his idea of perfection a Hobbesian art world in which life is nasty, brutish and short, and which would be, in his own words ‘not a world at all’? Somehow I doubt it. Nickas’ letter, after all, is a fiction (he never worked for The Wrong Gallery in the first place), albeit a fiction that plays with the idea of pursuing ‘independence’ so pig-headedly far that a shared set of values, and even art itself, become an impossibility.
Nickas’ missive is open to other interpretations, and misinterpretations. To those unfamiliar with who’s who
in New York’s curatorial fraternity (which, I suspect, includes most of The Wrong Gallery’s passing traffic), the letter may have appeared to be from an artist to his dealer, and its display an apology for an advertised show’s no-show. Such behaviour by any of 20th Street’s other gallerists would be ‘wrong’ (none willingly washes his dirty laundry in public), but it feels right coming from a gallery that Cattelan has described as ‘a back door to contemporary art’. Back doors, of course, are where servants gossip about their superiors, and where illicit lovers slip away with their pants around their ankles. As The Wrong Gallery shows, they’re interesting places to be.