Christopher D’Arcangelo’s Occupations

Christopher D’Arcangelo’s Occupations

In recent months, the Occupy Wall Street splinter group Occupy Museums staged an alternative, barter-based art fair outside New York’s annual Armory Show, and released a fake press release under the guise of the Whitney Biennial disavowing the exhibition’s corporate sponsors and apologizing to the exhibiting artists “for allowing them to be exploited by the former sponsors.” In these demonstrations, as well as in the group’s “occupations” of the major New York museums last autumn, Occupy Museums identifies its target as the high art world, and not the forces behind what it has called “the intense commercialization and co-optation of art.” In suggesting that art has been “corrupted” by its close association with capitalism, the movement unwittingly invokes the fantasy that art should transcend economics, a fantasy that art institutions have themselves used as a smokescreen to mask such connections.

Three earlier New York City interventions also used the protest strategy of occupation to question the relationship between the art world and corporate capitalism. In 1971, a group of prominent artists called the Art Workers Coalition protested the Guggenheim Museum’s cancellation of a Hans Haacke exhibition by brandishing posters with the slogan “FREE ART,” forming a conga line in the lobby, and following the dancer Yvonne Rainer up the museum’s spiral structure. Haacke’s exhibit would have exposed the dealings of two New York real estate partnerships that had been charged as being slumlords. Three years later, Haacke mounted an exhibition at the John Weber Gallery in New York detailing the corporate affiliations of the Guggenheim Museum’s board members. One work noted that three board members also served on the board of the Kennecott Copper Corporation, which played a major role in the 1973 Chilean coup d’etat that toppled Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government. While the AWC was calling for museums to allow artists a free platform for their political commentary, Haacke’s work reflected on the political complicity that underlies this freedom. “Free” platforms entail participation in a larger system that sometimes supports dictators as well as artists.

In 1987, another group brought art out into the streets rather than taking occupation activism into museums. Seventeen demonstrators were arrested when ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) occupied and blocked traffic on Wall Street for several hours to protest the high price of AZT, the first anti-retroviral HIV medication to hit the market. The Food and Drug Administration had delayed testing for all HIV medications except for AZT, granting a monopoly to the Burroughs Wellcome corporation. The result was an overwhelming price tag of $10,000 per patient per year. Rallying behind their slogan “Free AZT,” ACT UP used handbills and placards designed by members of the art collective Gran Fury to help disrupt this exploitative system. ACT UP resented the weighing of tens of thousands of human lives against untold millions of dollars, and used their art to achieve a social benefit, rather than posing art as a social benefit in itself. In fact, many members of Gran Fury had reservations about their graphics being viewed as art, and later about exhibiting them in artistic contexts, for fear that falling under the genre of “political art” would render the message merely aesthetic and therefore neutralize its political force and activist intent. In contrast to Occupy Museum’s suggestion of an art that transcends capitalist exploitation, the art critic and ACT UP member Douglas Crimp wrote in 1988: “We don’t need to transcend the epidemic; we need to end it.” ACT UP later demonstrated on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, temporarily shutting down trading. The FDA soon began testing more—and better—HIV treatments.

An earlier artist, Christopher D’Arcangelo, also took on both the art world and political economy by casting his gaze on real estate. Like the AWC, D’Arcangelo literally occupied museums, staging unauthorized disruptive “performances” at the Whitney, Guggenheim, Met, and MoMA in 1975. At three of these performances, D’Arcangelo chained himself up and then removed his shirt to reveal on his back the slogan “When I state that I am an Anarchist, I must state that I am also not an Anarchist, to be in keeping with the (—-) idea of Anarchism.” Museum security had to release him from his chains before they could cuff him up again, mirroring his wish that the museums also free the art on display from their institutional fetters. After his MoMA “performance,” D’Arcangelo wouldn’t allow his father, the well-known Pop artist Allan D’Arcangelo, to pull any strings with the museum to have the charges dropped because he didn’t want the prestige of high art, the very thing he was protesting, to save the day. In a 1997 interview, the older D’Arcangelo recalled saying to his son: “Why are you going after the museums? Chain yourself to the Chase Manhattan Bank doors, close the banks. The museums are sort of innocent bystanders in a way.” But for Christopher, art and economics could not be so casually separated.

Installation shot, Louise Lawler, Untitled (L), Christopher D’Arcangelo, Four Texts for Artists Space (R), Group Exhibition, Artists Space, New York, 1978. Courtesy of Artists Space.

Shortly before his early death at age 24 in 1979, D’Arcangelo participated in a group exhibition at Artists Space, alongside Cindy Sherman, Adrian Piper, and Louise Lawler. D’Arcangelo’s most visible contribution to the exhibition was to erase his name from the exhibition’s title and its promotional material. The invitation card read: “_________, Louise Lawler, Adrian Piper and Cindy Sherman are participating in an exhibition organized by Janelle Reiring at Artists Space, September 23 to October 28, 1978.” Each artist had four pages of the catalogue; for his section, D’Arcangelo composed a text entitled “Four Texts, for Artists Space,” formatted and typeset in the same style and according to the dimensions of the other three artists’ pages. Instead of printing this text in the catalogue, however, D’Arcangelo left his four pages blank and instead pasted print-outs of the texts on the walls of Artists Space, interspersed with the contributions of the other three artists. These texts, not credited to D’Arcangelo, resembled conventional museum wall texts, and thus seemed to “explain” the works by Lawler, Piper, and Sherman on exhibit.

D’Arcangelo’s texts each discussed the economic and ideological function of art exhibition spaces, and even went so far as to call into question Artists Space itself, a revered non-profit founded as an alternative to the commercial gallery and museum system. One of those texts read:

It is implied in the brochure that Artists Space shows work that is not shown in galleries and museums. Perhaps this is so. But the support for Artists Space is, in an indirect way, the same as the support for galleries and museums. Artists Space receives its main support from tax dollars; galleries and museums from private money. The government invests our money to maintain itself and, at the same time, to maintain the full social, cultural, and economic system (capitalism) [...] Once it is understood that the support of Artists Space and the support of galleries and museums are one and the same, that the systems are one system, a discourse for change may be opened that will lead to tangible results, i.e., unqualified space and/or revolution.

D’Arcangelo’s erasure of his name from the exhibition was an intentionally self-defeating attempt to absolve himself of his complicity as an artist in the production of social capital.

During that same group exhibition at Artists Space, Louise Lawler installed a spotlight that shone out the gallery’s second-storey windows onto the bank across the street. These lights were kept on until midnight and after dark a silhouette of the gallery’s windows could be seen on the bank’s façade. The existence of that venerable non-profit alternative art space on Hudson Street in TriBeCa acted as an aesthetic cover for the economic activity that was the neighbourhood’s real, but hidden face. D’Arcangelo made this complicity the content of his work. Due to his skill with constructing temporary walls from sheet rock, he had entered the art world as an assistant at the John Weber Gallery in SoHo at 19. He was keenly aware that through this work he participated in the capitalism his art opposed. In 1977, D’Arcangelo and the artist and gallerist Peter Nadin started a business renovating loft spaces for commercial and domestic use. After a job was finished, D’Arcangelo would send out invitation cards announcing an art opening, as if the renovated space were a work of art. The cards came with a disclaimer at the bottom: “We have joined together to execute functional constructions and to alter or refurbish existing structures as a means of surviving in a capitalist economy.”

Most of D’Arcangelo and Nadin’s projects took place in lofts in the then newly christened TriBeCa. The acronymic branding of TriBeCa, short for “Triangle Below Canal Street,” came alongside New York City’s 1976 ordinance to zone the area’s formerly industrial spaces for use as living quarters or as hybrid “mixed use” spaces. As detailed in the urban sociologist Sharon Zukin’s indispensable 1982 Loft Living, the re-zoning of TriBeCa for lofts represented a new stage in the city of New York’s project to revitalize Lower Manhattan. During New York’s fiscal crisis in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the city, whose industrial manufacturing base had diminished, leveraged one of its few remaining assets: its physical terrain—first SoHo, then TriBeCa. The city zoned SoHo lofts for residential use in 1971, but with the caveat that the tenant must be an artist who also used the space as a studio. This repurposing could thus also be labelled a “cultural good deed” that would help young artists to find affordable living and work spaces. The TriBeCa ordinance didn’t have this “mixed use” requirement and was plainly a real estate gambit from the start. Many artists of this period did put their TriBeCa lofts to “mixed use,” however, including Nadin himself, whose West Broadway space was not only an art gallery, but also the domestic residence of his artist friend Nick Lawson.

The city subsidized the conversion of these formerly industrial spaces into residential ones, but in 1975 the tax law was adapted to benefit large-scale developments, in effect turning over many of the area’s underused, abandoned, and foreclosed buildings to speculators and holding corporations. The aftermath was first a mass migration of artists to the area under artificially low rents, then the arrival of most of the city’s major art galleries, as SoHo became the capital of the New York art world. Many artists were forced to relocate, and eventually the galleries themselves moved to the old warehouses in Chelsea, leaving SoHo to become the luxury district we know today. The cultural currency of high art and the cachet of loft-dwelling artists helped to reshape SoHo and revitalize lower Manhattan’s then-stagnant housing market. The cachet of loft living having already been established by 1976, neither the artists nor the galleries were needed to break the ground, so to speak, when it came time to “flip” TriBeCa.

D’Arcangelo did not live to see the Wall Street era of the 1980s—or MoMA’s active entry into the real estate market with the erection of its “Museum Tower” luxury high-rise apartment on West 53rd Street in 1983—but his work, as a SoHo gallery assistant, as a renovator of TriBeCa lofts, and as an exhibiting artist, contributed to the capital of high art, both social and financial. D’Arcangelo not only helped build the neighbourhood that would house Wall Street’s young tycoons, but through high art’s assistance in revitalizing New York’s real estate market, he also prepared the traders’ accelerated marketplace.

On September 10th, 2011, exactly one week before the Occupy Wall Street movement began its occupation of Zuccotti Park, Artists Space exhibited a long-due retrospective of D’Arcangelo’s art called “Anarchism Without Adjectives.” This tribute to the previously obscure artist on the eve of the Occupy Movement is telling. For D’Arcangelo, no artist or alternative art space—not even an anti-capitalist art fair like the one organized by Occupy Museums—can ever be separated from “the full social, cultural, and economic system,” and as such, his target could not be high art or political economy, but had to be both. D’Arcangelo’s legacy now seems inseparable from the movement he anticipated, but more still needs to be learned from the example of his work.

About Godfre Leung

Godfre Leung is Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History, Theory, and Criticism in the Frostic School of Art at Western Michigan University. He has also taught art history at the Ontario College of Art and Design, Eastman School of Music, and University of Rochester. He is currently working on a media theory of sound-based art.