New York City is a magnificent environment for people watching. On the streets, manual laborers mingle with capitalist big shots, celebrities blend in with the masses, and economic refugees share the sidewalks with tourists on spending sprees. I know of no other city that compares with New York for ethnic and cultural diversity. If you love humanity for its endless variations, New York is a sumptuous banquet.
Of course, once you leave the street or Subway and step into a culturally specific environment, most of that diversity disappears. Unfortunately, that is true in the galleries and performance venues of the art world. The art world in New York is not all white or all American, but it is almost entirely populated by people with a certain kind of education and upbringing, with certain well-defined ways of speaking and acting and dressing.
Those who work in arts administration are united in proclaiming the value of diversity and have been trying for years to reach out to “underserved audiences” and “underrepresented populations”. Their efforts have been somewhat successful – I think art audiences in New York, especially for large, well-publicized events, are clearly more diverse now than when I moved here two decades ago. Still, it doesn’t begin to compare with the diversity on the streets. Art galleries in New York are all free to enter, but the vast majority of people never do. Unfortunately a lot of art is pretentious and unfriendly to the uninitiated. This attracts an audience of initiates, whose aura of exclusivity tends to deter those who do not see themselves as art world insiders.
A few years ago I took advantage of an opportunity to use my art to connect with people on the street. Chashama is an arts organization that has special access to the asset that is most problematic in the dense and expensive city – space. Chashama’s founder and artistic director, Anita Durst, is a member of a legendary real estate dynasty family. The Durst Organization develops skyscrapers in Manhattan. Properties that are condemned or transitional are made available for the arts through Chashama. I’ve been involved with Chashama events since the mid-1990’s. They have a great track record of supporting all kinds of artists, including some that most of the institutions would consider too underground or outsider or offbeat to present.
During the early 2000’s, Chashama had a whole block of storefronts on 42nd Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway, while the Durst Organization was constructing the Conde Nast Building at the corner of Broadway and 42nd, the southern end of Times Square and the Theater District. They hosted a huge festival of theater and dance, performance art, visual art and installations called “Windows on 42nd Street“. In April, 2002, and again in July, 2003, I presented a drawing performance called “The Active Mirror.”
A sign on the window read: “A reflection is the view of a virtual eye behind the glass. Look at your reflection in a storefront window, and you see yourself and your surroundings, superimposed over the merchandise on display. But in this window, on this day, the view you see in the window is that of another subjective eye, an artist who sketches what he sees through the window, on the window. Stop to watch, and your portrait may appear there on the window.”
I lined the inside of the window space with white fabric and the inside of the plate glass with clear acetate. I hung some of my portraits in the window space, to prove, I suppose, that I was a qualified portrait artist. I stood at the window with my black Sharpie and sketched the urban landscape until I could attract passersby to stop for me. If anyone paused to watch, I quickly began sketching a likeness, starting with a recognizable detail of attire or hairstyle so the subject would know that I was drawing him or her. I had to work quickly, as I couldn’t expect anyone to have the patience to give me a prolonged pose. Other passersby would stop to watch the action, and I would quickly move on to the next subject, since if my audience would disperse I would face the difficult challenge of gathering a new cluster.
Visual art is usually considered an indirect form of communication. You make a painting or whatever, and later, people look at it and try to imagine what you were thinking or feeling in the act of creating it. For a long time I’ve had an interest in the potential of visual art as a more direct way of relating to another person. This interest has been explored through a highly collaborative way of working with models, through the idea of art as a ritual or experience (such as body painting), and through treating the act of drawing or painting as a dance or performance, for an audience.
In “The Active Mirror”, my offer to strangers was to share with them my way of seeing them. I could not speak to my subjects, nor they to me, through the thick plate glass. My sharpie sketches were my only way of relating to people. Around the corner in Times Square, there are portrait and caricature artists who make a living sketching the tourists. My sketches were not for sale, just for public display, and I think many of the people who stopped for me were not tourists, but New Yorkers who would never think of sitting for a street caricaturist.
Everyone is comfortable looking at something in a store window, even people who would never enter an art gallery or performance space, so by the end of five hours of sketching, the windows were covered with images reflecting the wondrous diversity of the New York street.
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