Has the periphery become the new center? It depends on where you look. In the art world, it was another month, another record price at auction, this time $120 million for a pastel version of The Scream by Edvard Munch. The news of such sales has become relentless. It’s the fine-art equivalent of the ticket-take for a summer-movie blockbuster, and it’s just as inconsequential. Despite the numbers, we all know the most interesting productions aren’t coming out of Hollywood. Same thing for art. The art scene flourishing on the margins of New York City now has a vitality you don’t see in Chelsea or the auction houses. The headlines might still focus on hammer price, but innovation, beauty, and significance are increasingly found elsewhere.

Not to suggest that great art has fled Manhattan. This month alone at the galleries, it is possible to see Frank Stella at L&M and FreedmanArt, a survey of Jean Hélion at Schroeder Romero & Shredder, Patricia Watwood at the Forbes Galleries, the drawings of Lucian Freud at Acquavella, Jan Müller at Lori Bookstein, and Giuseppe Penone at Marian Goodman.

It’s just that, now, the rippling-out of art from Manhattan to the outer boroughs has become a wave that rolls across Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. I doubt there has ever been a better time to see art in New York’s once marginal neighborhoods. The return of law and order has been matched by a cultural restoration energizing these forsaken places. At its best, art weaves itself into the local fabric by engaging the culture of the neighborhoods it touches.

With a rich past darkened by decades of decline, the Bronx now seems especially bright. Frankly, I never would have guessed I’d find myself in this borough so often. But beyond the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden, both treasures, and the unparalleled cuisine of Arthur Avenue, several recent art exhibitions have made the Bronx a must-see. It seems only fitting that the Bronx Museum of the Arts was recently chosen to represent the United States at the 2013 Venice Biennale; whatever its chosen artist, Sarah Sze, ends up creating at the Giardini, it will bring new recognition to this borough and will certainly be an improvement over what Allora and Calzadilla and the Indianapolis Museum of Art did there a year ago.

For the past two months, the highlight of art in the Bronx has been an exhibition called “This Side of Paradise.”1 The show was produced by an enterprising young non-profit called No Longer Empty, a cross between an arts organization and an urban policy project that creates site-specific art installations in unconventional urban spaces. “This Side of Paradise” is its most ambitious project to date and makes brilliant use of its unique venue, the Andrew Freedman Home. A four-story limestone estate, the facility was built in the 1920s along the Grand Concourse, the Champs-Élysées of the Bronx, to serve as a retirement home for people who had lost their fortunes. For decades it supported 130 or so elderly residents, but by the 1960s the home was running through its endowment just as the neighborhood was losing its middle-class population. Eventually its upper floors were abandoned. Even as it received landmark status, the building became a ruined reminder of the Bronx’s fading grandeur.

No Longer Empty cleaned up the first two floors of the Andrew Freedman Home, opened them up free to the public, and installed a thematic group show in the ballroom, library, kitchen, and resident rooms with art that aims to reflect the culture of the Bronx. The show has become something of a omnium-gatherum for the arts organizations of the borough, incorporating the Bronx Museum, the Bronx River Art Center, Casita Maria, the Bronx Documentary Center, the Bronx Children’s Museum, The Point, the Derfner Judaica Museum, and Wave Hill, among others, to guide and support various parts of this sprawling survey.

Even though the artistic quality varies, the overall effect is inspiring. Just as the Andrew Freedman Home once gave value to its residents, “This Side of Paradise” finds beauty in the home’s age and the building’s survival against the odds. The show brings together art that connects a lost culture, past and present, while for the most part avoiding didacticism and a fetish for decay.

Of the many different styles and approaches on display, the most resonant is A Sitting Room: Remembering a Week in January (2012) by Sylvia Plachy. In 1980, Plachy came to photograph what would be some of the last residents of the Andrew Freedman Home while on assignment for The Village Voice. Her photos illustrated an article by Vivian Gornick. Now in Room 246, Plachy recreates the arrangement of objects she photographed, decorating the room with antique furniture, turning on an old phonograph, and printing a few spectral images of the former occupants on the walls and a billowing window curtain. Plachy says she was “drawn to the gentility of the residents” and wanted to pay “homage to those who once lived here.” It’s a sentiment that perfectly encapsulates the touching beauty of this exhibition.

Over the first weekend in May, Frieze brought its tightly presented London operation to New York with a production that redefined what a commercial art fair could be.2

Maximizing natural light while also employing special lamps, the Frieze tent felt like the inside of an iPad. Colors were muted, and the texture of art showed through, especially for works on paper. But perhaps the smartest decision of the fair was to move off Manhattan and set up camp on Randall’s, an island in the East River known mainly for its sports fields, the Triborough Bridge passing overhead, and the occasional concert venue. Let me date myself by admitting I was last on Randall’s Island in 1995 to see a summer concert series called Lollapalooza.

For Frieze, its unusual location proved to be its greatest advertisement. The venue became a point of conversation in the week leading up to the fair. Frieze, along with its champions in the mayor’s office, knew how to reward those who visited by offering a free ferry from midtown and unparalleled views of the New York skyline surrounded by water. Who needs La Serenissima when you have the East River?

Frieze also felt like the first mainstream art fair to reflect the outer-borough scene, even if there was still little representation of the outer-borough galleries among the exhibitors. Roberta’s of Bushwick supplied the catering, and a Brooklyn architectural firm, SO-IL, designed the tent. In another nod to the boroughs, the artist John Ahearn was brought in to work in a Frieze project space. By creating casts of fair-goers, Ahearn referenced a sculpture series he made in 1979 called South Bronx Hall of Fame. His project space was meant to serve “as a tribute to the alternative spaces and galleries that were once vital for the artistic community but have now closed.” Ahearn was associated with the South Bronx arts venue Fashion Moda, which ran from 1978 to 1993. He is also now, appropriately, a part of “This Side of Paradise.”

History isn’t always so precise, but it’s possible to declare May 12 as the day when the arts of Queens came into its own. On that Sunday, the Queens Museum of Art organized what it promised would be a “historic art crawl” through an event called “Actually, It’s Ridgewood.” The title was an amusing response­—a declaration of independence aimed at Bushwick, Brooklyn, the neighborhood bordering Ridgewood that usually claims the Queens arts spaces as its own. The symbol for the event included a rendering of Arbitration Rock, the traditional border delineating the two boroughs, and included the motto “vere, Ridgewood est.” Among the stopovers was the ersatz “Bushwick” gallery building 1717 Troutman, the influential galleries Valentine and Small Black Door, and the temporary sculpture garden, curated by Deborah Brown and Lesley Heller, now at the Vander Ende-Onderdonk House, the oldest Dutch colonial building in New York City. The event became the talk of Twitter and was a coup for the Queens Museum (the Brooklyn Museum, which must need a trail map whenever it steps off Eastern Parkway, was notably absent from the proceedings). The crawl also showed how this neighborhood, once the bastard child of Bushwick, is coming into its own.

Over on the other side of Arbitration Rock, Storefront Bushwick recently featured work by Carol Salmanson and Stephen Truax.3 Deborah Brown, the owner of Storefront Bushwick, has a particular talent for seeing cross currents and pairing artists. Salmanson makes wall sculptures of LED bulbs, Truax paints geometric abstractions on canvas, but both artists seem to work with light. Truax’s symmetrical forms are like the shapes of a kaleidoscope, sharing some kinship with the prisms that reappear in the paintings of Brooke Moyse and the floodlights of Halsey Hathaway’s circles—two artists who have shown here. Truax also revisits Bauhaus textile and the radiance of Charles Sheeler. At Storefront, he still seems to be working through a range of different paint handling, and I found the best pieces had the cleanest edges.

Salmanson is also an experimenter, taking up the LED, or light-emitting diode, as her medium. She uses these tiny bulbs and wires to carve out illuminated shapes on a plexiglass ground. The technique, clearly labor intensive, is full of promise, and Salmanson has a delicate sense for how the wires can become a form of drawing. The installation at Storefront had a remarkable glow, with some work using multicolored bulbs (made of old LEDS she has collected) and others with a more monochrome palette. I preferred the latter, which seemed more cohesive and did not overpower the compositions with multiple colors. I also question some of the shapes Salmanson traces out—calligraphic doodles that are then embedded with lights. The LEDS tie down many of these forms like little buoys, with the energy no longer running across the picture plane but radiating out as light into the gallery space. A different, perhaps simpler, approach to composition might solve these formal concerns.

If there was any doubt about the vitality of the outer-borough scene, just go to artsinbushwick.org and scan through the more than 500 venues now participating in Bushwick Open Studios, to take place June 1 through June 3. This year BOS will include the neighborhood’s first art fair, cheekily called “Bushwick Basel” (with several participants from Ridgewood). I am also looking forward to catching the final weekend for the Vander Ende-Onderdonk House installation, the shows at The Active Space, the works of Dana Gordon, my colleague Rebecca Litt, the 1980s Bushwick photographer Meryl Meisler (whose work I first saw in City Journal), Cathy Nan Quinlan and Kurt Hoffman at Valentine Gallery, Amy Lincoln and Kevin Curran, and a show at Sharon Butler’s studio honoring the blog Two Coats of Paint curated by Austin Thomas (whose pioneer Bushwick gallery Pocket Utopia has recently reopened on the Lower East Side). There’s now so much life on these margins, the center of art seems to be everywhere you look.

1 “This Side of Paradise” opened at the Andrew Freedman Home, Bronx, New York, on April 4 and remains on view through June 5, 2012.

2 “Frieze New York” was on view at Randall’s Island from May 4 through May 7, 2012.

3 “Carol Salmanson/Stephen Truax” was on view at Storefront Gallery, Brooklyn, from April 20 through May 20, 2012.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 10, on page 54
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