The View from a Volcano

Through August 27th, New York City art space The Kitchen is hosting a two-month retrospective of its auspicious first fifteen years as a bastion for the downtown art scene of the seventies and eighties. Now located in Chelsea, The Kitchen stood in Soho for its first fifteen years, where it supported the wild, defiant expressionism of a very pre-Giuliani metropolis.

While the innumerable works by the artists that have performed in The Kitchen comprise a formidable and still-evolving avant-garde corpus, The View from a Volcano: The Kitchen’s Soho Years, 1971-85 is instead a celebration of the space itself––––a gallery converted into a documentary. Filled largely with copies of The Kitchen’s own promotional material and snapshots of the performances therein, View archives a convergence of creativity that began decades ago. This network of names includes Laurie Anderson, Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Christian Marclay, Steve Reich, and many more essential names of experimental art.

A record of a bold and challenging era of reactionary passion, View is mostly absorbing, especially in its attention to music. A half-hour video of the Talking Heads––––made about a year before their 1977 debut––––showcases a hungry, nervous group still nearing its odd pinnacle. Photographs of Jim Burton standing atop his piano as he interprets the sounds of John Cage embody the spirit of both the performers and the space itself, a room willing to undergo radical transformation on behalf of the ideas that passed through its doors.

For some, the gallery’s emphasis on presenting its archive may entice without enriching. That these videos and photographs make you wish you were there, experiencing these performances live, is at once a blessing and a curse: they can only take you so far into this diverse and complicated body of work. So for those looking to see actual examples of the work produced during this period, The Kitchen at least offers a fine selection of video installations. Highlights include Joan Jonas and Vito Acconci––––the former an eerie exploration of femininity in shadowy figures and garbled sounds, the latter an extended close-up of Acconci’s face as he seduces you, the willing viewer.

Acconci has always struck me as an ambassador of the New York avant-garde. In this video, Theme Song, he transforms the materials of his medium––––the television screen––––into an open window. He confronts you, pushes you, and what feels initially uncomfortable and abrasive becomes a powerful channel of communication between artist and audience. He recorded Theme Song in 1973, but it could have been done yesterday. This naked contact, ultimately, is what carries difficult art through changing times, making a retrospective like View worthwhile despite its limitations.

The Kitchen is located at 512 West 19th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenue. More information can be found at

June 30–August 27, 2011 – FREE

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