ANDOVER, Mass. — Founded in 2001 by art historians Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett, Triple Candie is a self-described curatorial agency. The original iteration was opened as a nonprofit/alternative art space in Harlem that operated somewhat traditionally: Shows were conceived, work was shown, and there were even collaborations with commercial galleries. Bancroft and Nesbett were among the founding members of New Art Dealers Alliance before withdrawing from the organization in 2002. The list of artists who showed their work or spoke at hosted talks at Triple Candie is impressive and right in line with what you would expect, given the time period. All of this, one supposes, was noteworthy, if only for the wide scope and general excellence of the space’s programing.
In 2004 and 2005, Triple Candie hosted The Anonymous Artist Project l and The Anonymous Project ll, each of which featured a (supposedly) well-known artist eschewing their recognizable style and creating new and untethered work or works. The identities of the two artists who participated remain undisclosed, and the reactions to both shows were permeated by a multilayered sense of resentment and unease. The frustrations stemmed from the fact that it seemed impossible to evaluate the work when so little information about it was available. Or, perhaps more pointedly, assessing work without an artist’s name attached to any judgment of its merits seemed to be a truly frightening prospect.
This is when Triple Candie began to abandon art-world protocols and, shortly afterward, when many in the art world would abandon Triple Candie. What followed was a series of exhibitions that, depending whom you ask, were either subversive and brilliant or irrationally misguided. On balance, mostly it was the latter.
The first exhibition that raised eyebrows was David Hammons: The Unauthorized Retrospective, which consisted of photocopies and computer printouts of the artist’s work, done without his approval. Part institutional critique and part punk rock put-on, the show included more than 90 images of Hammons’ work displayed with an attention to chronology, although in some cases the work was barely legible or had been copied without regard to its actual size. There were some rumors that Hammons had collaborated with Triple Candie, and others that he was very annoyed, but the artist refused to comment publicly. The exhibition was less a survey in the accepted sense and more just an unstapled, sloppily composed zine that was pulled apart and taped to the walls of the gallery, accompanied by a catalog bound at a copy shop. Whether or not it was a conceptual subterfuge or an academic exercise, it decidedly was an attempt to undermine art-world conventions and complacency focused on authorship and replication. That the exhibition was constructed with a sincere admiration and respect for Hammons’ work only complicates things further — or explains everything. It depends on your interpretation.
In 2006, Triple Candie debuted Cady Noland Approximately, a simulated exhibition of the reclusive artist’s work that was also done without any sort of authorization. For the project, Bancroft and Nesbett recruited four artists to recreate Noland’s work, two of whom chose to remain anonymous. The show garnered wide attention, and most of it wasn’t positive. Critic Jerry Saltz called it an “aesthetic act of karaoke, identity theft, body-snatching,” before musing on the significance of Triple Candie’s approach and the curators’ handling of Noland’s work. Like many, Saltz didn’t like what they’d done, but he recognized the transgressive impulse behind the gesture.
It bears mentioning that at no point did Triple Candie set out to deceive anyone. Regarding both of these exhibitions, their cards were plainly on the table, and no sales were ever made. The checklist for the Noland show makes this explicitly clear, as it describes where the materials for the surrogate work were sourced. (There is no record of Noland’s thoughts on the project.) And as with the Hammons survey, the project was by all accounts created out of a fierce devotion to Noland’s work. To suggest, however, that that was the only thing that propelled the exhibition forward would be to ignore Bancroft and Nesbett’s natural propensity for agitation and, some would argue, for self-promotion.
These moments of “fake art,” and many others that followed, have been reimagined and resituated at the Addison Gallery of American Art. The irony of a survey of Triple Candie’s “work” is almost too rich to describe. The episodes that mark the pair’s career are grouped under the perhaps unintentionally telling categorization of “Acts” — whether short for “actions” or indicating the sections of a fictional work, it is impossible to say. But removed from the opinionated throb of New York City, where reaction to both the Hammons and Noland exhibitions once radiated hotly, these replica-replica-exhibits fall flat, and the meta fog surrounding them is simply too thick to parse. That is not to suggest that the “original” work is without merit: Bancroft and Nesbett have proven themselves tactically brilliant provocateurs who have consistently challenged contemporary notions of what “art” is and is not. Sometimes they’ve pushed ahead without really knowing themselves what the answer is, and that’s not such a bad thing.
Throwing Up Bunnies: The Irreverent Interlopings of Triple Candie, 2001–2016 continues at the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy (180 Main St., Andover) through April 2.