BY Andrew Durbin in Features | 03 DEC 21

Stories We Missed: Goodbye to Metro Pictures

What does the closure of the iconic gallery mean for the New York art world? 

BY Andrew Durbin in Features | 03 DEC 21

‘Goodbye to Metro Pictures’ is part of a series of short essays on the events and trends we missed in our coverage of art and culture in 2021. Read more – and last year’s stories – here.

Metro Pictures is closing. Perhaps, by the time you’re reading this article, it has already shuttered its Chelsea doors, joining that legacy of done-and-dusted New York galleries – American Fine Arts, Dwan Gallery, Stable Gallery, to name a few – that shaped generations of artists, curators, writers and lovers of art. In its last year, Metro Pictures programmed a series of final exhibitions, including two by Louise Lawler. I saw the second Lawler body of work, ‘LIGHTS OUT, AFTER HOURS, IN THE DARK’ (2021) – her photographs of Donald Judd’s 2020 MoMA retrospective, shot at night in the deserted museum – at Sprüth Magers in Berlin. Though the German iteration was beautiful, I thought only of how much I would miss seeing shows like this at Metro, the gallery that first championed Lawler and other artists, then considered ‘difficult’, working within the conceptual folds of photography. 

Louise Lawler Untitled (Reflection) 2021 Metro Pictures
Louise Lawler, Untitled (Reflection), 2021, dye sublimation print on museum box, 1.2 × 1.8 m. Courtesy: © the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Janelle Reiring and Helene Winer founded the gallery in 1980, three years after art historian Douglas Crimp curated the influential ‘Pictures’ show at Artists Space, which featured several artists who would anchor Metro’s early programme – Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine and Robert Longo. (Louise Lawler, Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons would exhibit at the gallery within its first five years.) If you aren’t familiar with ‘Pictures’ – the obvious nudge for Reiring and Winer – you would nevertheless recognise the media-saturated world it first responded to: ‘To an ever-greater extent, our experience is governed by pictures,’ Crimp wrote in his landmark catalogue essay, published in 1977. He continued: ‘Next to these pictures, first-hand experience begins to retreat, to seem more and more trivial. While it once seemed that pictures had the function of interpreting reality, it now seems that they have usurped it.’ Here was the holy-shit moment for art in the late 1970s – a holy-shit moment that still resonates when I read Crimp’s essay almost half a century later. In a 1978 piece for Flash Art, Crimp explained that he chose the title ‘to convey not only this most salient aspect of the work, but also important ambiguities of it’. 

Jim Shaw Thrift Store Metro Pictures 1991
Jim Shaw, ‘Thrift Store Paintings’, 1991, installation view. Courtesy: © the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

For me, those ‘important ambiguities’ contain the leaky conceptual framework that kept Metro alive and at the forefront of the art world for 40 years; the artists who showed at the gallery challenged and critiqued every aspect of image-making, and we really are the better for it. Jim Shaw exposed the demonic ferocity of pop imagery, Gary Simmons its spectral blurs and after-images, Mike Kelley its belligerent humour and Gretchen Bender the corporate media regimes – from Mickey Mouse to the Pentagon – that ensure its propagation. And, of course, Cindy Sherman, in her iconic self-portraiture, who continuously embodied ‘the benign and the horrific, the mundane and the exotic, the possible and the fantastic’, to quote Crimp’s essay again. At Metro, the idea of the photographic image was sufficiently expansive to include every aspect of contemporary-art production, not just the camera. 

I hope we will someday be treated to a longer history of Metro Pictures. We deserve both the forensic analysis and the literary re-enactment of a great biography: they’ll be equally important for understanding a cultural moment in a city that seems, with every closure of a small- or medium-sized gallery, to be phasing out. Whenever I was at Metro, I always wanted to know more about how it had come to be. The gallery’s intimacy and commitment to a coherent set of ideas was so evocative, not only of the obvious histories I already knew but of the ones I could only guess at, the human stuff – the why and the how and the this-was-that-party-where-we-met-X and Jesus-you-won’t-believe-how-impossible-that-guy-was. So many galleries are gigantic now, rolling through global art capitals like artist-absorbing boulders, that the idea of something with a tighter remit – a little specificity, a few compelling limits – can sometimes seem mythic at the end of 2021. 

Paulina Olowska Haus Proud 2021 Metro Pictures
Paulina Olowska, ‘Haus Proud, 2021’, installation view. Courtesy: © the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Main image: Cindy Sherman, installation view, 1990. Courtesy: © the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Andrew Durbin is the editor-in-chief of frieze. He lives in London, UK.