I am not sure when I first became acquainted with Exit Art, that powerhouse of contemporary art. I think it was through an article about Krzysztof Wodiczko’s 1989 exhibition New York City Tableaux: Tompkins Square and his Homeless Vehicle, a contraption he constructed to address the needs and rights of the homeless. I came to know about Papo Colo through Octopus, a 1982 performance that he re-created in San Juan in 2006. Twenty-five visual artists and poets collaborated on a fifty-two-foot-long outdoor sculpture constructed of four-by-eight-foot hinged plywood panels representing pages in a book, which offered everyone involved the opportunity to create something that was more than the sum of its parts. It blew my mind, as did his 1977 performance Superman 51, for which he dragged objects along New York City’s West Side Highway until he collapsed from exhaustion—maybe struggling for our home country of Puerto Rico to become the fifty-first U.S. state, maybe blasting U.S. repression of the island. Papo Colo has always been obsessed with the number fifty-one, and in 2006–07 he completed Jumping the Fence, for which he jumped fifty-one fences over the course of thirteen months, wearing a mask. Another astonishingly excellent production.
My first official dealings with Jeanette Ingberman and Papo Colo involved bringing a traveling exhibition of the work of Juan Sánchez to Puerto Rico. I also vividly remember meeting Miguel Trelles at Exit Art’s home on Broadway in 1995, and seeing Chupacabras/Goatsucker, Trelles’s great sculpture of this mythological creature created with a mound of coconuts and horns of coiled twine in the Imaginary Beings exhibition. Many stars in the New York contemporary art scene have been shown first at Exit Art.
Thirty years for an alternative exhibition space is an amazing feat. The record is impressive, but I will not go into that. Far more learned historians will profit from the vast documentation at Exit Art. But there are two characteristics that need to be emphasized: generosity and a discerning eye. First, Exit Art was the one open place where artists got in because of their talent. Jeanette Ingberman and Papo Colo sold nothing; they worked to give artists an opening. Anyone, no matter his or her CV, could submit work and be included in a show. There were no cliques. It was never an “old boys’ network.” Second, Jeanette Ingberman and Papo Colo had this gift, this knack, for seeing through any bullshit and recognizing talent, inventiveness, and creativity.
There were always incredible things going on at Exit Art, and they invariably made me feel tempted to settle in New York. Alas! I am a tropical fish and could not go through months of cold and not seeing the Sun, beloved Tonatiuh. Exit Art was a fantastic mixture of creative energy and foresight. You always knew that the next project was also going to amaze.