Grab a Pencil!

Pawel Althamer Creates Art That’s by the People, for the People at the New Museum

In his most recent exhibit, conceptualist Pawel Althamer breaks down the barrier between artist and viewers and invites onlookers to help create a collective piece of art.

On a recent weekday morning, a clutch of high school students took ink and colored pencils to the walls and floors of the New Museum on New York’s Lower East Side. “They just said it was a big white wall we can paint on,” Esmeralda Marte, 17, told me as she sketched a small-scale abstraction on the museum’s fourth floor. “And that a famous artist was doing it.”

Marte’s efforts were part of a participatory artwork called “Draftsmen’s Congress” and the artist in question was Polish conceptualist Pawel Althamer. Best known among art world insiders, Althamer only this week opened his first American museum show, “Pawel Althamer: The Neighbors,” which occupies three floors of the New Museum until April 13.

“It’s yours. Its mine,” said Althamer, an elfin 46-year-old with searching blue eyes. A child of communism who saw capitalism’s rise in the 1990s, the artist takes pleasure in the work’s collective ownership and the negotiations over space and content that the work engenders. “Our conflict—that’s the game I like. It’s democracy in practice.”

Althamer will be on hand daily for the run of the show, hanging out, drawing, and teaching art workshops.

The Warsaw-based Althamer specializes in setting up participatory situations like this one. He has staged events—he prefers to call them “actions”—in and around his hometown and invited everyday folks—and, more often, those on society’s margins—to make the art. Some of the resulting sculptures and a selection of Althamer’s videos made over the past few decades are also on view here.

But “Draftsmen’s Congress” is the exhibition’s centerpiece. It’s the second time Althamer has staged the work (the first was in 2012’s Berlin Biennale) in which the artist and the public—anyone who visits the museum—paint, draw, tag and otherwise mark up gallery walls, floors and, as a last-minute addition to the New York show, a ten-foot-tall canvas-and-wood teepee. The piece's feel-good ethos could set cynical tongues wagging, but it excited recent museum visitors in ways art objects often can't.

Marte and her classmates from the Lower East Side’s New Design High School got first crack at the piece. They made quick work covering the walls with peace signs, vines, and hash tags (#Julieisawesome). Shaden Espinoza, 16, drew a grinning, over-lifesized woman’s face and liked the freedom of it.

“At school, teachers tell you what to do,” Espinoza said. “Here you get to do anything you want. You get to be free.”

The absence of rules made for some heated moments in the work’s Berlin iteration, where one visitor painted a swastika and another promptly inked it over.

“It’s a collective piece, but not necessarily a rosy picture of collectivity,” says New Museum Associate Director and Director of Exhibitions Massimiliano Gioni. “It’s more of an experiment in coexistence than a United Colors of Benetton.”

Whether the work’s New York iteration generates more political conflict or just subway-style showdowns over free space remains to be seen. In addition to the general public, 70 groups are scheduled for drawing sessions over the next two months. Among them are Art Kibbutz NYC and Dharma Drink, the Buddhist art Meetup group.

During the run of the show, Althamer has invited local musicians, many of them buskers, to play in and around the museum. On opening day, Cathy Grier, aka “NYC Subway Girl,” sang a Janis Joplin song in the lobby. Upstairs in the galleries, Jim Costanzo spouted lefty politics between tunes on his baritone bugle. The effect was something of an urban carnival.

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In the spirit of the exhibition’s title, a coat drive for the benefit of the New Museum’s neighbor, the Bowery Mission, is also on. Donating a coat will gain admission to the galleries.

So much collective goodwill may make one yearn to see what Althamer calls “possessed objects” (that’s what you and I call “artworks”). The museum’s second and third floors feature a selection of Althamer’s sculptures and videos on loan from public and private collections. Some, like the haunting 50-figure sculptural installation “Venetians,” are excellent. At the show’s end, New Museum staff will take a chainsaw to the walls of “Draftsmen’s Congress” and distribute the pieces, one by one, to the public.

“Pawel Althamer: The Neighbors” runs through April 13 at the New Museum.