Current, Marxist-derived principles of historical relativism have suggested that although history never actually repeats itself, it is perpetually being rewritten by those who are dissatisfied with the packaging in which it is received. As a case in point, numerous transitions in art history that had previously been ascribed to autonomous aesthetic forces are now seen to have their roots in the correction of class imbalances or some other form of social unease. Although such prescriptive interpretations fare best when applied to movements on which some dust has already settled, the principles are the same even when the re-interpreted movement is barely a decade old.
Such thoughts help to frame the Friesenwall 120 project hosted by Pat Hearn this month. Organised by Cologne artists Stephan Dillemuth and Josef Strau, the exhibition takes the same loose framework adhered to at the combination artists' bar/gallery space which they run at that address: books, videos and magazines form the bulky evidence of a research project whose conclusions are deliberately left somewhat open. In this case, however, the entire undertaking drew plenty of raised eyebrows from the New York art community, since Dillemuth's and Strau's subject was the period of transition from local artist run spaces like Colab and Fashion Moda (circa 1980) to the ascension of the more commercial East Village scene (circa 1985). Interviewing numerous artists, dealers and critics for background information, the Friesenwall team set out to represent the period in two parts: the smaller, rear gallery containing mounds of documentation, while the front space is hung like a conventional gallery group show.
Although under almost any circumstances it would have been intriguing to share the results drawn by outsiders' research into this confusing but fascinating period, Friesenwall 120 suffers immediately from the fact that despite their claims of objectivity, Dillemuth and Strau seem to have been tilting towards certain foregone conclusions about the East Village even before they pored through their first artist's scrapbook. On paper it looks great. But presenting the complex transformation which took place during the first half of the 80s in the form of a swing from the predominantly altruistic values of a subculture to the mercenary spirit of the mainstream, the artist/curators chose to disregard some 98% of what you or I would consider typical of the art of the period. Unfortunately, what they've come up with doesn't reveal much more than their own apparent sense of cultural superiority towards the material they're examining. The 'show' (i.e. the front room) consisted of little more than the graffiti-covered doors from 51X Gallery, some paste-jewel-encrusted furniture pieces by Arch Connelly, a couple of unfortunate early small paintings by George Condo, a handful of Keily (inexplicably presented as 'Kiley') Jenkins' miniature frame-paintings, a few photos by Mark Morrisroe, and Dillemuth and Strau's own photo-collage pieces. The effect is more or less the same as having rummaged through the deeper recesses of Ms Hearn's own storage bins, and come up with something casual, quaint and anaemic to accompany their own work.
The general pall lifts somewhat in the rear, documentation room, which is more unaffectedly casual, capturing the peculiar ambience of the ideal art-school lounge. With period posters on the wall, period videos in the corner and tables on which catalogues and binders full of memorabilia are strewn, the artists invariably lure the viewer out of a gallery mind-set and into a more relaxed ambience of browsing, reading and occupying a sofa. Evidently, the notion seems to have been for Dillemuth and Strau to recreate the atmosphere of their space in Cologne, which has gained near-mythic proportions as a favoured watering-hole of the local art scene's reigning mafiosi. Judging from their results as curators, it is not hard to understand why Pat Hearn chose this approach in favour of having the entire show in 'exhibition' form.
What is tougher to fathom is why she undertook this project at all. As one of the few survivors of the East Village's legendary 'second generation' of dealers, Hearn would appear to have something invested in seeing that her own story gets told right. Unfortunately, to judge from this effort, she has recently had cause to recant her past, and deny her own active role in the events which Dillemuth and Strau purport to dissect. But from the perspective of one who has followed every micro-shift in Ms Hearn's program from her debut as the neo-surrealist hostess of Avenue B, to her current status as one of the true pioneer spirits of Soho, Friesenwall 120 is the closest I've come to believing she actually got it right the first time.