PS1 Contemporary Art Center reopened in 1997 after extensive renovations. Alanna Heiss, the gallery's founder and director, first installed her organisation in this abandoned school in 1976, and to inaugurate the new building with a nod to its past, Gordon Matta-Clark's Doors, Floors, Doors (1976) was re-made. Using the dimensions of an adjacent door, a rectangular slot was cut through the structure in a vertical line that descended into the basement. To cast a vertigo-inducing glance through these layers of wood and metal was to recall PS1's origins as an exhibition space whose architecture the artists could sully with impunity.
In an effort to celebrate this tradition and tap into the vein of more recent local artistic production, PS1 organised 'Greater New York: New Art in New York Now', which included the work of over 140 artists working in the metropolitan area. Such a show was bound to be eclectic, but the visitor could scarcely have been prepared for its lack of cohesion. The show was put together by a committee of curators from PS1 and their new affiliate, the Museum of Modern Art. The two institutions merged last year in an effort to secure the futures of both the alternative space and the powerhouse museum.
The situation of alternative spaces in New York is currently at a crossroads. A few stalwarts from the golden era of non-profit galleries still carry on with their mandate of serving emerging and under represented artists: White Columns marked its 30th anniversary last year; Artists Space recently noted its 25th year in existence; and this spring Exit Art mounted a show perhaps presciently titled 'The End'. Despite their longevity, you get the impression that these organisations are easing into middle age as they struggle to stay afloat years after the National Endowment for the Arts was drastically reduced. With the strong economy of the late 90s, it has been possible to rely on private donations and grants from foundations to maintain programmes on a month-to-month basis, but if the boom should falter, support might dry up. PS1 was clearly thinking beyond the current plenitude when it decided to attach itself to the deep pockets of MoMA.
Perhaps the fact that 'Greater New York' lacked any work which critiques either institution stemmed from a desire not to upset this relationship. The sole guideline in selecting work was that participating artists could only have had their first solo show within the past five years. The significance of any given work, therefore, had nothing to do with the dialogue between it and another artist's contribution; rather, it depended entirely on location and the ability of the work to adapt to its surroundings. Painting and photography, for instance, often fare poorly at PS1, where both the lighting and the space can be inadequate.
Unsurprisingly, what stood out was work that involves projected light and motion. Apart from the fact that moving images often grab your eye more immediately than still pictures, the glowing light of a projection or monitor illuminated the musty corners of the building and drew attention to the quirky attributes of the architecture. This made a comparison with two-dimensional work rather unjust, since many of the video pieces were allotted an entire room to ensure darkness. But stumbling across Jordan Crandall's Drive (1999) - a mesmerising sequence of black and white images which makes use of military motion-tracking technology - lighting up a tiny room in the dank basement, emphasised how unique PS1's space can be. Similarly, Jeremy Blake's digitally produced, slowly morphing 'paintings' Angel Dust (2000), placed a colourful Modernist grid into the cellar's murky depths - indeed, the piece is far less interesting in a regular gallery setting.
Although there were a number of other strong contributions, ultimately it was the few artists allowed to wrap their materials around the architecture in a reference to PS1's grittier days who demonstrated what made the institution attractive in the first place. Especially worthy efforts were Sheila Pepe's rubber band and shadow drawing installation (from her series 'Different Things with Fixed and Ambiguous Pictures', 2000), Gareth James' papering over of the press office (Patent Palace, 2000) and Ricci Albenda's white cube within a grungy coal room (Action at a Distance, 2000).
Perhaps the association with MoMA will correct the absence of curatorial vision evidenced in 'Greater New York', but one wonders whether the Museum's motivation is in line with the needs of PS1. It appears that MoMA itself is in a state of minor crisis as it decides how to keep from becoming a moribund institution focused on a historically closed chapter. The central placement of Julian LaVerdiere's overweening monument to the artist's technical skills and the failed ambition of the Modernist project, First Attempted Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Cable Crossing (Memorial Model) (2000), would seem to testify to such a situation. The category of contemporary art is still fluid enough to enable both organisations to predict a bright future, but greater energy will have to be devoted to encouraging the works to construct a more substantial dialogue among themselves and with the public.