At Spring/Break, Greg Allen Shops Chopped “Masters”

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Andreas Gursky. Gerhard Richter. Monolothic and duochromatic, Barnett Newman towers over his younger brethren, each a market-minted magnate of his respective medium. Three blue-chip artists is more than company — several dealerships could earn their articles of incorporation among them — it’s a crowd. But crowds can be maddening, and in an old Manhattan postal vault repurposed for the Spring/Break art fair, one person, the artist and writer Greg Allen, has robbed these artists of something only tenuously theirs to begin with: an auratic completeness.

“It’s not a joke, but it fits like a glove the crassness of how money took over,” says Magda Sawon of Postmasters Gallery, the curator behind Allen’s assembled appropriations and his sponsor at this “curator-driven” art fair, now in its second year in the ordinarily off-limits upper reaches of the James A. Farley Post Office Building near Penn Station. We’re standing in the expansive (and echoic) space given over to her presentation of “Chop Shop,” the exhibition of this longstanding body of work which Allen, a prolific blogger, described in a post on his site as follows:

“Chop Shop’s” images are appropriated from the old masters, but its processes are lifted from collectors, dealers, and museum shopkeepers. The artwork on view has either already been destroyed, and brought back to life, or it’s about to be chopped up to order, or broken up and parted out.

Appropriation is one thing, bulk sales another. Recalling the fiscal Fluxus routine that is the commercial art system, Allen has (sub)divided works by the artists he cheekily refers to as “old masters.” The show’s centerpiece, “Chop Shop Newman Painting No. 1,” comes out of an extended semiotic riff (also documented on Allen’s blog) on Barnett Newman’s well-known “Voice of Fire,” 1967. Here, the 18-foot painting is reproduced at scale, with the upper three feet rolled up like a bolt of misbegotten fabric, ready to be sold in bespoke chunks no smaller than 12 square feet. Fruit by the foot.

This insouciance is perhaps why what may otherwise seem like a regurgitation of appropriationist tropes is made fresh, lively. For example, in his use of Chinese paint mills (an old trick), Allen has chosen to reproduce destroyed works by Gerhard Richter from documentation made publicly available by the artist. The outcome is a painterly concatenation of destructive and creative forces, capital’s relentless churn made both gestural and material.

Aiding the endeavor is the absence of any hyperventilation about critique: The master’s tools won’t unmake the master’s house, but they might botch a renovation. The trappings of constructed value are ever yoked to the object, which is, perhaps, something of Allen’s point. (We’ve previously covered his attempt to track down and stamp pieces from Bernard Madoff’s art collection.) Sawon reports that collectors have already made logistical inquiries, asking if his works would still be signed, and so on.

“They want the real art, with the artist’s signature,” she said.

Mostafa Heddaya (@mheddaya)

(Photo: Courtesy Magda Sawon.)