Empire State, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome – review

Do you ever wonder if New York is still the centre of the art world? In the 21st century, the art axis shifts from week to week, with biennials, fairs and blockbuster shows battling for the affections of aesthetes everywhere. Even as Frieze once again packs up its tent after another edition there, New York is beginning to feel less vital as new art hubs pop up worldwide, from Berlin to São Paulo. But an exhibition at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, Empire State: New York Art Now, wants to show that Manhattan still matters.

This show may be small in scale – with only 25 established and emerging New York-based artists included – but its thesis is ambitious. Big names, such as Jeff Koons, Dan Graham and Julian Schnabel, along with lesser known but no less accomplished figures, such as Ryan Sullivan and Takeshi Murata, “examine their city’s enduring relevance to the world at a moment when urban life is being redefined rapidly everywhere,” according to the introductory wall text.

The co-curator Alex Gartenfeld helps me out. “For me, an exhibition about artists in New York entails considering how people aspire to live within an urban context anywhere,” he says. There’s little evidence, though, of how the artists connect with their communities and boroughs, no sense of an artistic thread running from, say, the Bronx to Brooklyn.

A handful of pieces certainly reflect the grittier texture of city living. Virginia Overton’s installation, a single pipe snaking diagonally down a wall (“Untitled, tubo”, 2013) tells me more about life in the metropolis than Keith Edmier’s underwhelming centrepiece, “Penn Station Ciborium” (2012-13), nestled in the Palazzo’s rotunda.

For his canopy-like creation – a ciborium is traditionally placed over a church altar – the artist has mined the history of both cities. It is inspired by two destroyed stations: Rome’s original Stazione Termini, demolished in 1937, and New York’s original Pennsylvania Station, a masterpiece based on the Roman baths of Caracalla, completed in 1910 and razed in 1963.

The steel support columns are based on those found in Penn Station. There is even a box containing an X-shaped piece of steel railing from the obliterated station embedded in the plinth. Cast-resin and marble-dust oysters are wrapped around the four columns; once plentiful in the city’s waterways, the sea creatures “thus represent for Edmier an emblem of decline”, notes Tom Eccles in the excellent catalogue entry. This level of detail is impressive yet somehow easy to overlook: a rich concept gets an oddly underwhelming realisation.

Jeff Koons’ work is, in sharp contrast, far from anodyne; in a strange, honest way his “Metallic Venus” sculpture (2010-12) screams New York. You keep going back to survey this shiny, curvy, pseudo-classical sculpture. Juxtaposing Koons’ mythological, meticulous totems with an outstanding, less pristine work by Wade Guyton makes sense (“Untitled”, 2012). Guyton’s assemblage of green and red stripes on linen, produced using an inkjet printer, looks imperfect, the perfect foil to the ordered neoclassical setting.

Gartenfeld is right when he says that “the exhibition underscores existing genealogies and creates new connections”. If this show succeeds in any sense, it is as a revealing intergenerational survey of New York’s current community of artists. Another intelligent, tightly curated section juxtaposes John Miller’s pristine pictures and sculptures with Nate Lowman’s jumble of dysfunctional yet compelling paintings and wall panels (Miller was born in 1954, Lowman in 1979). Miller’s printed images on wallpaper of a family on holiday in Spain – a seemingly happy group in a generic suburban cityscape – are placed incongruously next to his close-up of a weeping woman displayed on four sides of a cube (“Public Display”, 2013). On the opposite wall, Lowman’s bleak, grubby canvas shouts “Whatever!” (“[TBT]”, 2012). Both artists speak volumes about the mundanity of cosmopolitan existence.

Credit to the curators for devoting separate rooms off the Palazzo’s central rotunda to these artist duets. As the co-curator Norman Rosenthal points out in the catalogue, art fairs and biennales too often “allow little space for the poetics of an individual artwork to function”.

It’s worth digging out Rosenthal’s analysis, which convincingly defends New York’s supremacy. “That New York is the centre of the international art market, and other complex mechanisms for art distribution, is clear,” he argues. “And when [the centre] relocates to exotic places such as Miami, Basel, Venice, Kassel or London, it is only ever for a few days, and it returns reinvigorated and reinforced in the certainty of its own self-importance and power.”

That may be so, for the time being. While the artists in Empire State certainly merit attention, it is not by a commanding margin. Empires rise and fall: the backdrop of Rome is a potent reminder of that.

Until July 23, www.palazzoesposizioni.it

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