An exhibition in Dubai that leaves you in a New York state of mind

Surreal works by leading international artists, showcased at the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation in Dubai, introduce the viewer to the foundation of contemporary art and how the movement originated.

Robert Grosvenor’s seven-foot-long Steel Pipe (1975), centre, displayed as part of the exhibition, Artist Run New York: the Seventies. Musthafa Aboobacker / Jean-Paul Najar Foundation
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For the best part of the past century, art theorists have been arguing about the parameters of contemporary art.

Some chart its beginnings at the end of the Second World War, while for others, contemporary art is a constantly shifting frame.

It might be better to do away with the term all together because in some respects, as the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy argued, no art can ever be anything but contemporary for the time it was created in.

At the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation in Dubai, the exhibition Artist Run New York: the Seventies makes the claim that the foundations of contemporary art began in New York in the 1970s.

It features 44 works by 18 artists, including Richard Nonas, Tina Girouard, Trisha Brown, Richard Tuttle and Gordon Matta-Clark. In the accompanying text for the show, we are told: “To view these early experimental works is to understand the foundation of contemporary art today.”

A radical transformation of the way everyone lived and worked in New York was indeed underway during this time. There was a sense of rebellion raging through the city which was ravaged by financial despair. The city’s lawyers filed a bankruptcy petition in the State Supreme Court in 1975, and the heavily protested war in Vietnam came to a bloody end in the same year.

Artists, therefore, were placing themselves against any kind of institution and forging their own paths. They moved out of their studios and into the streets to create art. They were not interested in commercial systems, instead they wanted to engage with architecture, space and people. They set up art communities in rundown factories such as 112 Greene Street and opened Food – a legendary SoHo restaurant and artists’ cooperative designed and built largely by Matta-Clark, who used the space to organise art events and performances.

Snippets of these stories can be gleaned when studying Richard Landry’s photographs hanging at the entrance to the exhibition.

Matta-Clark, Girouard and Carol Goodden are captured in black and white at the entrance to the restaurant. In another image, Matta-Clark can be seen roasting meat under the Brooklyn Bridge, in a performance act that blurs the boundaries between art and life.

Curator Jessamyn Fiore identified this pocket of revolutionaries, and used them to tell a story of how art changed and how they used visual imagery to carve themselves a new space – both physically and ideologically.

Two photographic pieces by Matta-Clark – Office Baroque (1977) – illustrate this point. They show the interior of an abandoned office block in Antwerp, which he carved up, removing large geometric sections from the walls, ceilings and floors and then photographed.

Robert Grosvenor's seven-foot-long Steel Pipe (1975), which lies in the centre of the gallery floor, is a physical barrier. It blocks the path a visitor would use to walk through the space – hence the piece forces them to question their place.

He has repeated this notion in a wall piece, which is only a short black line of black rubber drawn in the middle of a blank sheet of paper. Asking audiences to consider the black line as the object and the paper as the subject, the empty space is elevated in importance – so the work questions notions of a specific place and how we, as humans, naturally claim the space around us.

The works are highly intellectual and as such, perhaps a better term for them other than contemporary would be conceptual. Terry Smith, an art critic, outlined this definition by saying that although artists in the 1970s and 1980s did not want to define their work, it would eventually be labelled as conceptual – the goal was to keep the audience guessing, not offer answers to themselves or their viewers – and to keep themselves at a critical distance from the very institutions they were railing against.

There are several audio-visual documents as well as reproduced copies of Avalanche, an art journal published in New York in the early 1970s, which provides fascinating context and insight to this exhibition.

Artist Run New York: the Seventies runs until June 30. For more information, visit