Why the New Art Club 2000 Retrospective Offers Lessons for Today’s Artists That Transcend Pure ’90s Nostalgia
Supposedly, when he first saw the early-‘90s group photos by Art Club 2000, art dealer Colin de Land hated them. Not because the images were bad—quite the contrary. Because he knew that they were too good, that the group’s collective self-portraits would overpower everything else they tried to do.
He was right, more or less. The cool retrospective of Art Club 2000’s work at Artists Space is sort of about the Monkey’s Paw curse of generational fame—a curse which the group was very much aware of.
De Land’s American Fine Arts was a much-mythologized alt-commercial space, what Roberta Smith once called an “anti-art gallery.” Embracing “no capital as cultural capital,” its scrappy program took all kinds of fanciful risks.
Art Club 2000 was one of those risks, essentially an invented entity, formed at the dealer’s suggestion, out of a gaggle of brash Cooper Union students who had been pestering the gallery: Patterson Beckwith, Gillian Haratani, Daniel McDonald, Shannon Pultz, Sarah Rossiter, Sobian Spring, and Craig Wadlin.
In this sense, Art Club 2000 pointed forward to the prefabricated pop acts that would dominate the charts of the end of the decade—your NSYNCs, your Spice Girls—as much as they pointed backwards to ‘80s activist-art collectives like Group Material and General Idea (Julie Ault and Doug Ashford, of Group Material fame, were teachers at Cooper).
They wanted, as Rossiter once explained, “To have the reins of power handed over to us, and to be viewed as generational spokesmodels. We wanted people to view us as a group intent on being observed as well as innocent, dynamic, and perverse.”
The output of their first, 1993 show at American Fine Arts, “Commingle,” lived up to that promise. The above-mentioned group photos are an anthology of offbeat art-student tableaux: Art Clubbers nude and piled on top of one another in bed; Art Club in a photo studio, incongruously clad in furry animal costumes; Art Club all in identical Gap denim and bandanas (purchased, then returned to the store) cavorting in Times Square.
The other elements of “Commingle” were a bunch of slightly below life-sized cardboard cutouts of the various members, looking mischievous and clad in the animal costumes. And then a bunch of material related to the Gap: planters, bits of slatwall, and mirrors scavenged from the trash; a wonky tower made of Gap boxes; bland corporate directives from the training manual stenciled in vinyl lettering on the gallery walls, plus blown up black-and-white photos highlighting details of the same documents.
Why the Gap? The idea of the doughty normcore fashion retailer as a target feels “very ‘90s” now. Its relevance was extremely specific to the immediate time-and-place of Art Club 2000 as an initiative sprung form the Cooper Union/American Fine Arts nexus.
The Gap had just opened a branch on St. Marks, signaling an end of a grittier downtown era. Meanwhile, the brand was busy transmuting its anti-cool into cool via an “Individuals of Style” marketing campaign, which featured various creatives, from Spike Lee to Joan Didion to art dealer Leo Castelli, wearing Gap.
The “Commingle” show had a photography set-up where you could recreate your own “Individuals of Style”-esque photo (lamentably not available for use at Artists Space). An ad that Art Club 2000 placed in Artforum to tout the exhibition, aping the campaign but starring Colin de Land draped in shadows, got them a stern letter from Gap Corp. in 1993, proudly displayed in a vitrine of Art Club-related documents at Artists Space.
The upshot was that as much as this debut cast them as “generational spokesmodels,” the show was also a cynical joke about the media’s invention and depletion of creative cool—which is a very-‘90s, Gen X kind of posture to take.
Once, when asked who the most stylish woman in the world is, the fashion designed Hedi Slimane is supposed to have replied, “Some unknown girl on the dance floor.” The fashionable is in some way an empty signifier, filled in by the culture industries by whatever youth and newness and novelty are handy, rotating the crops of commodified desire.
The Art Club 2000 strategy of claiming the role of “hot new thing” with self-conscious irony also comes with the curse of understanding its arbitrariness and hence its fleetingness. There’s a fuse burning on this kind of glamor—one flagged right in the name of the group, Art Club 2000, destined to date it if they lasted much beyond the millennium.
Thus, what followed “Commingle” was something like the group testing the limits of the game that they have created for themselves, see-sawing between more playful meta-posturing as art stars and much more earnest gestures investigating the mechanisms of the New York art world that had created them.
For “Kaputtmachen im graz,” in 1994, they presented as a wall mural complete with boombox, the image of themselves as defiant rock stars who’d trashed their hotel room.
For “SoHo So Long” in 1996 they did a kind of sociological interview series and portraits of the cadre of young art dealers then being priced out of the increasingly Gap-ified SoHo for Chelsea.
For a show called “1970” in 1997 they did a series of interviews with stars from the vanished ‘70s glory days of New York art, including Carolee Schneemann and Vito Acconci, presented as a video sculpture.
Both these latter two projects, in their different ways, reflect an impulse to put into perspective the slippery conditions of their own fame as bound by a time and a place.
For a 1998 show with the clunky title “Night of the Living Dead Author,” they offered an art-theory-themed haunted house. It included Untitled (Statements Regarding the Death of the Author), a red LED sign of the kind you see advertising lotto tickets in a bodega. If you stuck around to read the scrolling text, it lambasted ‘90s artists—including Matthew Barney, Vanessa Beecroft, and themselves—for failing to rise to the level of political seriousness and being merely content to riff uncritically on mass culture: “a vast number of artists build careers out of a facet of a predetermined culture,” etc.
Perhaps the most poignant of Art Club 2000’s post-“Commingle” works, from ‘95, is a series of un-aesthetic black-and-white photos, each one depicting the empty setting where one of the members held down a day job. It’s a catalogue of the hustling underside of New York creative culture, working in bars, as art handlers, costume shops, and at editorial internships.
Even if this is its own kind of youthful cliche in the era of Reality Bites and Clerks, these images are also pictures of drab and atomized work-life experiences rather than a colorful, fusional invented identity. They stand in for the uneven rhythms and trajectories of different life paths calling.
The group would last until 1999 before going inactive and scattering its members, concluding with an act of self-homage, “1999 (A Retrodisrespective),” represented here by a large, jokey grim reaper figure.
“Colin tried to teach us how art ‘works,’ and the continuing life of what we made with him, and the surrounding conversations, often proved more interesting than the work itself,” two former Art Clubbers, McDonald and Beckwith, recalled in a 2013 Artforum interview with David Velasco. There’s something more than modesty to that statement.
De Land insisted that the early, untitled group photos be printed small, to keep them from overpowering the reception of the group—which they did anyway. In 2020, however, the fact that they are printed at small size gives them a kind of poignancy. When you see them, it’s as if they are about how large the moment felt versus how fleeting it was.
The other objects here feel knowingly arbitrary or like art-world inside-jokes very specifically fitted to the intellectual terrain of a certain moment. That does mean that a lot of the show may be more a time capsule than a cluster of lasting art objects.
But it’s not just ‘90s nostalgia either. Art Club 2000’s particular constructed group identity—the art-collective-as-“pose band,” as Beckwith put it—is an influential and lovable construction on its own. And when Beckwith and McDonald say that “the surrounding conversations often proved more interesting than the work itself”—that interest still shines through, the sense of hothoused angst, experimentation, and group communion.
This may be an observation particularly thrown into relief by my own specific time and place, and the dynamics of quarantine-era isolation, but the social life around art is part of what makes it worthwhile. It’s not all it is or the most noble thing about, and it it is the most doomed-to-vanish and impossible-to-share. But Art Club 2000’s fantasy of collective identity preserves the sense of art being a club you would like to belong to, which is not something you can say for every art show.
“ART CLUB 2000: Selected Works 1992–1999” is on view at Artists Space, through January 30, 2021.
See more photos from “ART CLUB 2000: Selected Works 1992–1999,” below:
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