This was Saturday afternoon lunchtime conversation, a mother boasting about her son to old friends and now one new acquaintance (me). But an audible question mark in her voice hinted that she might not fully understand just what Bob actually did, or why anyone would pay so much money for his ”sinks”. Naturally, I was intrigued, but perhaps because I was both the newest and the youngest member in this group I remained silent as the conversation moved on.
A few years later at a similar gathering, I was lucky to have Leah speak of her son with pride once again.
“Bob has a new installation, and it is going to be at the Dia in New York.”
This time I was comfortable enough to ask the right questions, to get the where and when details. I now knew I had to schedule a New York weekend, seek out this “Dia” and see for myself what $100,000 sinks looked like; especially in an installation.
Back in high school, I had somehow managed to arrange my lunch, two study periods and my actual art class all in a row, so that three times a week, I was in the art room for more than half the day. A lot of my time was spent making drawings and paintings and occasionally clay sculpture. Sometimes, our teacher would tell us about the famous contemporary artists of the day. But if installations were part of the art-vocabulary in my rural town, I was absent that day.
A possibly not entirely accurate urban history lesson (as I remember it, although I was not there):
In the early 80’s, the geographical center of the contemporary art world was SoHo, but the commercial invasion that would turn this once abandoned neighborhood into the high-end shopping mecca it is today was well underway. SoHo, which I believe was Manhattan’s first acronomical neighborhood (a very crowded and increasing absurd field – why hello, BoCoCa), was born about 25 years earlier from an unplanned, yet highly successful marriage of events. (Note to urban planners: you can’t plan these things.)
- The Robert Moses folly known unaffectionately as LoMex, had finally fully failed, leaving about 30 blocks of nearly empty buildings in its wake.
- Local artists met desperate landlords, and ArtRentrification was their bastard child.
- Galleries moved in to be near their artists. Other galleries moved in to be near other galleries. Bars moved in because artists drink a lot.
By the middle 80s, the increasingly crowded streets, their repaired cobblestones mortared with a non-art-buying population, set in motion an art gallery migration north by northwest into the seemingly remote, and certainly less expensive warehouse area that lay north of the Meatpacking District and west of residential Chelsea.
One of the earliest pioneers was The Dia Center for the Arts, opening at 548 West 22nd Street.
Four floors and an amazing rooftop
Armed with an address and eager to see the sinks of Leah’s son, I made my way to West 22nd Street. The further I walked, the less people I saw. By the time I walked under a rusting old elevated train track, I was sure I must have missed the building. The area didn’t seem threatening, just empty. The ascending building numbers kept me moving forward, and finally, the next-to-last building on the street on the left hand side said 548.
Inside, I took the corner stairs to my destination on the third floor. “Robert Gober: Site-Specific Installation”. Leaving the window-filled stairwell through an open doorway, I entered into a large warehouse sized, very dark room. I could hear the faint sound of water, and there was a bright light spilling out of an opening in a smaller and shorter rectangular shaped inner room that was recently constructed from drywall and exposed metal studs. But there was a single grey metal door that seemed closer. Mounted perpendicular to the wall centered above the door was a red incandescent bare light bulb in its simple round white porcelain fixture. The eerie glow it cast seemed to challenge me like a decrepit amusement park funhouse sign “enter here – if you dare”.
I walked towards the door. A bundle of newspapers neatly tied up with twine was positioned on the floor in front of the door, with a yellow and black box of rat poison sitting on top. I tried the door, but it was locked.
Just a little bit puzzled, I figured I would have to go around to see what was behind it. I headed to the large opening and the light and the water.
The interior four walls of this “inner room” were hand painted top to bottom with a lush forest scene, thick with brown trees and multi-colored green leaves and underbrush and a dirt path leading somewhere. The style was convincing, but not realistic; more like cartoon camouflage with dark outlines. On each long wall of this mysterious woodland rectangle were mounted three or four white porcelain slop sinks, the kind you’d see in an industrial basement, or in that spooky janitor’s closet in your old grammar school. Both hot and cold faucets on each sink were running full blast. Under each sink, a single box of yellow and black rat poison. At various positions against the walls and in the center area of the room sat more stacks of newspapers, also tied up neatly with white string. High up the walls, almost to the ceiling, four evenly spaced openings allowed a glimpse of bright blue sky, marred by the presence of black prison bars.
At first, I was alone with my awe. Eventually a few others arrived. I hoped to gain insight from overheard conversation of more experienced installation attendees, but all discussions were in hushed reverential church-whispers, impossible to hear over the high tenor torrent of faucets and low base gurgling drains.
After initially letting it just wash over me, I walked around some more and started to examine this installation more closely. The sound of the water was soothing, the forest calming. But the rat poison was jarringly insistent, and the meaning of prison bars seemed pretty clear. More mysterious were the piles of newspaper, neatly bundled and stacked with care. Reading headlines, and then some articles in these regimentally bound New York Times bundles, I wondered if they were arranged with specific pages visible, or were they random? Were clues of meaning dispersed in the newsprint text? Nothing I read jumped out as unusual, many articles seemed like I had read them before, and were typical of late 80s - early 90s articles, when AIDS, Ronald Reagan, George the First and “star wars” funding were top newsmakers.
I hoped to find that key to unlock what it all meant. But right now I was swimming in the experience of standing inside someone’s brain, dodging their firing synapses, sensing through osmosis another’s senseless fever dreams or secret inner conflicts. I was also fascinated by the bigness of it, the effort it took to put it all together, and that I was allowed, encouraged even, to walk around in it, feel it, experience this spooky cerebral playroom for adults.
With reflection, I would create my own narrative of the meaning behind this installation, and then read up on everyone else’s. I also encouraged as many people who would tolerate my constant raving that they had to see it, and I went back many times more while it remained.
In the process of this initial trip, and the repeat visits, Dia introduced me to a very long list of artists I had not yet known. Besides following the brilliant subsequent oeuvre of Mr. Gober, I learned of the deliciously deranged “actions” of Joseph Beuys, walked through the awesomely effective space defining string sculptures of Fred Sanback, and grew to dislike the equally minimalist but notoriously difficult Donald Judd.
Some others whose impressions still resonate: On Kawara, with the very simple, yet simply eerie “One Thousand Days One Million Years”, the earth art of Robert Smithson and Walter De Maria, Juan Muñoz’s disturbing “a Place Called Abroad”. And of course every florescent light bulb manufacturer’s favorite artist, Dan Flavin. Dia also held an extra special bonus for height-brained individual like me: the Dan Graham sculpture on the roof was my first chance to view the city from so lofty a perspective.
Now that I do it so often, it can be peculiar to contemplate how significant an experience going to my first New York City contemporary art gallery was for me. But this little journey was my Walkabout. It taught me the pleasures of urban neighborhood wandering, and gave me a whole new category of art to appreciate. Know for being skittish in new environments and situations, learning to wander and explore this emerging gallery district gave me access and taught me confidence. Instead of just marveling at the hugeness of the city, I learned to marvel at the richness of its possibilities. What other secrets could I find by just turning a corner or trying a door, or taking the subway and getting out at an unfamiliar stop?
Nearly 17 years later, I could lament the SoHo-isation of Far West Chelsea (FaWeChe, anyone?). I still remember my initial fascination at the appearance of the brushed aluminum bat-cave entrance to Comme des Garçons. Then as I recognized the arrival of retail on West 22nd Street, fascination turned to disgust, and then resentment. As the trickle of gallery openings became a deluge, I witnessed the sprouting of a Japanese Tea Garden, and laughed at new apartments in renovated warehouses compelled to put up “This is Not an Art Gallery” signs to keep crowds out of their lobbies. Then along came the gay bars, the restaurants, new condos, straight bars, even more condos, wine bars, the High Line, and still more condos, driving out the art galleries and the edgy bars.
But once again, New York does its New York thing, whether I choose to accept it or not. This rapidly churning, knock-it-down-build-it-up development has been going full force since Peter Stuyvesant first paved Browour Street (now Stone Street) in 1658. But the pace accelerates. It’s now about five seconds from obscure to overexposed, maybe 5 days from putrification to gentrification to Disneyfication.
Happy ending #1?
The distracted Dia moved its main collection far away and closed my West 22nd Street Temple. Then, stricken with High Line fever, it planned to come back to the City even bigger and better. But then it didn’t. And now it plans to come back smaller and better and I hope it does. I’ll be waiting with the fatted calf.
Happy Ending # 2?
Dear Bob Gober, I hope it was as good for you as it was for me.
two more links, if you have any energy left...
NY Times describes the Dia family feud in '96
A candid pre-Dia interview in 1989
(photos by Tony Adams. The Robert Gober sculpture is part of the Rubell family collection.)