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  • The South Bronx International:Fashion Moda between Site and Symbol
  • Peter L'Official (bio)

In the summer of 1982, the alternative art gallery fashion modaestablished in 1978 in the heart of the South Bronx by the Viennese émigré Stefan Eins—opened three "stores" as installations at the seventh Documenta exhibition of contemporary art in Kassel, Germany. The stores were stocked with artist-generated multiples priced from 50 cents to $200—a gesture at an affordable brand of egalitarianism, reminiscent of Eins's earlier experiments in SoHo, circa 1972, with selling "low income multiples." Invited by Documenta's Artistic Director Rudi Fuchs, and curated by Eins and Jenny Holzer, the Fashion Moda stores sold work created by approximately 40 artists, including Tom Otterness, Kiki Smith, Keith Haring, and Holzer herself.1 Known alternatively as "A Museum of Science, Art, Technology, Innovation, and Fantasy," Fashion Moda averred a pluralistic underlying philosophy that "art can be created and appreciated by anyone, trained and untrained, middle class and poor, known and unknown, anywhere," as disclosed in some of its earliest promotional literature.2 Such a philosophy—essential to the relationship that Fashion Moda forged with its South Bronx home outside the Manhattan gallery circuit, and which was reflected in many of the artist-generated multiples available at Documenta—encountered in its exportation overseas a kind of test, an [End Page 603] interrogation of its principles. The outcome of that preceptial test suggested that it was this South Bronx site of "anywhere" that was central to Fashion Moda's project—and was as portable, and as multiplicable, as the art it sold.

The art historian Benjamin Buchloh described the assembled "artists' tchatchkis and souvenirs" as a "petty-commodity program." For this very reason Fashion Moda was "one of the few courageous curatorial choices" of the exhibition, exposing the high-market commodity status of other art objects on view by contrast with its South Bronx-centric kitsch.3 As Douglas Crimp describes it in his 1984 article, "The Art of Exhibition," some of the stationery on sale at the Fashion Moda stores featured quotes sampled by artist Louise Lawler from what was, by then, an already roundly-mocked invitation-cum-press-release written by the artistic director Fuchs, which had been circulated to invited artists like Eins and Holzer the previous fall.4 Like Buchloh's review, Crimp's essay—a canonical work within the field of curatorial studies as well as a chronicle of the reception of Fashion Moda's Documenta 7 installation—advances the notion that a "store" selling such simple, portable products and reproductions had the effect of acknowledging the commodity status of all of Documenta's displayed artworks. The Fashion Moda stores might be seen as "courageous" and egalitarian, as opposed—in a more Greenbergian sense—to merely a capitulation to capital, however small in scale. Thus, in the critical estimation, the status of objects like Lawler's stationery multiples stood not only in symbolic opposition to much of the art on display at Documenta, but their playful subversion of Fuchs's curatorial ideology was also quite literally written all over their surfaces. Crimp, in turn, borrows Lawler's impish gesture and begins his essay with a critique of Fuchs' inaugural curatorial move: namely, the press release.

Here is how that press release begins: "How can I describe the exhibition to you: the exhibition which floats in my mind like a star?"5 Despite his professed rhetorical helplessness at putting words to the waking reverie he describes, Fuchs proceeds to do just that, sketching for his reader "'an encounter in the forest of art' in which 'great minds of different character and tradition' can rediscover their 'high, common language.'"6 What Fuchs argued for most broadly in his press release was a kind of elevated experience, a restoration of the autonomy of the art object within a sublimated artistic encounter. Fuchs's vision for the exhibition suggested a more literal definition of lofty: soaring, without [End Page 604] grounding in social reality or physical space of any kind beyond that provided for by the hallowed halls and cosmopolitan curatorial spheres of the international art exhibition space.7 It was a vision...


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