The school’s official show, SHOW UP, framing a “Free Education to All” banner in the lobby of the engineering school at 41 Cooper. (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz preceded me in Jamshed Bharucha’s office by only a few minutes. He was there, as I was, for tonight’s opening of Step Down, the Free Cooper Union-organized companion to the school’s official year-end Show Up exhibition. Saltz’s appearance at the year-end show of one of Manhattan’s leading art schools is not a surprise, but his signing of Free Cooper Union’s statement of no confidence (as well as their guestbook) was just another blow to what by now can only be characterized as the Cooper Union PR piñata.

Jerry Saltz was here.

Jerry Saltz was here. (click to enlarge)

A sophomore, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that Saltz also “said something funny about the Cooper situation that related to being an art critic.” That the art critic delivered comments that weren’t terribly memorable belies a larger truth: the exhibition Free Cooper Union put together, in only a week’s time, is probably one of the most significant and symbolic shows of the year.

After the administration unceremoniously denied them participation in Cooper’s tri-partite culminating show, Free Cooper Union put out a call for works last week. The resulting exhibition features the work of students, faculty, and alumni, including written and visual work by Walid Raad, Sharon Hayes, Robert Bordo, Dennis Adams, Pam Lins, and others. Though the lower six floors of the Foundation were awash with visitors, a special energy hummed on the dimly-lit seventh floor, where the black-painted walls and red lighting had the effect of offsetting the electrifying charisma of the works on display, giving an intimate aura to an assembled corpus that ranges from playful to austere.

There is no sense in trying to unpack here what is, even by blockbuster-fair standards, a dizzying array of works, both within Free Cooper’s subversive Step Down and the larger assortment of student works occupying every floor of the Foundation Building and much of the engineering school at 41 Cooper.  The images that follow are meant to convey an impression of the scene, primarily on the seventh floor but also throughout the student shows. The point is — this is an important exhibition, singular in capturing a raw provocation to authority. It’s an endeavor as worthwhile as it is rare.

Step Down runs Tuesday – Saturday, 5 – 7 pm through June 15 on the seventh floor of the Foundation Building. Show Up runs during the same days from 12 – 7 pm at the Foundation Building and 41 Cooper Square (Cooper Square, East Village, Manhattan).

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Red lamps have illuminated Bharucha’s office by night, signaling his office’s occupation.


Debt counter (left) and wordplay in the form of an older drawing by The Bruce High Quality Foundation that reads “Sometimes I want to Ki(ll)ss the President” (right).


The seventh floor hallway, off the main exhibition space, is papered with well-executed and largely hilarious satires, parodies, and eviscerations culled from the movement thus far.


Bharucha’s desk, containing a copy of Reputation Rules, which a Hyperallergic source described as belonging to Board secretary Lawrence Cacciatore.


Bharucha’s office.


The downtown view from Bharucha’s office.


The architecture show on the third floor of the Foundation Building.


Beyond the seventh floor, the hallways throughout the Foundation Building also featured student artwork, though the neon lighting and spare white walls felt, well, a bit clinical.


Specially-produced Trustee Matchbooks, each featuring a trustee headshot and bio, distributed by Cooper Union at their very first post-tuition protest.


A student contributes to a collaborative chalkboard.


An assortment of protest literature was contributed to the show.


Exhibition view of the main space on the seventh floor of the Foundation Building.

Mostafa Heddaya

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

6 replies on “Free Cooper Union Mounts Renegade Art Show”

  1. Don’t think the Dennis Adams and the Pam Lins made it in, not sure. Will get back to you on that. But there is a piece of writing from Walid, a drawing from Bordo, and a video from BHQF.

    1. Pam Lins contributed a sculpture and Dennis Adam contributed an art work from his personbal collection.

  2. The school has faced serious financial trouble, correct? Times change. It sucks when free shifts to fee… but what other options does the school have? I had to take on loans and work two jobs during my college years… these students should be glad that they had it easy compared to what a lot of us experienced. Sorry, I don’t have much sympathy for them… they come off spoiled. Period. OOoo and before someone rants about the students being poor… I’m from one of the poorest counties in Illinois. I know poor.

    1. Brian, I’m a student at Cooper, and I thought it was important to clear a couple things up. None of the current students of the school will be effected by tuition. We are protesting for future generations of students in order to secure an environment uninterrupted by economic circumstance, an environment where learning is not a product sold to customers who must live with the knowledge that they will be limited and encumbered by loans as soon as they graduate. If you need to bring up loans and jobs, I should mention that Cooper students take out loans too (I do, much more than at my local university back home in Indiana) and work multiple jobs to support the cost of living here in the city, room and board not being included in our scholarships. But that is beside the point – making a competition of personal finances is misguided in this context. The school was unprecedented at its founding 150 years ago, a vision ahead of its time, and for us to simply throw up our hands and think that this country’s current model of higher education is the best we can do is antithetical both to the legacy of our school as well as to our broader aspiration as students for a more equitable future for society.

    2. “Times change”? You mean, like poor people no longer are endangered in workplaces like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. No, wait, what about all of those factory workers in India who just died? Germany provides free higher education – their economy is in such bad shape now, no? Cooper students don’t have it easy – they work their asses off, have you ever met one? The school has lots of options; when it returns to free, you may eat your words. OOoo.

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