“The Bruce High Quality Foundation and Vito Schnabel invite you to the opening of the single most important art exhibition in the history of the world. Ever.”
So read the invite to the 2012 Brucennial, an extravagant art celebration that kicked off Wednesday night and is currently on view at 159 Bleecker Street in Manhattan through April 20. The event was billed as not only an alternative to the Whitney Biennial but as a grander version of the last Brucennial, held in 2010.
Where that event promised to be “Harder. Better. Faster. Stronger,” the new incarnation came advertised as “Harderer. Betterer. Fasterer. Strongerer.”
Whether the Bruce High Quality Foundation—a wily young art collective “created to foster an alternative to everything,” according to its website—achieved this goal is up for debate. But there was unquestionably a lot of art to see. The space, a former theater turned pop-up retail venue, contained four separate floors of work by more than 380 artists.
On the barn-sized walls of the main room, large-scale paintings by Keith Haring, Damien Hirst, and Julian Schnabel rubbed up against more modest-sized works by Phillip Gabriel, Kathryn Kerr, and David Sherry, as well as scores of works by relative unknowns. The egalitarian display was reflected in the crowd below, where ‘80s art gods like David Salle and Francesco Clemente made small talk with 24-year-old Cooper Union grads.
An air of scrappiness prevailed. Artists’ names were penciled directly onto the wall beside their paintings, and at 7 p.m., an hour into the opening, a young woman with a fistful of sharpened No. 2 pencils was still at work on the wall text.
Some pieces were left nameless or intentionally mislabeled, as in the case of the highly recognizable spot painting attributed to someone named “Victoria Campbell.” At one point, when a nail pinning a watercolor by N. Dash to the wall came loose, a guy hammered it back in with the handle of his umbrella.
Many established members of the crowd found such D.I.Y. spirit invigorating.
“I’m just so impressed by the energy of this whole thing,” said Bob Colacello, the former editor of Interview Magazine, who added that the 2010 Brucennial is what finally “sold” him on both Vito Schnabel and the Bruces.
"I really like the energy here,” said Paolo Canevari, the dashing Italian artist and ex-husband of Marina Abramovic who had an octopus drawing up on the wall.
“Energy energy energy!” said the art critic Jerry Saltz as he squeezed his way through the crowd. He raised his eyes to the wall. “I think that’s a Richard Prince. Or maybe a [George] Condo?”
The Brucennial has evolved quite a bit in the five years since its inception. It originated with an interpretive performance of Cats, the popular Broadway musical, at the Bruces’ former headquarters in Bushwick. The following year, it relocated to the artist Ray Smith’s hangar-like studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn, where it took the name Smithumenta.
“It was an exercise in how to properly curate an exhibition, which is through nepotism,” said Smith, who was standing next to one of his sculptures, a kind of hulking fertility goddess made out of stained plywood. He'd met the Bruces through one of his studio assistants. “We invited all of our friends, and it turned into this phenomenal kind of five-day-long party.
In 2010, some of the Bruces’ work was chosen for the Whitney Biennial. The 2010 Brucennial was conceived partly as a form of participation in that show, but at an alternative location—specifically a 5,000-square-foot space at 350 Broadway lent by the real estate developer Aby Rosen.
Similar in theory to this year’s incarnation, the 2010 Brucennial drew mixed reviews. “[I]t felt, at least in preview, like the average bring-your-own-art bash crossed with a Whitney Biennial of, say 25 years ago,” wrote Holland Cotter in the New York Times.
Smith recalled another slight from a critic on the website ArtNet, who referred to the collective as the “Low Quality Douche Brigade,” a name he adores.
“I commend the Low Quality Douche Brigade,” Smith said, laughing. “There’s a sense of humor and a lightness to what they’re doing. And it’s obviously preferable to waiting around for a curator to see how or if you’ll fit into a show.”
Artists Malado Baldwin and Josh Krasner, each of whom had been invited to exhibit a painting this year, echoed Smith’s endorsement.
“It’s a non-snotty situation here,” said Baldwin, adding that she had already spoken to friends returning from that night’s concurrent opening at the Whitney Biennial. “They’ve been telling me how flatlined it was, and how it had this overarching curatorial theme that didn’t leave any breathing room. Here everything is really high-low, which I love.”
This was literally true. Whereas Baldwin’s psychedelic painting of a chair, entitled Throne of Power, almost grazed the 30-foot ceiling, Krasner’s piece hung at hip level. He winced as guests leaned and grazed against it en route to the bathroom around the corner.
Nearby, the young artists Loren Kramar and Ebecho Muslimova were examining a sculpture of a quarter-rainbow, created by their Cooper Union classmate Joe Kay, which lay 20 feet below a towering black painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“Initially this was supposed to be a full circle, wasn’t it?” said Muslimova of the rainbow.
“It was,” said Kramar, shaking his head. “It really fucking was.”
The members of Bruce High Quality Foundation, though present, were not answering questions, as is their usual custom, but they responded later by email. Unlike the Whitney, they explained, the work at the Brucennial was for sale. As for the prices?
"For the most part that is left up to the individual artist," the Bruces wrote. "We're going to do our best to put interested collectors in touch directly with the artist[s]." Asked if they had individually exhibited their work in the show, they replied: “Being in the show is being Bruce.”
Guests stuck around long after the stated 9 p.m. curfew, filling the basement with cigarette smoke and leaving behind drifts of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans, the only alcoholic drinks available (Coke was on hand, too).
On my way out I ran into Ray Smith again. His sculpture, we both noticed, had a cigarette butt pressed between its lips.
“The Bruces did that,” he said, looking up. “They Brucified it.”