The Park Place Gallery is probably not as prominent as it should be in the art-historical canon. Founded in 1962 by nine artists working in New York City, many of whom were recent West Coast transplants, the gallery’s program was decidedly anti-dogmatic. “It was impossible to identify what we were. That was our freedom,” is an oft-repeated quotation by painter and Park Place founder Dean Fleming. The gallery’s later name, “Park Place, The Gallery of Art Research, Inc.,” adopted when the gallery moved from its original Park Place loft to Greenwich Village in 1965, also indicates the group’s interest not so much in promoting a set style or ideology but its commitment to process over product. Many of the artists who participated in Park Place, particularly its sculptors, were somewhat predictably subsumed by Minimalism in historical accounts of the 1960s. But while the Park Place Gallery was active, practices and labels were still in flux, and the shows at the gallery reflected that fluidity. Artists like Robert Smithson and Sol LeWitt, both now offhandedly described as Minimalist but whose practices are decidedly more complex and less minimal than the moniker lets on, both showed at invitational exhibitions at the Park Place Gallery early in their careers.
Since disbanding in 1967, the Park Place Gallery has had only one major retrospective exhibition, Reimagining Space at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas, in 2008/9. That show focused significantly on the Park Place Gallery artists’ preoccupation with developments in scientific theories of space––namely the fourth dimension, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and other holdovers from the early twentieth century, when mysticism and the occult still held some sway over the scientific community. Fleming, for example, was enamored of Peter Ouspensky’s theories about “cosmic consciousness.” This idea of cosmic consciousness––later transformed slightly into concepts like “expanded consciousness,” at which point, in the late 1960s, it fed into ideas about the psychedelic and transformative powers of LSD and other drugs––is something that is comprehensible in Fleming’s paintings even if you don’t know a thing about theories of the fourth dimension. Stare into any number of his complex geometric and formulated multicolored drawings or paintings from the mid-1960s, and multiple spatial worlds will appear in alternating crystallized patterns. They are truly representations of multiple dimensions. Words such as “trippy” or “far out” seem the only way to describe them.
Reimagining Space argued so persuasively for the Park Place Group’s scientific influences that other avenues of inquiry appeared definitively closed. David Richard Gallery’s exhibition Park Place Gallery: Founders and Friends, Then and Now (February 3-March 31) has the distinction, at least for me, of opening up those hitherto invisible avenues. There’s still no avoiding the experimental spatial illusionism in the works of Valledor and Fleming that punctuate the walls of the gallery—and it becomes obvious that other artists who have until now rarely been associated with the gallery’s history, namely Linda Fleming and Patsy Krebs, shared the concerns of their contemporaries. Krebs’s drawings from the 1960s in particular have clear similarities to Dean Fleming’s small gouaches on view nearby. Both artists composed gridded geometric compositions that produce the spatial patterning and optical trickery now mostly associated with Fleming’s larger paintings, one of which, Papados, Greece (1964), hangs nearby. Both Fleming and Krebs named their drawings after locations in Northern Africa and the Greek islands (Tetouan, Papados, Lesbo [sic]), where they traveled together in 1964. These drawings offer the most lucid historical evidence of creative exchange in the show—a window into the ways in which artists often experimented together without regard for authorial control.
Park Place Gallery: Founders and Friends, Then and Now seems to aim not so much to present a retrospective of Park Place Gallery as to resurrect its spirit. Only two of the founding members of the gallery, Dean Fleming and Leo Valledor, are represented in the show. The space is also conspicuously absent of freestanding sculpture and therefore lacks any acknowledgment of a practice that was crucial to the gallery’s 1960s identity. The integrity of the exhibition, then, relies on a rather disparate group of artists, mostly painters, all with a connection to a gallery that shuttered fifty years ago. Predictably, some passages are more successful than others. One room that features some of the boldest works in the show—a wall-mounted, powder-coated steel sculpture by Linda Fleming, a pristine pair of shaped canvases by Valledor, and Krebs’s recent paintings of thin washes of acrylic that were the most impressive representations of far-out space of any of the more recent works—provide a neat sampling of the ways in which the hard-edged geometric tendencies in some of the Park Place artists live on. Another room contains five paintings by Dean Fleming, some of which were made as recently as 2016. These charming geometric compositions were seemingly painted freehand, and their wavering edges provide a subtle complement to Linda Fleming’s and Valledor’s pristine aesthetic of manufacture. But perhaps most startling were Fleming’s paintings opposite those new geometric abstractions: broad canvases with thick, oily smears of acrylic forcefully applied to their surfaces. These works, produced by Fleming in the late 1970s, allude to the fact that, after Park Place, his practice veered into new realms of possibility and experimentation. This was perhaps due to his new residence, the Libre artist commune in southern Colorado that he and Linda helped to found in 1968 after leaving New York. These paintings, as impressive as they are, also call into question the necessity of orienting a group show around a period of people’s lives that was clearly only the beginning of a much larger journey. That said, though, it was always hard to identify exactly what the Park Place Gallery was. That was their freedom.