At the Queens Museum, Home and the World

Over the years, the Queens Museum has helped me define my sense of what an art museum can be: a place as much about ideas as about objects, as much about politics as about aesthetics, and as much about local as about global.

All of these opposites-that-aren’t-really-opposites figure in the museum’s three new, post-lockdown exhibitions. One, a large group gathering, considers the economics and ethics that underlie, and can easily undermine, the concept of “home.” A second is a career survey of a great American photographer who has consciously anchored his art in rootlessness. And a third show looks widely at the world through a prism of small drawings made, over nearly a century, by children.

The museum, once called the Queens Center for Art and Culture, is housed in a building with a history of shifting uses and identities. It was designed as the New York City Pavilion for the 1939 World’s Fair. After the fair, it became a borough recreation center, replete with two indoor skating rinks. And in 1946 it was loftily repurposed as headquarters for the General Assembly of the newly formed United Nations.

For four years, international leaders converged there to vote on such momentous matters as the founding of the state of Israel. After the U.N. moved to a permanent Manhattan address, the building once again welcomed skaters, and in 1964 reprised its original function as a World’s Fair pavilion, at which time the famed Panorama of the City of New York, still in place, was installed.

In 1972, the museum itself was inaugurated, and in 1994 a new interior was designed by Rafael Viñoly. With a central, soaring, skylight-covered atrium ringed by traditionally scaled galleries, it’s one of the most dramatic — and unwieldy — exhibition spaces in the city, suitable both for intimate art viewing and mass assembly.

What has never changed, or not for long, is a civic connection to its multiethnic, immigrant-intensive namesake borough. During the past months of pandemic closings, the museum hosted a food pantry in cooperation with two Queens-based hunger-relief organizations, La Jornada and Together We Can Community Resource Center Inc. Even after it reopened, the museum continued distributing food to the borough’s homeless population.

Home, and the lack of one, are primary themes of “After the Plaster Foundation, or, Where can we live?’” The title of this group show of 12 New York artists and artist groups refers to a SoHo loft rented in the 1960s by the underground artist Jack Smith. He called the space — where he staged his performances, made his films, stored his archives, and lived — “The Plaster Foundation.” He was evicted from it in 1972.

Being forced out was an embittering experience. Smith blamed unbridled capitalism and a predatory gentrification that it produces. Both have a long New York City history, which other artists in the show touch on.

In an elaborate installation of videos mounted on an industrial-scale backhoe, Sondra Perry considers the fate of Seneca Village, a Manhattan settlement of Black property owners that was leveled in the 1850s to create Central Park as a playground for a northward surging white population.

For the show, the artist Heather Hart has constructed a full-scale house, not so different from homes once owned by middle-class Black residents in nearby Queens. But in her installation, titled “Oracle of the Twelve Tenses,” we see only the rooftop: the house, empty and possibly abandoned, seems to have sunk into the ground.

Is it possible to protest dispossession directly? Artists try. Krzysztof Wodiczko, who witnessed the expulsion of homeless people from an East Village park in the late 1980s and early 1990s, responded with a mobile sculpture called “Poliscar,” a motorized vehicle equipped with loudspeakers and recording equipment to give the homeless a collective voice.

Over the past five years, the artist Peter Scott has been photo-documenting examples of graffiti scrawled across glossy architectural advertisements found at construction sites for luxury apartment buildings. And a 2020 installation called “Resistance in Progress” by the artist Betty Yu focuses squarely on Queens itself.

Set high up on the museum’s mezzanine level, against windows facing toward the Flushing neighborhood, the archival display addresses, through real estate listings, political fliers, and video interviews with East Asian and Latin American residents, gentrification’s toll, long-term and daily. And what role do cultural institutions, supposedly embodiments of humane values, play in this? A complicated one, that the show only alludes to.

In 2018, Laura Raicovich, then the Queens Museum’s executive director, proposed making the premises available as a sanctuary space for the borough’s many undocumented immigrants. The board of trustees rejected the proposal. (Ms. Raicovich resigned the same year.) A piece in the show, “Pyre,” by Shawn Maximo, centrally located in the atrium, in roughly the space where the U.N. General Assembly once sat, reads as a teasing reminder of the sanctuary idea.

Consisting of a kind of open “fireplace” surrounded by plastic chairs and constructed from flat screens playing videos of licking flames, the installation suggests, not a warm and welcoming hearth, but a Home Depot display, with everything for show and for sale.

Finally, how can artists survive in a world where space is priced out for all but a fraction of the population? The exhibition — organized by Larissa Harris, a curator at the museum, with Sophia Marisa Lucas and Lindsey Berfond, both assistant curators — offers a couple of very tentative answers.

The Polish-born American writer, translator, and art world fixture Warren Niesluchowski (1946-2019) finessed the problem by giving up the idea of home altogether. As recorded in a beautiful video by Simon Leung, he spent most of his adult life as a global nomad, staying on the move and relying on the hospitality of friends and strangers.

In 1958, Mr. Davidson was invited by Henri Cartier-Bresson to join the Magnum Photos group. He was 24. He spent the following year tagging along, camera in hand, with a band of rebellious New York City street kids. His first widely known photographic series “Brooklyn Gang,” was the result.

In 1962, he headed South and into the thick of the civil rights movement, producing some of its most lasting images. He then returned to New York City, always his primary turf, to chronicle life in East Harlem and a working-class community, largely Puerto Rican, disparaged and isolated by the city government.

In 1963, Mr. Davidson was on hand to document an aesthetic catastrophe: the demolition of the old Penn Station. But people were his natural subjects, from Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side to bird watchers in Central Park. (In 1994 he was designated the park’s first artist-in-residence.) In every case, his method is to simultaneously move in close and stand apart, a practice the Queens Museum itself seems to emulate.

They range in date from 1909 to the near present and include juvenilia by Modernist stars like Louise Nevelson and Reginald Marsh. Most of the images are lively, inventive takes on quotidian themes: pets, parents, city scenes. But there are startling exceptions.

A 1939 drawing by Liesl J. Loeb, age 11, depicts the German ocean liner on which she and her family escaped from Europe only to be turned away at Havana harbor and sent back. (A wall text tells us more than 200 people on the ship later died in the Holocaust.) In the late 1990s, 13-year-old Petrit Halilaj, a Kosovar living in a refugee camp in Albania, drew scenes from a murderous ethnic war he was witnessing.

The show is introduced and framed by a piece commissioned by the museum: a mural by the Austrian-born, New York-based artist Ulrike Müller. Best known for her small abstract paintings, she comes through here with a floor-to-ceiling semiabstract image of the wise, activist animals of the title. Painted in toothsome nursery colors — pink, nougat, chocolate brown — they look like giant versions of the autumn squirrels foraging in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. They also suggest sentinels, tall and alert, guarding the premises where, in 1946, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) was founded, and where an art institution that is as much a work in progress as the historical moment it exists in, resides today.

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