Pawel Althamer Retrospective at The New Museum

Text originally published by Out of Order Magazine. Photographs published on


Pawel Althamer

The Polish-born artist Pawel Althamer will have his first U.S. museum retrospective with the New Museum opening to the public Wednesday, February 12th. Althamer (b. 1967) has established a commendable body of work across a variety of mediums: sculpture, installation, film, performance and community outreach. The latter concept is expressed in this retrospective through a partnership between the New Museum and the Bowery Mission, for which Althamer has initiated a coat drive for the veteran neighborhood charity.

The Fourth, Third and Second floors are devoted to Althamer’s intentions as an artist: to galvanize a creative energy and to bring about an artistic experience that both engages with and relies on the community around it. These ideas are most explicitly realized in the Fourth Floor exhibition where the artist presents Draftsman’s Congress, a piece originally exhibited at the 7th Berlin Biennial (2012). Draftsman’s Congress transforms the Fourth Floor into a floor-to-ceiling drawing pad where museum visitors and more than seventy organizations are invited to draw, create and interact.

The Third and Second floor galleries are a more intimate view into the artist’s lifework, touching on subjects such as his family and his identity as an artist, a father and as citizen of Poland. ForNeighbors, Althamer invited fifty street musicians to play on the ground floor, the music is then broadcast in the Third Floor gallery and will change from day to day as new musicians play. Also on the Third Floor is a series of hyper-realistic sculptures, some self-portraits and some of strangers. The intimacy and care with which he renders these portraits, using a variety of industrial materials and processes, touches on the concept of an imaginary community, perhaps present or lacking in our daily lives.

The Second Floor gallery features two works, one sculpture based and one performance based. The performance based work consist of four films projected into the corners of the space, each made in collaboration with Artur Żmijewsk. So-Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind(2003-04) is an up-close view into the artist’s mind and personal history as you watch him transform and hallucinate through hypnosis and the ingestion of various drugs. There is a duality present in his character, one that is only fully realized through the influences of drugs and hypnosis. He seems at once a gentle teacher, a father and a caregiver and yet there is an intense warrior passion residing deep within, a kind of hunger and perhaps frustration that could only reside in someone who feels the need to bring something beautiful into the world and to nurture and protect it, whether it be a child, an idea or a drawing.

These powerful films are presented alongside his most recent work, Venetians, a group of plastic sculptures he cast from people he encountered by chance on the streets of Venice. Peddlers, workers and immigrants were just a few of his subjects. It is a haunting group of characters that create an anonymous crowd in the gallery. Venetians contextualizes his work on the Fourth Floor and his collaboration with Bowery Mission: there is sense that Althamer is playing with and probing the concept of community, exploring what the term means and who it includes or does not include based on our own culture perceptions.

Althamer is a father of seven children, a man who used to build children’s dolls to provide for his family, and an artist who never let his art practice stray too far away from his reality. Perhaps that is where the beauty lies in his practice — he is devoted to localism, community and creating a shared history. Exclusion, pomposity and ego are the least of his intentions as an artist. Pawel Althamer: The Neighbors is a welcome injection of humanity and activism into contemporary art, a term that has become so clouded and defined by a very different set of expectations and practices.

Pawel Althamer: The Neighbors was curated by Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari and will be on view at The New Museum through April 13th, 2014