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In 2011, the American Dream has deteriorated to looking like an empty office space with abandoned cubicles, lone water fountains and abandoned family photographs of the past employees. On two floors of the midtown Manhattan Lipstick Building, and only an elevator ride away from Bernie Madoff‘s old office, a group of artists transformed an empty office into an art exhibition, 14 & 15, by placing conceptual art around the lavish office, playfully moving objects that had been left in the space and changing how viewers understand the corporate environment. However, much like the current economic state with the gap between the wealthy top 1% and everyone else, only the select few seem to be able to experience this exhibition.
Located on the 14th and 15th floors, 14 & 15‘s space is currently owned by Latham and Watkins, a corporate law firm, and it is used as storage. More importantly, these floors used to house the Morgan Stanley offices, which left, apparently quickly given the disrepair of the office, for cheaper real estate once the economy crashed in 2008.
Filled with mostly minimal, conceptual art and controlled video installations, the show was organized by David Muenzer, a receptionist for Latham and Watkins and conceptual artist, and it contains works by five artists.
While the show was exciting for its use of the empty office space, the tight security around viewing 14 & 15 put a damper on the power of the exhibition. Yet, it also made the entire experience one of the oddest art-viewings I’ve ever had.
After reading a post on the New York Times City Room about the exhibit, I contact Muenzer for a tour, which I took along with a few other people. Walking into the Lipstick Building, I had to go through two types of security to see the art show.
Waiting in the Latham and Watkins reception area, the utter extravagance of the office shocked me. They had a large collection of art, including prints by Robert Mangold and a binder full of artist CVs on the tables. Looking around, my eyes stopped at a wall in the office that was — and I got this confirmed — made of mother-of-pearl. The utter opulence of the Latham and Watkins reception area contrasted sharply with the stark, conceptual art show two floors above.
Walking out of the elevators and into the first room of the 14th floor, I, and the rest of the tour, approached a wall piece by Rebecca Lieb. Using the text from the wall labels in James Franco’s Clocktower Gallery exhibition The Dangerous Book Four Boys, Lieb takes away letters in order to create a different meaning, particularly a critique of Franco. Since just the mention of Franco’s name sends me into a spiral where I just want to run screaming into the distance, I fell in love with this piece. However what made the work stronger was the faint, almost ghostly presence of the Morgan Stanley logo on a perpendicular wall.
In an adjacent room, Trisha Baga created “Untitled” (2011), a video installation featuring her film Madonna y El Nino and a discoball in the darkened conference room, which reflected the light of the film. With the Star Wars-like titles, it almost felt as if the conference room was a futuristic spaceship. Like much of the show, the space itself was put to use but the artist shied away from critiquing the previous uses of the space or corporate office culture.
Many of artists employed everyday office materials such as pens, highlighters or just the family photos that are ubiquitous in offices or cubicles. In David Muenzer’s “L.I.D.” (2011), he created a portrait of his own Lipstick Building id with a highlighter, whiteout and his law firm’s stationary. During the tour, Muenzer pointed out that the id and the drawing did not look like him. Lieb’s work, which she made under her male pseudonym Zenith, was a sculptural assembly using Bic pens.
The only works that were not constructed specifically for the space of 14 & 15 were the five works by Craig Kalpakjian, which is surprising considering how well his digitally-created prints fit in with the general theme of the exhibit, depicting mundane scenes from offices or call-centers. Using the Plexiglas, Kalpakjian’s works such as “C.O.” (2002), maybe short for corner office, reflect the surroundings of the 14th and 15th floors of the Lipstick Building, almost revealing another art work or at least another layer to the work.
With his trademark green, David Muenzer’s “Coffee in the Office” (2011) is possibly the most bizarre work in the show. At the top of the stairs leading to the 15th floor, Muenzer placed an Eero Saarinen Tulip table and by the 15th floor, three similar looking Tulip tables are placed inside cubicles. However, these tables retained the bases of his iconic object of mid-20th C modern design, while replacing the more conventional marble table top with one made out of either mint, vanilla or lemon chocolate. In the Mad Men-esque trappings of the Philip Johnson & John Bungee-designed Lipstick Building, “Coffee in the Office” evokes the height of the American dream in the late 1950s and 1960s and its passionate — if overwrought — utopianism.
The best part of 14 & 15 was the playful interventions that the artists made in a more informal way. During the tour, Muenzer pointed out some of the less noticeable changes, such as switching the name plates around on the doors or posting two found papers right next to each other. It was a nice discovery that I would have been almost invisible without a guide.
While the use of the space and the artwork was inspiring to me as a person who loves non-traditional art spaces, I really wondered about the lasting effect of this project and still have questions about the show. Why did Latham and Watkins allow the exhibition? What are they, a corporate law firm, getting out of hosting a conceptual show of mostly young and emerging artists?
Without open public access to the building and barely any press allowed to write on the exhibition, what is the point? I believe in that art should be accessible for everyone and I think that Latham and Watkins probably did not want just anyone to be able to come into their building. Like the tree falling in the forest, can a show in an empty office even attempt at being revolutionary if most people aren’t even allowed to see it?
14 & 15 will be on view until October 31, 2011. To view the show e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org