Domenick Ammirati on artist-run galleries

NEW YORK STATE legalized recreational marijuana on March 31, 2021. Soon after, taco-truck-style weed vendors began turning up on street corners around Manhattan. Soon after that, brick-and-mortar dispensaries began popping up all over the city. Some brazenly branded themselves with spiky green seven-leaved rosettes; others attempted to be discreet, since, if you wanted to be a stickler about it, their business was illegal. One shop near my house went to the trouble of calling itself a “concierge club” and adopted a streamlined aesthetic between high-end sneaker shop and Apple Store. Within several months, THC products seemed to be available in every smoke shop, alongside candy, cigarettes, kratom, and of course glass pipes.

The most significant thing about these stores is not their contribution to decreasing sperm counts across the tristate area. Rather, it is their gleeful lack of professionalism. At this stage of the local cannabis market’s evolution, when product selection is haphazard and wares are procured from seemingly every state in the union, chitchatting is still a necessary part of shopping. Thus many outlets seem to double as venues for a quick hang, customers leaning on the counter in a haze of vape smoke. I visited one that sports a miniature putting green. Sometimes the attendant has a recommendation that turns out to be highly informed; other times—horrors!—they sell you indica when you ask for sativa. Some stores line their counters with esoteric cannabis derivatives but keep their actual THC products out of sight behind the counter, creating a pantomime of revelation as ludicrous as the idea that an undercover cop has to tell you they’re one if you ask them directly.

View of “Anthea Hamilton: The Pillow Book,” 2022, O’Flaherty’s, New York. Photo: Marisa Sottos.

Coincidentally or otherwise, the gallery O’Flaherty’s also got off the ground in 2021; likewise, its charm hinges on abandoning ideas of what it means to be professional. Located in the East Village, O’Flaherty’s is run by Billy Grant, Jamian Juliano-Villani, and Ruby Zarsky. Juliano-Villani is an accomplished painter whose name you may recognize; Grant is her longtime right hand/collaborator and an artist in his own right, notably having been a member of the Dearraindrop collective in the early ’00s. Zarsky, a musician, goes back with Juliano-Villani as far as high school. In one year of operation, O’Flaherty’s has held exhibitions of the late Ashley Bickerton, Kim Dingle, Anthea Hamilton, and Bobo: three respected/cult artists and one obscure collective that is mostly a music group. For six weeks, the gallery became an “exotic”-snacks store, imitating another recent retail phenomenon, a cousin of the weed shop that tends to be baroquely decorated in wet-dream street style, all Day-Glo and swag, black-light murals of electrical fields and eyeballs—except that in the O’Flaherty’s version, perversely, none of the Korean potato chips or limited-edition Faygos were for sale. For its summer 2022 show, flippantly titled “The Patriot,” the gallery burnished its lack of pretense by holding a true open call, which resulted in an eleven-hundred-work visual polyphony with the psychic density of a hoarder’s apartment. Perhaps the bombshell art movement we’ve all been waiting for will crawl out of its clutter and turn the exhibition into 2022’s equivalent of the “Ninth Street Show.”

View of “The Patriot,” 2022, O’Flaherty’s, New York. Photo: Stacie Joy.

Given its modest size, O’Flaherty’s has received a remarkable amount of press (including, obviously, this very essay). “The Patriot” garnered a dewy full-page review by a New York Times critic as well as a glowing full-page Style-section piece published the same day; an Artist’s Artist mention in Artforum; the distinction of being the first gallery cited in the New Yorker’s 2021 year-in-art roundup; exhibition reviews there and in Art in America; and a Warholian spate of trend pieces in venues like New York magazine’s the Cut and Cultured magazine.

O’Flaherty’s is a number of things: a boon to the next-seeking editors of lifestyle pages; a social space; a bit of a lightning rod; and, so far, a place to see unfamiliar, stimulating art. Most crucially, it is a commercial entity: a business.

Robert Whitman in Hansa Gallery, New York, January 12, 1959. Photo: Fred W. McDarrah/MUUS Collection via Getty Images.

While the art world has changed vastly since the early 1960s, the notion that attention is the most valuable currency of all has not.

THERE’S SOMETHING STRANGE about artists running art galleries, aberrant even. They dabble in it when they’re young, but those who get implicated almost invariably abandon their practices before too long. It’s a time-honored trajectory, actually—the BFA-to-gallerist pipeline. To cite just a few examples from New York: Gavin Brown was an artist before he opened his Enterprise in 1994. Janice Guy, who from 2004 to 2017 led the (sorely missed) Murray Guy gallery, began as a photographer; her late-1970s self-portraiture has earned a surge of attention in the past decade. Canada gallery, formed collectively by a group of artists in 1999, has endured and ultimately prospered. John Kelsey and Emily Sundblad of Reena Spaulings Fine Art have seen their artistic careers flourish since they opened up shop in 2004.

More often, artists get involved in running not-for-profit spaces of various sorts; there are always more artists than walls to hang their work on. A crucial phase in the development of the artist-run space in New York was the postwar era, a time when both American art and contemporary art were just beginning to garner audiences. With limited exhibition opportunities, artists took matters into their own hands. They used differing strategies to keep the doors open. Hansa Gallery, formed by students of Hans Hofmann, was specifically an artist cooperative. In Greenwich Village, Judson Church donated space to Jim Dine, Marc Ratliff, and Tom Wesselmann to start Judson Gallery, whose art shows presaged the subsequent breakthroughs in performance and music that took place there. The pioneering Reuben Gallery, run by a small group spearheaded by Allan Kaprow and crucial to the birth of performance art and assemblage, had a more on-the-fly approach, securing contributions from a variety of sources: its namesake, Anita Rubin (the spelling was tweaked to be “fancier,” Rubin told Mildred Glimcher); Kaprow and his collaborators; the artists who showed at the gallery, who paid the expenses of putting up their shows and gave a one-third commission to the gallery on any sales; and a fund at Rutgers University, where Kaprow taught and whose dean of arts and sciences he guilt-tripped into helping out: “I shall need $2,000.00 with nothing expected in return. (It will be this way for the rest of my career, I’m certain.)”

View of “Sarah Braman: Seven Thousand Years of War,” 2005, Canada, New York.

It’s notable that none of the artists behind Reuben, Hansa, et al. positioned or expected their venues to make money. As Melissa Rachleff, author of Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City 1952–1965, emphasizes, their motivation was not sales but mere attention: “Their overarching goal was visibility,” she writes in the book’s preface. This was in step with the broader zeitgeist: It was the beginning of the golden age of advertising, when PR was consolidating and its development accelerating. While the art world has changed vastly since the early 1960s, the notion that attention is the most valuable currency of all has not. The difference today is that attention is seen as leading to money, except that the route is dim, winding, treacherous, and full of dead ends.

Martin Creed, Work No. 201, Half the air in a given space, 1998, balloons. Installation view, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York.

O’FLAHERTY’S OCCUPIES a peculiar place in the landscape of contemporary art peddling. “Yes, it’s commercial,” Julian-Villani says, “but we often set ourselves up not to sell.” At the same time, she says the place is part of her practice. The resulting ambiguity puts it in a middle ground; to bastardize Derrida, rather than always already being art, in the legacy of the readymade, O’Flaherty’s always might be. Perhaps artists can’t even help it at this point; they just ooze artness onto anything they touch, particularly now that living is so bound up with selling and life therefore so bound up with product. (And perhaps we find it hard to take any claims at face value because drowning in misinformation tends to produce a generalized impulse to read between the lines, even when there may be nothing there.) Whatever the reason, it’s hard not to see O’Flaherty’s as lenticular—a gallery when tilted one direction, a work of art when tilted another. The resulting tension gives the place an intellectual, almost philosophical charge that its proprietors have leveraged brilliantly during their first year of operation. This frisson is what makes the gallery both fascinating and not quite real, a little unbelievable.

The most frame-breaking gallery in recent New York history was Colin de Land’s American Fine Arts, which opened in 1986 and closed in 2004, one year after de Land’s death. The gallery’s story is well known, so I won’t detail it here. A famously shambolic surface overlaid its sturdy intellectual substructure; de Land championed artists with various sorts of difficult practices, notably a number who practiced institutional critique, including Andrea Fraser and Christian Philipp Müller. While de Land worked with many exceptional artists, AFA revolved around his persona and personal charm. The actual business of selling art was haphazard enough to be perceived as blurring the line between running a gallery and engaging in durational performance. This quality was so well known that it was cited in the lede of his New York Times obituary: His “ambivalence about commercialism was reflected in an art gallery that sometimes resembled an anti–art gallery, if not a work of Conceptual Art.” De Land’s unique, subversive embrace of the gallery model unfolded in the 1990s, at the same time as a few parallel trends: the experience economy, relational aesthetics, the curator as the talent (to the degree that they at times eclipsed the artist). De Land’s era-specific approach to dealing art suggests an alternation of ingenious self-promotion and an indifference to commerce bordering on self-sabotage. The gallery’s stance perhaps represents the last pressing of a late-bohemian, definitionally Gen X template—a discovery of success in system bucking and failure. You hate the system but it kind of loves you anyway, or needs you at least, and so you become a little unruly within it.

Opening of “Josephine Pryde: Brute,” Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York, June 5, 2004.

Like Colin de Land’s American Fine Arts before it, O’Flaherty’s moves in and out of the gimmick’s shadow play of capital depending on how the light shifts.

IF COLIN DE LAND blurred the line between art dealing and performance from one direction, O’Flaherty’s does so from the other: artists behaving like dealers. In both cases, the situation undermines itself and lends an air of unreality to the proceedings. In both cases, the deviation from the norm creates a whiff of suspicion.

In her recent book Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form (2020), cultural theorist and historian Sianne Ngai takes a variety of angles on the titular subject, viewing the gimmick as this but also that, examining the multiple facets of its diamond-cut, cubic-zirconia surface. The gimmick is annoying but it also may be comic. The gimmick is enigmatic but also transparent, suspect but also a source of pleasure. Sometimes gimmicks seem archaic, sometimes goofily futuristic. But all these expressions derive from what lies at the gimmick’s core—the same inherent contradiction that lies at the core of capitalism. The gimmick has power, says Ngai, because it’s bound up with and exposes the arbitrary relation between the amount of labor that goes into something and its market value—or as Marx would put it, more or less, it exposes surplus labor. “The gimmick thus names an experience of dissatisfaction—mixed, for all this, with fascination—linked to our perception of an object making untrustworthy claims about . . . the reduction of labor, and the expansion of value,” Ngai summarizes.

View of “Barbara Probst,” 2016, Murray Guy, New York.

You may be unsurprised to learn that in Theory of the Gimmick, Ngai spends a good bit of time talking about contemporary art. It is, after all, a genre that traces its beginnings to a urinal taken off the wall, turned on its back, and called a fountain. Following Stanley Cavell, Ngai argues that the idea has taken such a prominent role in modern creative forms that all art of today exists in the gimmick’s shadow. Aesthetics take place under “the modernist problematic”: the awakening of a suspicion of the artwork as always possibly fraudulent. In an intriguing move, Cavell ascribes this situation not to any prankishness in the origin of the readymade and in Conceptual art, not to gimmickiness per se, but rather to the burgeoning of art discourse and the way that it has become central to the understanding of art—criticism’s “internalization” to art. The fact that a work now has the capacity to be—or must be—justified discursively means that it’s always suspect, not merely potentially hiding behind a curtain of words but rather being the curtain itself.

Mark Dion, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (Toys ‘R’ U.S.), 1994, mixed media. Installation view, American Fine Arts, New York.

IF CITIES CAN BE SAID to be “about” things, New York is a city about money. Thus it’s only logical that in 2022, when monetization is like an endemic blood-borne parasite, inside every corpuscle and implicated in every respiration, it takes a gallery to get people both inside the art world and outside it excited about art. If O’Flaherty’s had posed as a quirked-up little “project space” or a more stentorian “initiative,” I suspect no one would care very much at all.

Like de Land’s AFA before it, O’Flaherty’s moves in and out of the gimmick’s shadow play of capital depending on how the light shifts. (“Devices can flip into gimmicks at any moment and vice versa as well,” Ngai notes.) Is it a business or is it a joke? And if it’s a joke, who’s it on? In its operations, the gallery does indeed violate some basic capitalist laws. For one thing, its proprietors seem to be having a pretty good time, and you’re not allowed to have fun working—it almost definitionally violates the notion of work, particularly when your wares call into question the arbitrary nature of the ascription of value. A great and curious thing about O’Flaherty’s is that the glint that catches people’s eye is, as with de Land, the flash not of coins being exchanged but of money being burned. According to Juliano-Villani, the gallery is losing “tons” of money; over its first year of business it has made “four major sales.” You don’t get rich showing cult artists and potato chips, and overhead on a Manhattan gallery, even a modest one, is brutal. In a way, O’Flaherty’s evokes yet another capitalist phenomenon, a hypercontemporary one: Part of its gimmick may be to perform the same devil-may-care attitude toward old-fashioned financial probity as companies that burn through billions as they plow on at a terminal loss, crucifying investors who believe their gamble will one day pay off. But the only people O’Flaherty’s is crucifying are themselves, nailing themselves to the holy Volkswagen of the arbitrary ascription of value.

Colin de Land and Pat Hearn in the American Fine Arts truck, New York, ca. 1980s.

Success breeds success, failure breeds failure, and no one wants to be associated with a loser. Unexpectedly, then, by virtue of its indifference toward self-immolation, O’Flaherty’s reveals itself to be, like American Fine Arts, a form of institutional critique. Juliano-Villani has been heard to say she started the project because she sees the art world as boring, which seems a consensus at this point. We’re waiting for some new genre, form, or movement to coalesce. But what we should be looking for—what’s actually desired—is a new model for art’s circulation and display, one less strangled by notions of business. If you want to know what that is, don’t ask me. I only work here.

Domenick Ammirati is a writer and editor based in New York.

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