Pawel Althamer’s Venetians

W‘s arts and culture director’s must-see for February

Exhibition view of Pawel Althamer's Venetians at the Venice Bienniale 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

As I wandered through the vast Arsenale during the Venice Biennale this past June, I was struck in particular by the Polish artist Pawel Althamer’s Venetians, a haunting set of 90 figurative sculptures. Produced with the help of Althamer’s father’s plastics firm, the figures’ faces were cast from those of street vendors, waiters, and cleaners he approached on the streets in Venice and then set onto spindly bodies. You felt as if you had come upon a room of phantoms. Althamer uses art not only to depict communities but also to create them, seeing his sculptures as totems meant to spark social experiences. He has taken trips with his Warsaw neighbors, all of them garbed in gold space suits, and recently he began building a sculpture park for the housing project in which he has lived for 20 years, transforming his own community in the process. On February 12th 2014, the New Museum in New York opens the first U.S. museum survey of his work, which in addition to Venetians includes earlier hyperrealistic sculptures of Althamer and his family, as well as pieces that will be made during the course of the show. Collaboration is at the core of the undertaking: On one floor, visitors are encouraged to paint and scribble their thoughts on the museum’s walls. “In many cases, it’ll be difficult to say where Pawel’s work ends and the work of others begins,” the New Museum associate director, Massimiliano Gioni, told me. “But that’s specifically what his work is about.” Go, and express yourself.

For the duration of the exhibition, visitors bringing new or gently used men’s coats to the New Museum will receive free entry. All the coats will be donated to the Bowery Mission.