Photo Essays

Pantheon Puts Street Artists Behind Glass

by Kyle Chayka on April 26, 2011

A view of “Pantheon” from 53rd Street (all photos by author)

Across the street from the Museum of Modern Art at West 53rd Street is an exhibition that might be unexpected for those expecting only Van Goghs and Picassos. Pantheon: a history of art from the streets of NYC is an attempt to create solidified narrative of street art history, to pin down this ephemeral art form into something more lasting, and more didactic. The team behind Pantheon, including co-curators Joyce Manalo and Daniel Feral, have put street art behind glass, creating a visually striking display that actually manages to insulate the art from the viewers, divorcing street art from its natural context. Though this art is visible from the street through the space’s huge plate glass windows, this is not street art in its most literal (and historical) form.

It’s easy to come upon Pantheon accidentally, as many of the visitors I observed had. In the middle of a tree-lined, vaguely historical block next to the most august institution of modern art in the world, the exhibition puts an un-ignorable splash of color into the urban environment. The funny thing is, though, that street art is about as divorced from the street as it is possible to be without being wholly indoors. Behind plate glass windows, the works selected for exhibition are pinned to a blank background that’s more well-branded middle school poster board than DIY history rewrite. The art looks artificial behind the glass windows and fails to embrace its natural context, on the street itself. Could this exhibition have been done through wheatpastes? Installed guerrilla-style in some (not-underground) alley? While it’s great to see more curators looking through the history of street art, I wish this exhibition felt like it had more street cred.

The stated goal of Pantheon, their website reads, is to:

Present an art historical timeline that is a part of New York City’s unique legacy [of street art]. The artistic contribution of these cultural catalysts and preservationists from the ’70s to the new millennium will address the ever-changing urban landscape and alternative modes of producing art in the streets.

Including artists from El Celso, Darkclouds and Stikman to John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres, there’s an attempt to be historically wide-ranging, but the curation doesn’t stand up to the lofty goal. As a short, snappy survey presented in an easily consumable form, Pantheon is fine — and even innovative in its large-scale installation style — it leaves something to be desired in academic discourse. Scant wall labels and a manifesto can’t make history out of a small sampling of the street art world. Yet what Pantheon lacks in critical engagement, it does gain in accessibility and sheer, exuberant visibility. This is one show that you won’t be able to miss, even if you’re just passing by. For that, it’s an interesting public effort to speak about street art in a different way. I still think it could have spoken even more eloquently.

For the other side of the same coin, a super museum-ified academic exercise that similarly lacks the “street” of street art, see LA MoCA’s Art in the Streets. Check out photos from the Pantheon and more of my impressions below.

w

Pieces seen through Pantheon’s plate glass windows.

/ kc

w

The blocked-off entrance to the library space that Pantheon colonizes for its exhibition. Note the historicizing street art chart.

/ kc

w

At top right, work by El Celso.

/ kc

w

John Fekner and Don Leicht’s 1982 “Your Space is Invaded” at left.

/ kc

w

Another view of the Pantheon exhibition from 53rd Street.

/ kc

w

At left, works by John Ahearn bring a historical perspective to an otherwise very contemporary (post-2000) show.

/ kc

w

John Ahearn’s “Sailor” (1990).

/ kc

w

A 53rd Street vista.

/ kc

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.
  • http://profiles.google.com/quelbeast Quel Beast

    “Gallery art looks artificial hanging in someone’s house and fails to embrace its natural context, on the walls of a prestigious gallery.”

    That’s what you sound like.

Previous post:

Next post: