What Do Staircases Say?: Visiting the Marian Goodman Gallery and the Upper East Side

What Do Staircases Say?: Visiting the Marian Goodman Gallery and the Upper East Side

Today’s trip into the city was a bit more hectic than usual. Train delays and scattered boarding times brought us into Penn Station later than planned, but fortunately the individual we were meeting with understood, and moved our meeting time accordingly.

Jesse Washburne-Harris was a delight to meet with, providing what I felt was one of my favorite interviews of the semester. After receiving us up front, Jesse sat with us in one of the larger exhibitions and regaled us with the history of the Marian Goodman Gallery. She spoke at length about what a monumental figure Marian Goodman was in the collection of art, and still is at ninety-one years old! Then she went over the gallery’s history and its formative catalyst: Goodman’s trials in trying to get gallerists to support artist Marcel Broodthaers. Also discussed was the gallery’s feat in being one of the last surviving ‘mom-and-pop’ established galleries, an endangered species in the present-day of large organizations and art companies. Along with giving us some backstory on the gallery, Jesse shared a bit about herself. Like the woman whose legacy she helps to carry, Jesse has had experience running her own gallery, the one she opened with her husband in 2006. Sadly, the gallery had close in 2013, one victim of several in a dying category of midsized galleries. She detailed her climb up to the position she holds now, and how a series of promotions allowed her to verse herself in several fields. The knowledge obtained in those fields, she assured, was all the more helpful when she rose to the position of director. Overall, Jesse was quite amicable and open to our questioning. She seemed ever eager to tell us about the Marian Goodman experience, and how greatly it had impacted her life.

Upon leaving the Marian Goodman Gallery, so began my exploration of the Upper East side and its unique galleries. I say ‘unique’ in that the galleries appeared distinct to the Upper East Side. We described it as “New Money.” It seemed very much a center of affluence, with architecture that reflected such. All the galleries we visited had townhouse architecture, and went up several floors. The main foyers, as well as a few exhibition rooms, were so lush that it almost felt like someone lived there. Yet, that is not an uncommon occurrence for galleries of this type.

Every single gallery we visited had an ornate staircase. Some grander than others, each one seemed straight out of a film. Marble steps and polished black railings wound upwards or zigzagged to each floor, leaving me out of breath by the time we reached the last exhibit. There’s something about staircases like that in a gallery that captivated me from the moment I saw them. This isn’t to say that I’ve never witnessed a fancy staircase in a gallery or museum before, but it’s what the staircases imply that truly interested me. For me, it signaled the Upper East Side as separate from the metropolitan art world. Yes, it still exists within that world, but it doesn’t completely interact with it. In galleries like this, where they can afford to dispense glossy postcards advertising their upcoming artists, and possess tall, ornate staircases that seem so pretty for a basic utility, art becomes almost private. The staircase is a reminder that this gallery is a house, a house owned by a very wealthy individual, who owns this art and allows us the privilege of seeing it. Though regulations may not be as tight in these galleries as they are in places like the MoMa, there is still an urgency for decorum that falls upon the visitor when they enter. This art is no longer of public use. Perhaps I’m reading a bit too deeply into a staircase, but it was definitely a difference that dawned on me between galleries.

The shows we saw for the day were satisfying, beginning with an exhibition on Eva Hesse entitled “Forms Larger and Bolder: EVA HESSE DRAWINGS” at the Hauser and Wirth Gallery. The Post-minimalist artist Hesse, as the introductory wall text explained, held a fond connection with Oberlin College, and as a result a large portion of her works on paper ended up in their possession after Hesse’s passing. The show had a collection of drawings, paintings, and other mediums that spanned Hesse’s entire career. And to see it all laid out chronologically allowed for an interesting view of Hesse’s progression as an artist. I feel that the works I enjoyed best were her gouache pieces. Two works, both named “No Title” and both produced in 1964, strike me as having a style similar to Kandinsky. This is primarily because of the color palettle and the way line and organic forms are expressed. One in particular looks as though it could almost be the sibling to Kandinsky’s “Watercolor No. 14” (1913).

Overall the show was intriguing, if not a bit strange. Many of her drawings invoked a very mechanical and pedantic atmosphere, as though the viewer had wondered into an inventor’s workspace. Works like “No Title” (1965) and her pencil-etched “No Title” (1968) seem like blueprints, as though someone were planning an invention that was never brought to fruition. The entire exhibition then reads as an individual that has been planning all their life. Many of the sketches were plans for future sculptures, so the idea of planning doesn’t seem far from the truth. We discussed the ‘strange’ quality of the show with one of our professors. It was strange in the way that these works were displayed with no context to the more public work that Hesse was doing at the time. These out of context drawings, if shown with the works that they eventually inspired, would have likely given a clearer dialogue. But instead they are left to stand alone, and possibly accrue new meaning.

We encountered other shows, like those of Steven Prina and Henry Taylor. I particularly liked Steven Prina’s “English for Foreigners (Abridged), an exhibition comprising of a series of lithographs and a sound system installation.

The images, appropriated from an introductory English textbook once owned by Prina’s immigrant father, line the walls of the room and are hung at eye level. Having out of context images surround us while airy folk music played in the background felt like I was being put in the perspective of Prina’s Italian father. Seeing all these scenes with no way of understanding the narrative made me anxious, and it was almost as though I myself were trying to learn how to communicate all over again.

But the star of the afternoon for me was to be found at the Aton Kern Gallery, where we saw Aliza Nisenbaum’s recent show, “Coreografías.” There is something so beautiful in how Nisenbaum portrays people. Perhaps it is the vibrant, invigorating use of non-local color she employs, or the Matisse-like way she builds up the contours of the face and skin. Or maybe it’s in the way Nisenbaum’s portraits seem so aesthetically pleasing on a surface level, yet become so intricate in their commentary about race, gender, sexuality, and individuality the longer one looks.

The show’s press release informed us that these paintings display the community in which Nisenbaum had recently integrated into during her last residency. And there is no mistaking a sense of community. These individuals are from all parts of life, candidly depicted as mixed, gay, outside of the gender norm, as well as cisgender and heterosexual. And they all somehow fit together. Perhaps it’s because they are all depicted in the same medium, using the same style. But it may also be due to how at ease the subjects appear while under the artist’s gaze. The artist isn’t a stranger who wandered in off the street to paint them. Rather the artist is a friend, an acquaintance who knows her subjects well and therefore has caught them in intimate, organic moments. Nisenbaum has certainly become a new favorite of mine.

Visiting the Marian Goodman Gallery and the Upper East Side was thought-provoking, to say the least. It was lovely to learn about a gallerist heavyweight such as Marian, and getting to experience the elegant world of townhouse galleries. Despite appearing a bit ritzier than I’m used to, those galleries aren’t always elitist. Not when they have the likes of Steven Prina and Alice Nisenbaum on their exhibition list.

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