By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST December 3, 2020
The survival strategies of New York’s museums and galleries during the pandemic are being continuously reported but those of another productive art world element, non-profits, much less so. WhiteBox, one of New York’s smallest and most adventurous, was opened by Juan Puntes in Chelsea in September 1998 with a look-around at what was up in the city’s alternative spaces, such as White Columns and Exit Art. The second show featured Herman Nitsch and Gunter Brus of the Austrian foursome of highly confrontational performance artists, Vienna Aktionismus. Then it was Michael Snow and the late, terrific Carolee Schneemann, best known for using her naked body as art material in Meat Joy.
No doubt you get the picture, which is that the WhiteBox program was and is not the artworld equivalent of Easy Listening, and shows that followed included The War of Worlds, which was its first public presentation of the work of Tim Rollins and KOS, aka the kids of survival working with kids from the Elliott Public Houses, and a show which was generated by the interaction of the curator, Fergus McCaffrey, with Chelsea's womans’ prison, Bay View. This included artworks made by inmates and portraits of them by the Irish painter, Brian McGuire
White Box remained in Chelsea for ten years, then rental realities and what Puntes describes as “discomfort created by new glitz in the ‘hood” necessitated a move to Broome Street on the Lower East Side. There the richly varied shows that followed included one which dealt with the interpenetration of art and New York’s club world of the late 70s and the 80s, and which included the physical rebuilding by the artist Dan Glass of the actual bar area at that long-standing, recently defunct art world saloon, the Mars Bar. White Box remained on Broome for ten years and one of their final shows there, Exodus, featured 55 Japanese artists, all emigres to New York and another, as its title, White Anxieties, made clear, mirrored the emergent power of Black Lives Matter.
Two years ago another rental surge obliged Puntes to move to a third artworld new found land, East Harlem, specifically 213 East 121st Street. There he has continued to put together shows that follow the advice of the late art critic Arthur Danto that “If art must be political it better be beautiful". The Exodus series, which demonstrated continuously to be the model and over-all title and his opening show, "Waiting for the Garden of Eden", was inspired by Puertorican poet Pedrio Pietri. Subsequent shows have focused on works by immigrant artists from Africa, China and Bengal.
One of the most recent shows at WhiteBox Harlem is named GOOD TROUBLE for the career advice offered by the late John Lewis, that being the kind of trouble you should strive to get into. It featured an enactment of Revolt in the Asturias, an anti-fascist play written by four writers, including Albert Camus, and performed in Spain immediately before the Spanish Civil War, which was recreated here by performers from the Al Limite Collective and the Living Theater in a collaboration with the Martin E. Segal Theater Center, moving amongst the artworks and standing audience at WhiteBox. Also the formidable art writer Eleanor Heartney and Larry Litt performed The Annoying Nun.
Strong stuff, in short. But, yes, Juan Puntes and WhiteBox are themselves in trouble, the same old trouble, in fact, but not particularly good. "Keep The Box In Harlem" is the title of the benefit auction that will begin a twelve day run on December 7. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British-American writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
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