Releasing your inner Picasso at the Althamer show at New Museum

Anyone can contribute to the piece by painting or writing on the piece. Credit: Aymann Ismail, ANIMAL New York
Anyone can contribute to the piece by painting or writing on the piece. Credit: Aymann Ismail, ANIMAL New York

On the fourth floor of the New Museum in downtown Manhattan, an unusual exhibition asks visitors not to quietly observe and reflect upon art, but to make it themselves. Armed with a supply of markers, chalk, and acrylic paints, anyone who passes through can make whatever artistic addition they’d like to the gallery’s walls and floor.

The project, entitled Draftsmen’s Congress, is the brainchild of Polish sculptor Pawel Althamer, and on any given day, it’s a whirlwind of color, with every inch of available space adorned with layers upon layers of text and images. It’s on display until April 13 as part of a museum-wide exhibition of Althamer’s works.

“It’s a space for creativity. That was the basic idea,” Althamer said. “An open forum to be modified by everybody.”

According to Gary Carrion-Murayari, the curator of the exhibition, the walls were covered within hours of Draftsmen’s Congress opening to the public. Each day, the museum brings in groups from the local community to interact with the work, and the general public is invited to contribute as well.

“For us, Draftsmen’s Congress reflects what Pawel’s work is all about, and what people who know his work maybe haven’t seen in the U.S. before, which is social engagement,” said Gary Carrion-Murayari, the curator of the exhibition. “Pawel’s idea is that what you contribute is just as important as what he makes himself. Having that kind of engagement and participation in the show is something we really wanted to do.”

The museum hired staff to encourage shy or reserved attendees to dive in and begin painting, but quickly realized visitors didn’t require any egging on. “It turns out, no one needs that,” said Olimpia Dior, a New York artist who was hired as a facilitator. “People are not shy. Sometimes, it’s so busy, we hardly manage to refill the art supplies.”

The Althamer exhibition, titled The Neighbors, also includes a sculpture workshop, street musicians playing in the museum’s lobby, and a coat drive to benefit the Bowery Mission, which is next door. Taken together, it presents art as a force that’s as messy, conflicted, and full of vitality as the world it exists within. To hear Althamer tell it, in his work, art is “welcomed to come back, to be a part of life every day.”

On a recent weekday morning, a small crowd milled around, unreservedly drawing and painting. Pastora Valero, a tourist from Brussels, was there with her two children, ages six and 11. “They love it,” she said. “They’ve spent 30 minutes just painting, exploring different colors and shapes.”

When the artist stepped into the room later that morning, he walked past what one of Valero’s children had painted — all-caps block letters spelling out the phrase “love fun cool music.” Upon seeing it, he asked, “Wouldn’t that make a great title for something?”

It was an indicative moment for Althamer, who seems to value the act of making art — no matter who’s making it — above any particular work. “For some of my friends who are critics, there is a problem in not getting so-called beautiful paintings, like you’d expect to see in a museum,” he said. “But the beauty is the process.”

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