Papo Colo and Jeanette Ingberman founded Exit Art in 1982 as a space for “unusual” art, which is saying a lot given that this was a time when artists were bisecting public plazas with giant panels of unfinished steel, using subway trains as canvases, and performing year-long pieces that consisted of never going indoors. That February, Papo and Ingberman curated their first exhibition, “Illegal America.” The show explored the ways in which the practice of art had occasionally run afoul of the law, from Charlotte Moorman playing cello in the nude to Chris Burden ordering his assistant to shoot him in his arm. The catalogue consisted of a series of artists’ statements housed in a box, which was sealed shut. In order to open it, you had to tear through a dollar bill glued across the flaps—an illegal act, albeit of the mildest kind.
Exit Art’s mandate was clear from the very beginning: the brash claim that they represented an “exit” from the traditional art world; a neck-and-neck passion for politics and aesthetics; that gag of a catalogue, the kind that implicates gallerygoers as more than passive collectors of names on placards. Yet their remarkable, thirty-year existence on the fringes will soon come to an end. Exit Art is scheduled to close this May, following the death of Ingberman last fall from complications associated with leukemia. For the next month, Colo and the remaining staff have scheduled a series of events commemorating the gallery’s singular history, including talks from former curators, film screenings, and “Collective/Performance,” a series of interactive, audience-centered pieces. The events culminate on May 19 with “Exit Time,” an evening of live, simultaneous performances that will conclude with Colo’s “Sweeping Memories,” his final performance and “ritual cleansing” of the space.
This mercurial spirit ran through Exit Art’s programming throughout its first two decades. While the art market exploded around them, Ingberman and Colo devoted themselves to working with artists on the fringes, particularly artists of color. Their programs were unpredictable and whimsical, old world and traditionalist one moment and fiercely futuristic the next. In this way, it’s almost futile to try and narrate the space’s history as something coherent or intentional. Instead, one is astounded by the ecstatic pluralism of these early years and the artists they featured: Tehching Hsieh, Martin Wong, David Hammons, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Ida Applebroog, John Fekner, Jimmie Durham, Suzan Lori-Parks, Elaine Lustig Cohen. Ingberman and Colo staged festivals of underground film and video art. In 1987, they hosted the inaugural Bang on a Can Festival of new music. They presented the first-ever American show of the Soviet artist Michael Chernishov, and their 1989, glasnost-themed “Green Show” was a landmark exhibition of Soviet-era art in the United States.
It was around the late eighties that Ingberman and Colo began to refine their mission. The world of art often comports itself as somehow above concerns one might crassly reduce to “identity politics.” But as the culture wars raged, Exit Art became a haven for those as interested in artistic experimentation as radical politics. The gallery presented incendiary group exhibitions such as “The Debt” (1988)—a prescient meditation on North and South American debt—and “Fever” (1992)—often recognized as one of the decade’s most provocative showcases of young American art. In 1990 alone, there were visionary solo shows highlighting the works of Edgar Heap of Birds, Adrian Piper, and David Wojnarowicz. Other notable shows explored the history of underground comics, the legacy of movement newspapers, activist poster design, the “genetic revolution,” evolving media technologies, and even fracking.
If there has been a unifying logic to all this, it might be the sanctity of the individual—not in the service of some selfish, inward individualism, but out of an awareness that a healthy and eclectic democracy relies on a recognition of differences, rather than on a cursory acknowledgement that we are different. To this end, “Reactions,” Exit Art’s response, in 2002, to the events of September 11 stands out. Standards be damned, they invited anyone who felt moved to mail them their personal response to that day and its aftermath. The only requirement was that it did not exceed 8 ½ by 11 inches. They received hundreds of reactions in the mail, and artists of world-historical significance were installed alongside neighborhood paranoiacs.
Selections from all these shows are currently on display at Exit Art as part of their final exhibition, “Every Exit Is an Entrance.” The gallery occupies a corner in Hell’s Kitchen on the west side of Manhattan. Interspersed with condos and convenience stores and bars are quieter, half-developed blocks that remind you that every square inch of Manhattan has yet to be monetized. The gallery space is raw, cavernous, and luxuriously spacious, almost overwhelmingly so. It recalibrates your sense of scale, like a dinosaur or an aircraft hangar would. Unburdened of the ambivalent white walls of a traditional museum, installations occupy the space with a casual sense of abandon. Paintings and posters stretch to the ceiling; sculptures are dispersed freely around the gallery like landmines.
Near the center of the exhibition space, there is a display of stationery from Exit Art’s previous incarnations—letterhead, envelopes, and business cards that list two previous addresses on Broadway, down in Soho. I never went to these earlier versions of the gallery, and whenever I pass the addresses now, my imagination goes sepia, the way any New York immigrant’s does when hearing about the days when an expensive city was once a husked-out scape of cheap rents and abundant parking. But isn’t this the beauty of a city, the fact that one of its anonymizing effects is that we are all allowed to imbue its spaces with our memories? That the glories and grievances it inspires never change, only the players and how they wear their jeans? That every moment has its art, even if you think it is derivative and facile compared to what came before?
I went to Exit many times, but I didn’t truly understand it until I participated in one of the events for “Global/National: The Order of Chaos,” an exhibition in 2010 that considered how globalization had complicated our notions of identity. During the Q&A after my talk, Colo seemed to materialize from the shadows to delivered a manifesto for the next century, speechifying wildly about how his and Jeanette’s vision for a new art—an “exit” from the mainstream—had been validated. Change was upon us, he declared. That night, he was a human exclamation point, concluding each bold sentence with a floor-shaking stamp of his foot.
For all the bravado of Exit Art’s name and constantly revised manifestos, this was a deeply earnest space. Exhibitions such as “The Design Show” (1993) and “Alternative Histories” (2010)—a stunning, interactive cataloguing of alternative, New York–area art spaces and projects since 1960—seemed designed to remind jaded browsers of a previous moment’s sense of adventure and curiosity.
The last time I saw Jeanette was the only time I ever saw her face register anything but a warm, generous curiosity. Instead, she seemed mildly concerned—we were, after all, eating pizza perilously close to the art. My friend Herb, then an associate curator at Exit, had decided to throw his birthday party in the main gallery, and I had volunteered to DJ. Jeanette recognized me from the talk I’d given the year before. We chatted as “Ten Crack Commandments” resounded through the space, and she looked bemused as her normally mellow associate curator sauntered by wearing a baggy Georgetown Hoyas jersey. Papo came over and said they had to get going, entrusting this enormous, possibility-rich room to us for the rest of the night. I looked up and saw them leave, Papo and Jeanette dancing out the door.
Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College. He is a staff writer at Grantland and is currently completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.