A.I.R. Gallery — Exhibition Reviews
Nancy Princenthal Sep 30, 2022 4 Minute Read
This essay is featured in the digital exhibition A.I.R. Gallery: Chapter 2.
A handful of short exhibition reviews from the A.I.R. archives, all published within two years of the organization’s founding, in 1972, were delivered to my inbox during the pandemic shutdown.
I had selected them from among dozens of fragmentary documents I’d viewed online, and they arrived, as if sent by carrier pigeon in wartime, without context or opportunity for archival research: tantalizing evidence of distant conflicts.
The first review, by art historian Barbara Rose, is of A.I.R.’s inaugural group show for New York Magazine, itself then only four years old and full of youthful energy. Rose, too, was young (she was in her mid-30s), but well-known and admired. A champion of Minimalism and its immediate sequels, associated with such rising figures as Frank Stella and Mark di Suvero, Rose seems, in this review, acutely aware of her authority. It would be wrong to say she issued her judgment of the exhibition from a position of hostility to feminism, but she clearly felt she had advice to offer. It was chastening. True, she began by applauding the installation for its “taste and professionalism”; she found the space “attractive.” But she added, tetchily, such dignity “makes more sense and ultimately changes the situation more than the childish demonstrations fashionable during the past few years”; evidently, she felt that previous efforts by feminist artists had lacked maturity and focus. Allowing that the work shown at A.I.R. demonstrated “guts and intelligence,” and singling out Anne Healy (for soft fabric sculptures) and Louise Kramer (“elegant wire constructions”), Rose pronounced, “Finally [that is, a scant few years into second-wave feminism] some women have stopped complaining and competing with each other, and are getting their act together.”
Laurie Anderson, ten years younger than Rose and not yet famous, was at the time writing reviews (to support herself, one account says, rather implausibly) for ARTnews and Artforum. In her assessment of the opening show, the first artist mentioned is Judith Bernstein, for a “gigantic” (nine-foot-tall) charcoal drawing from the “Hardware Series.” Anderson calls it “daring and impressive”; what she doesn’t say is that it depicts, with furious energy and irrepressible glee, an unmistakably phallic screw standing erect. Nothing could be further from Rose’s preferences, but it was also a good distance from Anderson’s own developing sensibility, which was elliptical, digressive, and wry—though she did share with Bernstein a powerful sense of humor. Anderson also singled out Daria Dorosh, Harmony Hammond, Blythe Bohnen, Agnes Denes, and Rosemary Mayer; her terms of praise include “powerful,” “raggedy,” and “evocative in a creepy way.” Good taste is not among them.
A year later, Lawrence Alloway, a leading figure among American art critics, reviewed A.I.R.’s end-of-year group show. Given a lot more space than Rose or Anderson had been offered, he expatiated—and in doing so discovered an “implied canon” in the making. Its hallmarks: “restricted color and nondramatic form, … clear but unemphatic.” Alloway’s filter, it seems fair to say, is much closer to Rose’s than Anderson’s. Oddly, in describing the work he approves, starting with Mary Grigoriadis’s paintings and Rosemary Mayer’s works on paper, he uses such words as “rich in color,” “raw,” and “high-keyed.” But he wanted to see restraint, and found it. When, in 1983, Alloway focused on A.I.R. in an article about artist-run galleries, he called it “programmatically feminist,” then hastened to explain, “but a gender-based organization in the ‘70s, the decade in which the women’s movement in art expanded remarkably, cannot be seen as neutral. The artists are not grouped stylistically, but on a socio-sexual basis. Let us say these co-ops are political in effect, if not in theory.” The work itself, in other words, is blamelessly apolitical. Tasteful would be another word for it.
Nearly five decades have gone by since these brief assessments were published; they now seem keys to a forgotten language, or doxa—or, a battle plan for a territory that has since been redrawn. Vividly, they evoke what critics—supporters one and all—felt they needed to say to find a place for artwork by independent-minded women, and how hard it was to embrace outrage, or simple candor, or even a bit of wicked fun.
Nancy Princenthal is a Brooklyn-based writer whose Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (Thames & Hudson, 2015) received the 2016 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography. Her most recent book is Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s (Thames & Hudson, 2019). She is also the author of the monograph Hannah Wilke (Prestel, 2020). A former Senior Editor of Art in America, where she remains a Contributing Editor, she has also written for the New York Times and many other publications, including BOMB, Hyperallergic, Apollo, and The Brooklyn Rail. Her writing has appeared in monographs and exhibition catalogs for a wide range of artists, including Ann Hamilton, Alfredo Jaar, Gary Simmons, Willie Cole, and Lesley Dill. Having taught and lectured widely, she was a longtime faculty member of the MFA Art Writing program at the School of Visual Arts and was most recently a visiting lecturer at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.