The New York Times, January 16, 2007
A PROMISE THAT NEVER BLOOMED, A POST-MINIMALIST YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF
By Holland Cotter
The word is that, with the art industry so flush, nonprofit alternative spaces are thriving. And why shouldn't they be? Some of them now look all but indistnguishable from commercial galleries.
White Columns in Chelsea recently devoted its space to a survey of 2006 art season highlights from distinctly for-profit Chelsea galleries. The SculptureCenter in Long Island City, Queens, is currently giving over its main space to a large-scale piece, already shown elsewhere, by Monica Bonvicini, an Italian artist who has been thoroughly vetted and long supported by the international establishment.
But aren't alternative spaces where we should look for introductions to new or commercially unrepresented or undervalued or lost careers? Or for projects too impractical or arcane or outre' to find a mainstream platform? Isn't the alternative space, by definition, where the possibility of failure is written into the mandate, and where a record for risking failure is not only a gauge of institutional success but also the justification for existence?
There are, of course, small alternative spaces in the city that are doing things not being done elswhere, staying strange and risking, among other things, critical heat. Triple Candie in Harlem is one. Established in 2001, it offered in its first few years fairly traditional solo and group shows, often of artists either locally underknown (Charles Gaines) or unaffiliated (Rodney McMillian). Lately, though, it has been trying something different. The gallery has begun to take a less orthodox course.
A few years ago it gave full-scale solo shows to artists who remained anonymous. Last summer it organized an unauthorized David Hammons retrospective composed entirely of photocopied catalog illustrations of that elusive artist's work. Next came a survey of another mythic, maverick contemporary figure, Cady Noland, consisting entirely of Triple Candie-made replicas of her installations. Now comes a third retrospective, a posthumous one, the first and almost certainly the last, ever devoted to an artist named Lester Hayes.
The child of an African-American father and an Italian-American mother, Hayes was born in Philadelphia in 1936. Bright and ambitious, he majored in chemical engineering in college but after reading Robert Motherwell's anthology of Dada painters and poets, started making sculptural assemblages.
By 1962, after deciding on art as a career, he moved to New York City, where he worked as Richard Tuttle's first studio assistant, was courted by Leo Castelli in 1967, at 31, had a first solo at Richard Feigen Gallery, a show that included a mural-sized work made of unpainted, unstretched canvases titled "Elegy in Seven Parts (For Lena Horne)."
Hayes seemed assured of success, but the show was a bust; he sold almost nothing. The timing, it turned out, was bad. His post-Minimalist, proto-Conceptualist style had not yet come into fashion in the mainstream art world. And, despite its racially charged content, his work was too abstract to be identified with a new Black Power aesthetic, from which, in any case, he distanced himself by turning down invitations to appear in exclusively black art shows.
According to the Hayes biography supplied by Triple Candie, Feigen quickly canceled plans to give the artist a second show. Stricken and destitute, Hayes took a bartending job, and finally a teaching job at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he ended up staying for nearly 20 years.
He continued to make art, but after he retired to North Carolina in 1984, the house he lived in caught fire, and his accumulated artwork was destroyed. (Triple Candie notes that every piece in the exhibition is a replica made for the occasion.) Despondent and alone, he died of complications from diabetes in 2004.
The Hayes story is a familiar one, and of a kind the art world loves. Not only was he tragically unrecognized but, we now learn, he was also hugely influential. Gallery news material notes that his 1965 Lena Horne piece, made while he was working for Mr. Tuttle, anticipated by two years the first of Mr. Tuttle's unstretched canvas pieces. And another Hayes work, "Bound to Fail" (1966), which refers to slavery, predates by a year Bruce Nauman's "Henry Moore Bound to Fail."
The politics of influence are unmistakable. White artists adapt the work of an African-American artist, but drain it of racial content. The same white artists achieve prominence, while the black artist sinks into an obscurity from which he should now, finally, be raised.
But he will never be raised, because there is no Lester Hayes. He never existed. He is entirely an invention of Triple Candie. The gallery's directors, Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett, the co-publishers of the magazine Art on Paper, who assembled the Hammons survey from photocopies and the Noland from replicas, cobbled together all the "Hayes" work from scrap material and cooked up the detailed biography to go with it.
So, with no real artists and no real art what do you have here? You have many questions raised about art and the often unquestioned ideas surrounding it, like originality, authenticity, influence, history, formal value and biography-as-value. Is contemporary art largely a promotional scam perpetuated by -- in no particular order of blame -- museums, dealers, critics, historians, collectors, art schools and anyone else who has a sufficient personal, professional or financial investment riding on the scam to want to keep it afloat?
If you are affected -- moved, amused, provoked -- by the assembled Hayes oeuvre, then is it art? Are Ms. Bancroft and Mr. Nesbett artists? (They would certainly say no.) Are they themselves the perpetrators of a scam? Or are they critical thinkers working in an alternative direction to the market economy? Imagine the consequences if lots of people started creating 'fake' art without acknowledging what they were up to? The whole art-as-investment illusion would evaporate. The market would crumble. Art myths could no longer be trusted. The Triple Candie's Hayes biography, in other words is spun largely from myths and cliches that sell art and artists today.
As for the "Hayes" art in the show, with its junk materials, slapdash handiwork and jokey titles, it's not much. Or, rather, it's exactly an alternative to "much." When the show, which runs through Sunday, comes down, everything will be destroyed. And the gallery, which runs on a small budget and has a tiny board of directors, will go on to other projects, including a planned re-creation of one of the most controversial museum shows of the latter half of the 20th century, the Metropolitan Museum's 1969 "Harlem on My Mind."
When that show opened, it was bitterly attacked for perpetuating racist myths and substituting documentary material for actual work by black artists. Can such charges be leveled at Triple Candie for the Lester Hayes show? Is it an example of the white at world -- Ms. Bancroft and Mr. Nesbett are white -- getting mileage out of the work of a black artist, real or not?
According to his biography, Hayes was invited by fellow African-American artists to join them in protesting the Met exhibition, but he refused, stating that "it was ultimately more important for our community as a whole to be better understood, than for specific individuals to be celebrated via their work." Maybe he and his work, however uncelebratable, will get a dollar-glutted art world thinking in more comlex and alternative ways than he, had he existed, could possibly know.