Running a Gallery in My Apartment Showed Me a Different Side of the Art World
Ariela Gittlen and Scott Indrisek of Teen Party in their apartment with artworks by Peter Halley and Tracy Thomason. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.
At some point in the evening, several young men were in my kitchen, stripped down to their underwear. One of them was hunched over the stove, which had been repurposed as a makeshift DJ booth. On a tiny record player he spun Frankensteined vinyl: several different records sliced into pieces and glued back together. It sounded deranged. My apartment was pretty crowded, and the vast majority of people were…confused.
This wasn’t the world’s most ill-advised rave. It was just another opening at Teen Party, the apartment-based gallery I launched late in 2016 with my wife, who is a graphic designer and writer. The nearly nude dude in my kitchen was Matthew Thurber, a young underground comic artist whose work we were exhibiting alongside that of William Wegman, a septuagenarian beloved for his evocative photographs of dogs acting like humans.
Friends performing in the kitchen of Teen Party. Photo by Scott Indrisek. Courtesy of Teen Party.
For three memorable years, we turned a spare bedroom in our Brooklyn apartment into an exhibition space. But unlike similar DIY ventures, we weren’t interested in showing only our friends, or spotlighting local, unknown artists.
Instead, the proposition was simple: What if we approached well-known artists—those who had already made it, and then some—and asked them to stage an offbeat project in our cozy, not-too-fancy home?
Admittedly, we had an unfair advantage here. I had been working as a magazine editor and journalist for the better part of a decade, and had kept in touch with plenty of artists I’d met along the way. We started emailing some of these folks to see if they’d be open to showing work in our spare bedroom—all of 11 by 14 feet, with a charmingly uneven hardwood floor.
Somewhat to our surprise, they started saying yes.
Jack Pierson, installation view at Teen Party. Photo by Scott Indrisek. Courtesy of Teen Party.
Sophie Larrimore, installation view at Teen Party, 2019. Photo by Scott Indrisek. Courtesy of Teen Party.
I write this in the wake of Teen Party’s closing. We took down our final show, with Sophie Larrimore and John Wesley, in the winter of 2019. My wife and I had a baby in January 2020, and the former exhibition space now holds a futon and a lot of plush animals, some of which sing on command.
During our inaugural Teen Party show, that same room contained a Peter Halley work from 1981 that would likely be valued at a few hundred thousand dollars. Now it boasts a painting by the artist Kevin Stahl that brings things full circle: It’s a cheeky homage to Halley’s Day-Glo aesthetic, mashed up with a composition borrowed from Josef Albers. It cost $350.
So what did I learn over three years of working with artists, planning exhibitions, and inviting total strangers into our home? It feels odd to reflect on this now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has essentially shut down the entire art system for the time being. But when it reawakens, we’ll likely need new and unconventional ways in which to make, share, and appreciate art. Here are some of the things this wild apartment-gallery experiment taught me about the art world; perhaps some of these lessons have bearing on whatever will come next.
Shows can be intergenerational and refreshingly weird
Peter Halley and Tracy Thomason at Teen Party, 2016. Courtesy of Teen Party.
While Teen Party never had anything so formal as a mission statement, one of our goals was to bring together artists from different generations who might find common ground. Too often, age groups can be balkanized in New York—hip artists in their twenties and thirties showing downtown, let’s say, while their older, blue-chip forebears hold court in Chelsea.
Why not mix things up a bit? Peter Halley, for instance, rose to fame as part of the Neo-Geo movement in the 1980s. The artist we paired him with at Teen Party, Tracy Thomason, wasn’t even born until 1984. Thomason’s sculptural paintings, carefully crafted using traditional pigments along with more eccentric materials like marble dust, owed a lot to Halley’s own techniques with Roll-A-Tex paint.
Installation view at Teen Party featuring works by Peter Halley and Tracy Thomason, 2016. Photo by Scott Indrisek. Courtesy of Teen Party.
Happily, the two hit it off. We had initially hoped to show a few of Thomason’s new canvases alongside a single Halley work, on loan from the artist’s personal collection. What ended up happening was completely unexpected and much more involved. Halley decided to also generate a site-specific text work—a large-scale piece of concrete poetry that was basically a giant vinyl sticker that would act as a temporary wallpaper—atop which would hang an abstract painting by Thomason.
Halley’s enthusiasm and dedication to this strange little show was all the more impressive given that his studio was simultaneously prepping for “proper” exhibitions around the world—ones that weren’t being held in spare bedrooms. It was an eye-opener, and a lesson we’d be reminded of again and again as Teen Party rolled on: Even the most established artists crave a chance to experiment, to be reminded of their unrulier days, before critical acclaim and buzzy auctions.
Dana Schutz at Teen Party with work by Tracy Thomason, 2016. Photo by Scott Indrisek. Courtesy of Teen Party.
A similarly charming chemistry repeated when we introduced Thurber to Wegman. While Wegman’s success as a canine photographer can overshadow other aspects of his practice, he’s a renowned painter, as well as a Conceptual and video artist whose career stretches back to the 1970s. Thurber, meanwhile, is a keen social satirist, whose multi-volume Art Comic (2018) skewers the pretensions and rituals of the mainstream art world.
Both of these guys are proud oddballs. The Teen Party exhibition came together over the course of a few meetups at Wegman’s live-work space in Chelsea, which he shares with his wife, kids, and a series of lovable Weimaraners. At the second meeting, Wegman unveiled a series of new drawings he had made, on a whim, based on some cursory Google research into Thurber’s life.
William Wegman, installation view at Teen Party. Photo by Scott Indrisek. Courtesy of Teen Party.
This led to a truly collaborative project, in which the two artists created a series of call-and-response works, riffing on each other’s styles and pushing the envelope of absurdity. It was often difficult to recall which artist had made which drawing. At the opening, Wegman casually reflected that it had been decades since he had made any drawings, period. Our modest, ramshackle apartment show had been the catalyst—that was both flattering, and daunting as hell.
In the months to follow, the venerated artist would have exhibitions at galleries like Sperone Westwater, plus the spotlight in a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to California Conceptualism. He’d also install a truly delightful tile mosaic at the 23rd Street F/M subway station in Manhattan. And yet this steady wave of acclaim didn’t stop him from taking a risk with our humble venture.
Artists—especially the successful ones—might seem unapproachable, stuck in their ways, calcified into tried-and-true rhythms and routines. But my experience with Teen Party showed me that even the most established talents might be looking for an excuse to get back to their roots, to experiment and wax eccentric, away from the demands of market and career.
You can make yourself at home
Matthew Thurber in the backyard of Teen Party. Photo by Scott Indrisek. Courtesy of Teen Party.
Art can shine in a white cube setting; even a mediocre painting has a certain refined glow when it’s given pride of place on a blank wall. It looks worthy of your attention; it looks expensive.
But the actual social experience of looking at art in a traditional gallery can be lacking, or at least intensely repetitive. There’s the too-bright lights, the inevitable klatch of smokers loitering out front, the plastic cups of cheap wine or a garbage can full of ice and Tecate. You make one rotation around the gallery, nodding at works or Instagramming them, and then try to find a way to occupy space for a few minutes without feeling completely awkward.
An exhibition hosted in a less predictable venue—like an apartment—has an entirely different energy and cadence. At Teen Party, visitors would have to walk through our living room to get to the “gallery” at the back. They could hang out in the kitchen or, weather permitting, in the concrete-chic backyard, with its firepit and fairy lights.
Aura Rosenberg, installation view at Teen Party. Photo by Ariela Gittlen. Courtesy of Teen Party.
Most importantly, they could spend time with the work, and with one another. Kids were welcome, as were dogs. When we staged a two-person show with Aura Rosenberg and John Miller—our first and only pairing of a married couple—the artists performed music together. At a different opening (with Joshua Citarella, Jayson Musson, and Yasamin Keshtkar), the true crime–obsessed writer Alissa Bennett read a few essays.
As the opening evenings wound down, our cats—previously locked in the bedroom, mildly freaked out—could slink out to mingle with the stragglers. Gagosian this was not. We might not have been making much money, but we were making something else: a space to slow down and recharge.
Taking your time with artists is incredibly rewarding
Tommy Kha, installation view at Teen Party. Photo by Scott Indrisek. Courtesy of Teen Party.
John Miller, installation view at Teen Party. Photo by Ariela Gittlen. Courtesy of Teen Party.
While I’ve spent plenty of time with artists over the years, it’s generally been in a fairly specific context—that of journalist and subject. That experience is rewarding, and often revealing, but it’s also constrained. An hour or two spent in the studio, or touring a gallery exhibition, offers limited insights into what makes a person tick. A studio visit can feel spontaneous and intimate when, in actuality, it’s proceeding according to a kind of script: This is how the artist talks about her work on the record, over the arc of 45 to 60 minutes.
These barriers start to break down when the goal is not an interview or an article, but rather an exhibition. This, of course, won’t be news to any curators out there, whose careers are defined by just such in-depth relationships with artists, often unfolding over months or years. But my guess is that, in most cases, planning a typical institutional show involves a bit of one-on-one contact, and a whole lot of administrative and bureaucratic wrangling—a lot of gallery liaisons and studio managers, a lot of cooks in the proverbial kitchen.
Marc Hundley, installation view of works at Teen Party, 2017. Photo by Scott Indrisek. Courtesy of Teen Party.
In a more informal setting, the pressure is off. This isn’t the New Museum, it’s a two-bedroom, rent-stabilized apartment across from a bodega! Most of Teen Party’s exhibitions were very hands-on affairs. Planning took place over dinner at a Thai restaurant; installation involved the artists, a hammer, a level, and a bit of trial and error. No archivists, art handlers, or unpaid interns.
The artist Marc Hundley, one of the nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing, asked if he could build a bookshelf as a companion piece to his exhibition. We went shopping for wood at Home Depot, then spent hours talking about whatever came to mind: the folk singer Donovan, whose spirit hovered over the exhibition; Williamsburg in the ’90s; Hundley’s cat. Aura Rosenberg brought her Pratt undergrads to the gallery for an off-site class.
Are all artists so selfless, generous, and engaged? Of course not. But Teen Party reminded me that art isn’t just a business. It’s also a strange calling, fueled by passion and eccentricity.
Living with art you can’t afford makes you rethink artistic value
I’m never going to own a painting by John Wesley, the renowned 91-year-old Pop artist known for his comically surreal imagery. And yet, for a few brief weeks, I had the good luck to live with one, to wake up to it, to work beneath it. I could check up on it every couple of hours, see how it was affected by the shifting daylight. There were no gatekeepers or gallery attendants. There was just a $45,000 masterpiece, hanging a few feet from the closet where we hide our Wi-Fi router.
We’ve bought art before, and it’s important to stress that collecting isn’t only for the rich. My wife’s engagement ring was a family heirloom, so it didn’t feel too extravagant to celebrate our wedding by buying her a sweet little drawing by Nikki Maloof. I have a signed print by Leon Golub—one from the same edition is in MoMA’s collection—that I acquired from a stranger online. For $25. Before we met and exhibited Sophie Larrimore, we snagged a delightful watercolor by her via Drawer, for less than $400. Years ago, I bought an Alex Becerra drawing at an art fair in Los Angeles (and later received a free, on-the-spot tattoo from the painter, at no extra charge). Our apartment is full of other work—some purchased, some gifted, some traded—from the likes of Davina Semo, Ted Gahl, Margaux Ogden, Nicole Wittenberg, Devin Troy Strother, Sam Moyer, and Josh Reames.
The living room of Teen Party, featuring works by Leon Golub, Sophie Lorrimore, Aura Rosenberg, Margaux Ogden, and Peter Indrisek after a Cezanne painting. Photo by Scott Indrisek. Courtesy of Teen Party.
It’s obviously a luxury to be able to acquire art at even those relatively modest price points. But these works are all a far cry from a Peter Halley—whose Nowhere (1992), for instance, recently sold at Phillips for $400,000. Spending months and months surrounded by art we’d never be able to buy ourselves was a singular experience, and often disorienting.
But having that art hanging in the context of our own apartment—our real life, not a temporary fantasy—also provided a unique opportunity to ponder what artistic value truly means.
Paintings worth a decent annual salary in New York City bring plenty of joy, but so do ones that are much more affordable—or even, technically, worthless. On top of that Marc Hundley–designed bookshelf at our house, there are two small sculptures: one a ceramic by Matthias Merkel Hess; the other a strange, speckled vase that resembles a contorted Nike swoosh. I bought the former a long time ago for around $750; the latter came from a New Jersey garage sale, and might have run me $3. I’d be hard pressed to tell you which I value more.
Ariela Gittlen and the newest member of the Teen Party family with an artwork by Leon Golub. Photo by Scott Indrisek. Courtesy of Teen Party.
Scott Indrisek, John Miller, and Aura Rosenberg install a lenticular work by Rosenberg at Teen Party. Courtesy of Teen Party.
It’s easy to falsely equate the art world with the art market, and it’s part of the reason why so many people in this industry burn out. As an art journalist, during my lowest moments, it was easy to feel like a glorified publicist, or a cheerleader simply driving up the financial value of work I truly believed in. Teen Party reminded me that there was more at play: relationships, social exchange, the pure pleasure of ideas and collaboration.
Then again, we were never a commercial enterprise—our rent was the same whether we were running an alternative gallery or not—so it would be disingenuous to pretend that this experience provides a sustainable model for anyone looking to do things like pay bills. That said, we did—to our delight and confusion—occasionally sell some art. A pair of Tracy Thomasons went to a collector in Denver; a small Marc Hundley work on paper went to a Los Angeleno who now works at a museum in Oklahoma. Those sales were likely enough to just about cover three year’s worth of canned beer and the occasional U-Haul rental.
Dan Fox, in his send-off letter as the editor of Frieze magazine in March 2019, mentioned how many of his friends and peers were ditching the art world. They were fed up, or dissatisfied, or sick of pitiful salaries. Fox cautioned that this decision didn’t have to be a binary one—either in the art world or totally removed from it. “The trick is in establishing a healthy proximity to art’s professional machinery without becoming lost in its showbiz; in keeping a sense of proportion,” he wrote. And later, in closing, surveying the art world’s pretensions, its fixation on academic credentials and biennial jetsetting: “You can say goodbye to all that bullshit, but keep art close by.”
Ariela Gittlen and Scott Indrisek of Teen Party in their apartment with artworks by Davina Semo, Devin Troy Strother, and Daniel Zender. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.
Teen Party was an effort, perhaps successful, to do just that. After 10 years fully immersed in the art world, I’m in the midst of making my own pivot in a different direction. That decade brought a lot of fanciness: plenty of paid-for plane tickets to places as far-flung as Moscow, Stockholm, or Dubai; sneak peeks of buzzy museum shows before they opened their doors to the masses. But when I look back on this enviable time period, what will have mattered the most? I’d trade a handful of Venice Biennales for Matthew Thurber in my kitchen, playing bizarro DJ; swap a lifetime of decadent gallery dinners for one evening spent roasting s’mores with friends and artists I love, all piled precariously into a hammock.
The art world, from the outside, always looks so flashy. But after a while, perks and access wear thin; what once seemed delightfully debauched and bohemian can start to feel like any other business. If Teen Party taught me anything, it’s that sometimes the real action is closer to home than you think.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that a John Wesley painting on view at Teen Party was worth $60,000. The article has been updated with the correct value, $45,000.