1. MISSED OPENINGS
It’s still not clear whether I made it to Remodel, 2011 on December 13, 2011 or not. My archived calendar from that date indicates several conflicting events, including a holiday party for architect Bernard Tschumi’s office (whose website we had designed, and whose continued business we probably wanted to solicit). And yet, despite the hectic quality of New York art / social life, it would have been pretty unconscionable for me to have missed this particular talk, which introduced Ludlow 38’s new exhibition display system.
One of the creators of this project, Ken Saylor, was already a dear friend and collaborator, with whom I had designed several exhibitions. He counts as one of the true gurus of critical exhibition design within New York, and someone from whom I’ve had the privilege of learning. Looking at the bio that is still online from that event, I notice that all of the shows he lists are ones that I had the pleasure to work on with him.
The project’s other originator, Martin Beck, was at that point a more elusive figure to me, not yet the close friend, confidant, and conspirator that he is today. I had worked with him on a small project, a typographic treatment for a body of works within his larger exploration of historical communes, shown somewhere in the world, that I never got to see in person. But his slim volume About the Relative Size of Things in Universe, named after his video work documenting the assembly and disassembly of the iconic 1948 Struc-Tube exhibition system, had already caught my attention and deep admiration. As my first encounter with his work (before Ken kindly introduced us), the book had proved a handy gift to several people, including my now business partner Chris Wu.
And to that event itself: I would have truly been a fool for not attending Remodel, 2011 as the third participant was the legendary Mary Anne Staniszewski, author of The Power of Display, which rewrote the history of exhibition design and modern art in a decisive manner. With my growing focus on exhibition design and curating, I looked to that book as an almost Vedic-level text.
Perhaps I possess a vague, half-formed memory of appearing at the end of the event, of meeting Staniszewski in a flurry, of rushing out again. It would have been my first visit to Ludlow 381, and a brief one at that. But the work itself, Re:model, left an impression, however faint, the trace of which remains indelibly upon my life and work—and that of many others in New York and beyond—today.
2. FRIENDLY SOULS
In his essay “Revisiting the Form of ‘An Exhibit,’” Martin Beck speculates that “[p]ast exhibitions might all be thought of as ghosts, apparitions of the dead that appear to the living, images without bodies.” However rooted the use of the word “ghost” feels in an Anglo-American understanding, in which the earthly appearance of a spirit apart from a body is usually negative and fearful,2 a ghost is still a spirit—something apart from either body or mind, existing alongside physical or rational aspects. In substituting “ghost” with “spirit” or “soul,” evoking ideas of reincarnations and the transmigration of souls, I speculate that a particular exhibition-soul might spring invisibly from one physical installation to another, both before and after its material manifestations.
Personally, Re:model represents the pure intersection of so many things that had occupied me for years before and would continue to occupy me for years later. Blessed to possess a folder of project documentation that Martin recently provided me (some of which will also be published online), I experience an uncanny chill up my spine as I leaf through Martin and Ken’s initial proposal. Although I’ve never read those materials before, and only physically encountered the work on a handful of occasions, there is a sense of re-recognition, of witnessing ideas close to one’s own heart refracted through other minds. The visual and verbal language and abstract poetry of the proposal; its careful attention to exhibition display, space, and social context; the intentional juxtaposition of disparate display forms and typologies into a single, loosely defined system; the odd bumpiness of the whole thing. Nevertheless, Re:model maintained the outward appearances of an exhibition space—the white sheetrock walls and smooth finishes requisite of a professional gallery3—in order to create a self-reflexive work that forces the viewer to slow down and consider each element anew.
I never had the privilege of encountering Martin’s “The details are not the details” in the spring of 2007 at Orchard gallery, an exhibition I imagine closely prefigures this piece.4 This show on modern display systems, of different kinds, has since been recognized as a landmark in the contemporary rethinking of exhibition design and design5, and culminated the book mentioned earlier, About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe.
Other precedents for the work include Ken’s ongoing experiments with the forms and typologies of exhibition display, visible within the display pedestals and architectural features of a range of his shows during the late 2000s in New York, which crystallized a set of ideas that he had been practicing since the 1980s. These critical experiments, testing out non-normative display approaches and insertions of pop forms into cultural context in order to create more social spaces for contemporary art, were oftentimes carried out in collaboration with the artist Judith Barry. As I learned about their extensive work over the past decades, I realized how essential this under-recognized period is for thinking about exhibitions today.
And its “afterlife”?
Apart from how Re:model, as an embedded piece of self-reflexive exhibition display, framed the entire program of Ludlow 38 in more and less visible ways, it is important to note the ways that this project helped to shape other programs in downtown New York at the same period. Although some spaces, such as The Artist’s Institute founded by Anthony Huberman in 2010, intentionally eschewed the role of mediation and display in formulating their exhibitions, others, such as my own space, P!, embraced this challenge and took up the mantle.
A self-described “Mom-and-Pop-Kunsthalle,” P!, which I founded and ran from 2012–2017 on Broome Street, was a mere ten minutes way away from Ludlow 38. Throughout that period, I enjoyed a consistent interchange with Ludlow 38’s curators, even if I didn’t find as much time as I would have liked to come visiting. But the two spaces must have invisibly, even unwittingly, been in dialogue; since 2012, P! played with display and exhibition architecture in open and disjunctive ways.
Upon reflection, parts of its program were surely influenced by Re:model and its approach; for example, the first phase of the gallery’s life featured a large, moveable wall on wheels designed by Leong Leong, which echoes of Re:model’s screen, albeit with a much larger scale and angled returns that lent it a decisive and sometimes menacing character. The space’s architecture, display, and other framing devices (even its visual identity and name) were constantly in flux, shifting in response to artistic interventions and the evolving exhibition program. On the level of explicit narrative, the program of P! probed the subjects of exhibition display and design. This included exhibitions with polymath Brian O’Doherty (who coined the term “the white cube”) to multiform projects with artists such as Céline Condorelli and others, alongside the space’s continuous and self-reflexive play with its own construction. Amidst this wild, bumpy ride that was P!, Martin and Ken continued to be dear friends and collaborators, playing different social and intellectual roles that supported the development of P!’s program.6
All these traces, these fleeting remnants of Re:model that I seek to excavate from within my own body and mind, are an embodied testament to the persistent and migratory spirit of exhibitionary forms, why they are both elusive and yet essential, incidental and yet generative. These fugitive souls—complex, interwoven ideas, which lay outside of ourselves and any particular physical manifestation that inhabit us, surround us, frame us, constrain us, liberate us. Such spirits, taking years of fermentation to mature, themselves then loosen up the minds of others to new possibilities, to seeing the world and art anew. Exhibitions—these spaces where actors, ideas, and objects can commingle, can commune—are an endangered species as the world of art moves towards more virtual formats of exchange. And yet, the exhibition and its spirit remain throughout, as a reason, once again, to come together.
I’ll drink to that. Prost!
— Berlin, Germany, August 2020
- Though not my first visit to 38 Ludlow St, since I was a frequent visitor to just-in-time-publisher and occasional bookstore Dexter Sinister, located in the basement space, since its raucously packed opening night on 30 June 2006, which had featured books, alcohol, and even police fines (due to the unpermitted serving of libations) for its proprietors.
- The word “Geist” in Martin Beck’s native German, from which the word “ghost” emerges, does not appear to be haunted by these negative associations.
- As Martin astutely noted in his essay in Alternative New York, 1970s spaces such as the feminist cooperative A.I.R. Gallery used outward signifiers such as sheetrock walls in order to establish a place for themselves within the dominant art system.
- In fact, I never physically visited Orchard during its three-year existence, a result of extreme overwork from running a small, ambitious graphic design studio in those days. Although I have some regrets about this, I am encouraged by the fact that so many people who were involved in that space’s program are now friends and collaborators. Perhaps exhibitions in memory are even more powerful than in the flesh.
- The entire exhibition, as well as Martin’s own archive, are now at the Center for Curatorial Studies Hessel Museum and Archive at Bard College, where my own professional papers from 1997–2017 are housed. Perhaps not coincidentally at all, CCS Bard is also where I first met the editor of this project; she later invited me to give a talk on exhibition archives and publications, focused on unpacking the archive—something I’m trying to do, in a very partial way, here.
- Martin, together with Julie Ault, even contributed to P!’s own exhibition architecture and display: starting in January 2015, when the space renamed itself “K,.” a six-month gallery-within-a-gallery, Martin and Julie selected a specific shade of light pink paint for the gallery ceiling, which would continue through the remainder of its program, subtly giving every exhibition we showed a slightly warmer cast. And Ken, dear Ken, who came to nearly every opening of P! and lent me his expert ear, his advice, critique, encouragement, and support throughout, also gave me one of my favorite gifts ever at the opening of P!: a prototype whisky glass by Italian designer Joe Colombo that allows its user to drink and smoke comfortably at the same time.