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At the Center of the Periphery:
The legendary flat files of Williamsburg’s Pierogi Gallery

Some of the young artists represented in the New York collection also show in Williamsburg’s Pierogi Gallery, which is held in high esteem by artists, curators, and collectors alike: Harald Fricke on the lively art scene in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and on Pierogi’s legendary flat files, which encompass works on paper by nearly 700 artists.


At first, art was a window to the world, then it was expected to open up more to reality, and finally it was supposed to correspond to life completely. This is a frequently cited idealization that stands in stark contrast to another idealized image, namely that of the artist toiling away in his studio in front of the model, striving to create an original work of art on the canvas. For artists, a problem arises that proves to be difficult to solve: because their working lives take place to a large extent inside the studio, they are allegedly incapable of saying all that much about the reality of the world outside their own four walls.


Don Doe, Easel Piles, 1998, Collection Deutsche Bank


The painter Don Doe came up with a bafflingly simple solution to this problem: his watercolors, some of which are part of the New York collection of the Deutsche Bank, are about nothing more than the production of art. Again and again, Doe portrays the ironically idealized everyday life of the artist: in his work Treaty, for instance (1998), he alludes to concrete situations between the painter and model; in Double Decaff (1998), he addresses the struggle for inspiration, while in Easel Piles (1998) his attention is turned to the mute lament of the empty canvas.

All these images are allegories of the artist’s own personal view of the world, in which art at best opens a window onto art. Doe knows, of course, how absurd this project is, and that’s why the confined pictorial spaces in which his home stories take place come across as ironic references to the conceptually austere structure underlying these works. In his current exhibition Echo and Narcissus in the young New York gallery Apartment 5BE, Doe comes out of the closet as a pin-up fan and enthusiast of trivial erotica. At the same time, he deliberately and in all seriousness harks back to art historical models such as the taut physiognomies of Edward Hopper’s figures or the cool, distanced perspectives of film noir realism, and even Raymond Pettibon’s jagged comic-like contour can be found in some of the works. Doe is concerned in maintaining a balance in which humorous commentary and the artistically self-referential, narcissism and melancholy are not locked into competition with one another, but remain in a state of suspension. This is how he succeeds in doing justice to a state in which the separation between art and life is not annulled, but at least momentarily blurred.



  Don Doe, Echo and Narcissus, 2003, Courtesy of Apartment 5BE, New York Don Doe, Double Decaff, 1998, Collection Deutsche Bank

Doe’s position is obstinate, yet it strives to remain open to the viewer: a patchwork that feeds on private experience without neglecting the conflicts between art and society. Doe shares this strategy with a number of other artists represented in the collection of the Deutsche Bank New York: Nina Bovasso, Tom Burckhardt, Ken Butler, Marc Dean Veca, Tim Maul, or Charles Spurrier, for instance. Many artists of the younger generation try to maintain a position at the periphery while aiming for the center at the same time – on the New York art scene, this is the fine line that has been separating pop appeal from mainstream since the sixties. Throughout the process, this shift in definition has also occurred within the city itself, the art scene having left the fashionable SoHo lofts in the nineties in favor of the Chelsea warehouses, which are better able to accommodate the development towards large-scale installation. And another change has already been taking place for a number of years on the opposite bank of the East River in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with its two-story houses that still housed dock workers a hundred years ago.


Joe Amrhein mit Hund Berry vor Pierogi.

Bob & Roberta Smith, The Art Amnesty, (Installations-Ansicht), Courtesy of Pierogi, New York

The return to the intimacy of drawing and the general limitation of artistic means fit well with this almost small-town atmosphere, which is so markedly different from the heyday of the East Village and Alphabet City and yet so reminiscent of the process of gentrification that gave rise to both. It’s not the grand gesture that’s called for here, but rather clear and concise descriptions of the present. It comes as no surprise that Williamsburg recalls the feeling of the Beat generation. Only the sounds have changed: instead of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, it’s static and electronics, while jagged ambient sounds replace the old protest songs.


Die Pierogi-Flatfiles

The gallery in which all these various projects converge is called Pierogi and is run by Joe Amrhein. The name, borrowed from the small dumpling typical of the local cuisine, pays homage to the community of Polish immigrants in the area. Today, Amrhein is concerned with the survival of another community – the many artists who live in Williamsburg whom “the Manhattan galleries take no notice of,” as Amrhein says. In response to this, the gallery Pierogi 2000 was opened in 1994 (the number 2000 was omitted from the name upon the arrival of the new millennium). Only one year later, the flat files were born, and with them an unusual form of presentation: since then, Pierogi’s main focus has been to archive and display works on paper and photographs in metal flat files; over the course of time, the collection has grown to encompass nearly 700 artists. Parallel to the ongoing exhibitions in the gallery space, Pierogi offers its visitors an ever-growing arsenal of young contemporary art. Whoever wishes to can pore through the individual portfolios arranged in the drawers to research a specific artist or simply to embark on a personal journey of discovery.



Mark Dean Veca
no title, 1996
Collection Deutsche Bank
Mark Dean Veca
no title, 1996
Collection Deutsche Bank

The magic word for this strategy is “Access for all,” or, as Amrhein explains, “we were concerned from the very beginning in representing the community. This is always an organic process throughout which the artists can change. At the center, however, is the individual work, and the flat files transform its accessibility into a haptic experience.”

Had it been otherwise, the initiative would have remained a mere service, a list of links for the internet. But it’s precisely the flat files’ highly compact physical accessibility that has made Pierogi famous well beyond Williamsburg. At first, there were enthusiastic reviews in the New York press – one critic even spoke of the index of artists as the conceptual “art work” of the year – and then the exhibition went on tour. The flat files have traveled as far as London and Vienna, and the gallery recently occupied a fair booth at Berlin’s art forum, with a selection of Pierogi portfolios.

The collection’s growth, however, has also brought Amrhein close to his own limitations. As a non-profit gallery, he isn’t in a position to employ assistants to keep the vast number of portfolios up to date on an ongoing basis or to look after the conservation and care of the drawings. “It’s a typical New York dilemma,” according to Amrhein, “that so much is done for the city’s museums – we also have a good number of collections here. But there’s no support for the artists who actually live in this city, and yet they’re the ones who form the basis for New York’s reputation as an art metropolis. That’s why we’ll continue doing what we do, of course, even if we, as a gallery, receive no support. But I’ll have to think about whether we need to come up with a new concept. At first, the files will be continued according to a rotating principle, which means that older works have to be taken out to accommodate new artists. That wasn’t the original intention when we began, but artists have already begun getting in touch with us from abroad who want to be part of the list, and so I have to act – and select.”

Charles Spurrier
no title, 1997
Collection Deutsche Bank
Charles Spurrier
no title, 1997
Collection Deutsche Bank

In spite of its enormous expansion, Pierogi can’t even count on a larger economic profit to alleviate some of the organizational work. The first rule of sale prevents this: no work of art is allowed to cost more than two thousand dollars, and most of them go for less than two hundred dollars, because Amrhein also wants “people who otherwise wouldn’t go into a commercial gallery to become interested in art without being put under the pressure of a selling situation, as is usually the case in Chelsea or SoHo.”

This is why Liz Christensen, who takes care of the art of Deutsche Bank in New York, is also interested in Pierogi’s artists: “We take care to maintain our collection at the most current level possible. Especially recently, the production of art has been moving in a direction where artists are making smaller, more intimate formats again. You need considerably more time to investigate positions like that. That’s one advantage that Pierogi has. Secondly, the low prices are an incentive to expand the collection without taking an enormous financial risk. It’s incredible, but there are original pieces at Pierogi that can be had for less money than some fancy posters cost.”


Tom Burckhardt
no title, 1997,
Collection Deutsche Bank
Tom Burckhardt
no title, 1997

One of the artists Christensen discovered at Pierogi is Tom Burckhardt. More than anything else, Christensen was interested in his series of painted book pages: “Burckhardt’s drawings reflect both an enthusiasm for Indian miniature painting and an involvement with other cultures, as well. Some of the forms he uses remind me of older Ukrainian textile designs.” Along with influences such as these, Burckhardt’s diagrammatic drawings can also be compared with those of Tim Rollins, who worked on collective graffiti works in New York throughout the eighties together with the Bronx-based group K.O.S. – Kids of Survival.

Back then, Rollins and K.O.S. were concerned with transferring Kafka texts into a hip-hop context in order to bring high and low culture into a dynamic relationship with one another. Twenty years later, in Tom Burckhardt’s work, several widely divergent cultural threads overlap – the state of art in global circumstances. The artist Ken Butler, on the other hand, focuses his attention on musical instruments, which he constructs from an array of everyday objects. His drawings take on the character of assembling instructions, but they also combine concrete design with utopian ideas of a “bastardized culture” already manifested in contemporary music, with its models of ethnic identity available at will via sampling, loop, and quote. Just as pop music can blend Arabic folklore with electronic beats, so too are Butler’s drawings a game with technology and its continuous development, in which the question as to the original no longer plays an important role.


Nina Bovasso, no title, 1996
©Clementine Gallery, New York
Collection Deutsche Bank


The sketches Charles Spurrier makes for his paintings mislead us in a similar way. The textures that branch out in his paper works derive from his own thumbprint, which he collages together with ever-changing patterns. For Christensen, the attraction in Nina Bovasso’s work also lies in this “sophisticated doodling,” which wanders over the paper surface like an ornament. Here, the image of the world is suddenly very close – as a perpetual chaos.

This is where the circle goes full round; already back in the sixties, there was a movement that reflected constant change – it didn’t matter if it occurred in life, in art, or on the street: in taking a look back at Fluxus, New York has perhaps arrived at the forefront once again.


Harald Fricke is art critic for the German newspaper "Die Tageszeitung" and writes for artmagazines like "artforum".

Translation: Andrea Scrima