Arts Anonymous: What’s Really Behind the Bruce High Quality Foundation?

The Bruce High Quality Foundation don’t want you to know who they are. Not that anonymity is the most interesting thing about them. This art collective is not known because of its members anonymity, or anonymous because they’re too well known. They just thought it would be more fun to present themselves this way – as a monolithic unit. They claim to have been disgusted with the idea of the artist as a lone genius, so they made the artist a faceless corporation instead – with genuine C-corp tax status and interchangeable staff. Or maybe, just like any given batch of art-school graduates released into a weird and overstuffed market, they panicked and huddled together. Either way, it worked.

In the last two years, the Bruces – oh, how they hate being called that – have been everywhere. Their breezy navigation of the mainstream art scene is especially impressive for a group whose ideological opposition to that scene accounts for a big chunk of DNA. BHQF showed at the Whitney Biennial (in a nearly apologetic move, it staged its own shadow convention of sorts, the Brucennial, to open on the same day). BHQF showed at PS1, at Centre Pompidou, and Art Basel Miami Beach twice: once with a lecture, once with sculptures. (Vito Schnabel produced and presented; all pieces but one sold, and Schnabel pocketed the last one). BHQF showed at the Bruno Bischoberger gallery, a Zurich space whose last artistic occupant, 13 years ago, was Damien Hirst. At Miami’s NADA art fair last year, so many vendors boasted some sort of association with Bruce High Quality in their applications that a member of the NADA board admitted that such associations stopped helping and became a liability. “They’re going to be bigger, absolutely,” said Schnabel when I checked back with him last December. “They’re going to be really important.”

More casual art onlookers, however, still tend to know Bruce High Quality as The Guys Who Did That Thing. The guys who mounted a performance piece called Cats on Broadway, an indie rendition of the Webber musical with the Broadway in question being Bushwick’s. It was about gentrification, they insisted, possibly in jest. They’re the guys who hawked “Original Ground Zero Heroes” to downtown tourists off a plywood cart, a simple, nasty and somehow necessary stunt. The guys who pretended to race stock cars in the Guggenheim. The guys who chased Robert Smithson’s “Floating Island” installation down the Hudson in a motorboat with a miniature Christo’s Gate on it. They’re inside-baseball commentators mixed with a highbrow version of Improv Everywhere, punking the market from the margins. And now that their own stuff is selling, and selling well, they’re stuck in a situation so familiar as to be banal: they’ve mocked their way into the establishment.

Finding the corporeal Bruces is as tricky as entering into a mediated conversation is easy. Email and the polite entity that emails back – usually within the hour – uses a perhaps-royal “we” and could be any one of the Foundation’s seven or so founding members. Or all seven, typing in turn. “Amazing how it disconcerts people that there’s not a single person behind this address,” it marvels when asked. “Have you ever dealt with super-important people who have assistants? There’s always someone else answering, the appointment scheduler or something. Arianna Huffington has four cell phones and three emails – there’s no entity there!” Or you can call them at 212-966-3986, the number of the Bruce High Quality Foundation University Detective Agency, whose ad for “Free investigative services, no job too small or too big, no question too obscure” used to regularly pop up in Craigslist and lamppost ads, and which is just an answering machine somewhere. The girl that delivers the outgoing message is trying very, very hard not to crack up. image A poster for the 2008 Brucennial

I lucked into meeting the group relatively early, when their defenses weren’t up quite as high. My first visit with Bruce High Quality took place in July 2009, at the foundation’s then-headquarters – a dusty storefront in a no-man’s-land where Bushwick blends into Bed-Stuy. Three of the “staff” veged out around a table whose main features were an overflowing ashtray and a plate of pasteles de nata. Struck pieces of old exhibits, including booths, tables and sign from a mid-80s Burger King they scavenged off Governors Island, filled the room. One wall housed neat rows of glued-on burger buns. Downstairs in the basement hid a woodworking shop and a bare-bones recording studio where parts of Cats on Broadway had been rehearsed. A dry-erase board listed “PEOPLE WITH MONEY” (“Beatrice Grosse, Julie Babazzoka, Stacy Stark… Grant from Monaco… get in touch with guy from POMPIDUE”) for a possible benefit (“Objective: $257,000”). Was this an objet’d art or an actual marketing plan? Both. The answer, with Bruce High Quality, is always both. They were preparing a lecture on the relationship between art patronage and sex, and were exploring ways of making the lecture itself into a fundraiser.

The core group consists of seven young men, with a half-dozen auxiliary members. Bruce 1, the Foundation’s soft-spoken theoretician and obvious breakout star whenever this charade is over, is a slight guy with square glasses, stubble on the permanent verge of cohering into a beard, and genuine-looking, as opposed to designer, bedhead. Bruce 2 is a beatific hippie dude who has spent one of our interviews longingly staring at an unlit joint: actually sparking it, it seemed, would have damaged the group’s anti-bohemian, ultraprofessional image. Bruces 3 and 4 cultivate variations on the greaser/rockabilly theme, complete with pompadours. The rest look like architecture students, which at least one of them is. All are about 27 years old; their normal state appears to be lounging around in groups of three or four. There are girls on the periphery, but the anonymous core is a boys-only club. “From talking to the women involved in this,” says one female art blogger, “I got the impression that the whole project is pretty exclusionary when it comes to women” – probably less a function of the group’s ethos than a byproduct of its M.O., which has a whiff of a hyperliterate treehouse. In live conversation, the Bruces use words like “generative” and “Beuysian” a lot, and all speak with the exact same voice – a relaxed, shoegazing drone. They’ll be delighted to know that transcribing the audio from their group interviews is a who-said-what nightmare.

After extracting the promise that their anonymity – which is easily penetrated via a basic Facebook search – would be honored, the trio more or less forgot about me and began describing their plans for the coming fall. A few ideas surfaced (“We want to get a Ghostbusters ambulance and cruise the country to different art schools and do presentations”), mutating and getting refined before my eyes as the men elaborated and riffed off each other. Then the bomb dropped. “We’re starting an art school,” said the ringleader. “The Bruce High Quality Foundation University. BHQFU.” Right. Go on. “No, seriously. We have a group of friends who want to do classes, seminars and workshops. It’s going to be less about the vision and more about conversation groups. Through conversation, you can generate material.”

Pretty cerebral stuff, said I, fairly convinced the Bruces were pulling my leg.

“Well,” deadpanned Bruce 1 with exquisite hauteur, “We could tag some buildings.” He pointed to the array of hamburger buns glued to the wall behind him. “We could ejaculate on these, I guess.”

* * *

After an era in the New York art scene marked by heroin and spattered by effluvia, an era that came to a remarkably well-defined end with Dash Snow’s death, we get the Bruces: a group of middle-class brainiacs whose art is wholly devoted to art critique. Art scrubbed clean of sex, crime, danger, and any feeling other than quiet yet persistent indignation. All head in more ways than one (the only visual representation of their mascot, Bruce High Quality, is a giant papier-mache noggin), BHQF is the anti-Snow, anti-Koh. They are the Talking Heads to their Sex Pistols. As Sasha Lerman, the creator of the art site SMAC that featured work by the Bruces, puts it: “They’re not playing geniuses. They’re playing smart.”

To those who know, this cerebral intensity, paired with this insistence on art as a public conversation, could only be the work of one institution: the Cooper Union. A unique, selective, free college in the heart of the Village, the Cooper Union is the perfect machine for churning out conceptualists, and sure enough, it is where the Bruces come from. Most of the core group are CU ’04. image The Bruce High Quality Foundation’s national Teach 4 Amerika tour

There is no understanding Bruce High Quality Foundation without understanding the school. Most classes here begin with free-form discussion where students are invited to riff on each other’s work, assigning it interpretations. A class called Painting “only teaches you to talk about painting,” explains artist Alexandra Paperno, a 2000 graduate. “For actual painting, there’s a class called Painting Techniques, and you’re not allowed to take it for longer than a year.” The students yet unsure of what they want to do are most likely to pick sculpture – this because the Cooper Union definition of sculpture extends to everything in three dimensions, including live performance. “You can read poems, you can do whatever you want and call it sculpture,” remembers Lerman, also a graduate. “They had a clay studio but then they closed it since no one was using it, because the idea of traditional sculpture from a model is archaic.”

In fact, the story of BHQF truly begins with an artist and Cooper Union professor named Hans Haacke. Haacke, among whose views is that museums and galleries are tools of capitalism, taught and heavily influenced a student named Doug Ashford. Ashford then went on to create Group Movement, a collective with an M.O. practically indistinguishable from BHQF’s – before going back to, you guessed it, teach at the Cooper Union alongside Haacke. (“People in Ashford’s class were laughing that they didn’t get Haacke but got his favorite student,” recalls one graduate.) Almost all of the future Bruces took the Ashford class. “Doug is a brilliant guy,” says Bruce 1. “His class was really important for those of us who took it. It’s funny that the Group Material stuff doesn’t come up that much… I mean, it’s there. It’s there.” In other words, the creation of BHQFU brought Cooper Union’s do-teach-do-teach-do-teach cycle to its third successive go-round. The school, it seems, is remarkably consistent in producing artists so academicized that their primary impulse upon graduation is not to create art but to open an art school. “There’s a group like this out of Cooper Union every year,” says a fellow graduate, requesting Bruce-like anonymity for the quote. “They seem like very diligent boys.”

Cooper Union both defines and diminishes the Bruces, and they don’t like talking about it. “Private history easily overplayed as biographical justifications,” the Entity wrote to me via email (it gets pompous when it’s nervous). From what I gathered, though, the future members of the group navigated the Cooper system with spectacular ease, absorbing some aspects, gaming the others and reserving others still for future parodic use. They used their considerable charisma when needed. They befriended the grumpiest, oldest guy at the woodshop – a secluded world-within-a-world in Cooper Union’s innards – and made him into a full-fledged Bruce collaborator, gaining useful access to materials and machinery. They similarly impressed their fellow ’04 grad Lola Schnabel, Julian’s daughter, who brought them to her older brother Vito; Vito would gradually become the group’s main champion, producing and presenting their exhibitions worldwide. But that kind of thing still lay far ahead.

* * * By September, the Bruce High Quality Foundation University idea, which I had taken for a joke, began to thicken into something half-real. The Bruces gathered for a dinner on the top floor of a building above the restaurant Vento in Meatpacking District – Bruce 3’s apartment. The Foundation had been having these to help the brainstorming process along; each dinner, dorkily enough, had a culinary theme, and tonight’s was Italian potluck. Bruce 3, in a neon T-shirt that said San Diego, cooked six pounds of mussels for twelve people. There were girls – Margo and Caitlyn, real names for once, who appeared to be on the group’s fringe, and a gorgeous fan named Lena. The Bruces were soliciting ideas for the future university’s classes. Margo and Caitlyn talked logistics in a corner. Snatches of their conversation drifted over: “And we’ll need a projector…” “I wonder what my attraction to the colors pink and yellow says about me.” “Did you get the list of histories we’re interested in?”

“I gotta prep the mussels,” announced Bruce 3. “Cut the beards.” image First day of class at the Bruce High Quality Foundation University

“Let’s talk about art! Education!” yelled Margo, to laughter. Then they proceed to do just that, for three hours. The marathon bull session is the Bruces’ modus operandi, and this one was spectacular. Talk ranged from Hirst’s shark sagging in its tank (“The name is so much cooler than the thing”), to the news that someone had a dog chained and starved at a gallery as art (everyone looked genuinely horrified). A long conversation about British measurement units – stone, hand, rod – started with cheap dick jokes and culminated with Bruce 1’s question about Isaac Newton (“How much, did you think, this attachment to metaphor slowed him down?”). There was no weed going around, I feel compelled to add.

Halfway through, Bruce 3 lifted a glass of Chianti and announced that the deal came through on the Tribeca space they’ve been eyeing for the University. Another absurd bit of serendipity: The Light of Guidance Sufi Center of New York City had agreed to rent out two floors of its West Broadway building to BHQF at an amazing rate. The group’s center of operations would now be moving from deepest Bushwick to the nation’s most expensive area code. There was a toast, some applause, and a slightly spooked silence set in. This has just gotten a little too real. “It’s an amazing moment when you work with people,” Bruce 1 later told me, “Where everyone’s almost embarrassed to acknowledge that they’re about to actually try and make something happen. That is, perhaps, my favorite moment of all.”

Then the discussion began anew, now noticeably reshaped into a flurry of questions to Bruce 1. One or two classes a week? Who’s in charge of distributing texts? Maybe each of us should be in charge of teaching one class and sit as a student in every other class? Do we assign homework? Do we want the same people coming in week after week? (“We don’t want to set up a scenario of demands”). Do we let art-school students in? (“Depends on the art school”). When does the school year begin? (Why, September 11, of course – in three weeks). Someone proposed a class devoted to reenacting rituals, from guided meditation to corporate trust exercises, as performance. The idea tilted toward using the class itself as a hazing ritual for students – let’s make them jump through hoops – then tilted back. Bruce 1, again the clear reader, nodded for a while before interrupting everyone with a decisive “Okay. What do you need for this?”

We need a room, paper, and a beanbag chair.

“I have a giant beanbag chair,” chimed in Bruce 3. “But it needs beans.”

Three weeks later, the University was live. Thanks to a grant from Creative Time, the second floor of a grubby building in Tribeca transformed into something resembling a classroom. One of the first classes, taught by Bruce 1 and called “Art History with Benefits,” ruminated on – what else – patronage. Next day, the chalkboard still retained a maze of arrows that went from Philip II to Velasquez and from Annie Leibowitz to Art Capital Group. About forty students had attended. Most of them were current Cooper Union students brought up on the legend of Bruce High Quality. The school, in other words, became a kind of extracurricular Cooper Union club.

* * *

In December of 2004, months after graduation, the Bruces crowded into a van and went to Art Basel Miami Beach, America’s preeminent art fair. No one had invited them. They came set on mocking Basel’s market mentality; among other obscure pranks, they parked crude cardboard cars in the convention center’s parking lot. When Craig Robbins, one of the fair’s creators, approached them and asked what they were doing, they replied that “Craig Robbins let us do it.” “They didn’t know what he looked like, they just knew he was the name to drop,” explains a friend. “And they charmed him so completely that he not only let them keep their cars but bought one of their pieces.” image BHQF’s Die Burger

The legend of Bruce High Quality cohered soon after that. It was supposed to be the name of a “social sculptor” (a tweedier term for performance artist) who had died on 9/11, and the Foundation was just that, a foundation taking care of his legacy. They played around with Bruce’s head for a while. Made it answer questions at the Deitch Projects. Note the ease with which these recent grads penetrated gallery after iconic gallery; it didn’t hurt that Bruce 1’s job upon graduation was at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, a real foundation set up after 9/11 to bring art downtown.

Then came the “Gates” prank. The objective was to pursue Robert Smithson’s arcadian barge installation on a motorboat bearing a bit of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s even larger installation. There was no way of actually getting the Gate on the Island, contrary to what the observers assumed – it was nailed to the boat. But the Bruces’ trademark combination of serendipity and savvy struck again. Designer Ian Adelman, working at his DUMBO office, snapped a photo of the fake abordage attempt. The world’s events conspired to keep September 24, 2005, a slow-enough news day – and so the New York Times ran Adelman’s photo on its front page. Bruce High Quality was not mentioned in the accompanied piece, but the hunt for the mysterious prankster was on. The definitive judgment was, however, rendered by Gawker: “Pretentious conceptual art piece,” read an arrow pointing at Smithson’s barge; “Amusing conceptual response” – at the boat. “At least for one day,” the post concluded, “we hated cheeky art students just a bit less” – a possible epigraph to everything that followed.

What followed was, depending on your vantage point, either a steady climb or a descent into absurdity. One of the founders of the High Line park bought the Gates boat for $15,000 – the Bruces’ biggest sale by that point. The group, who had thought of sales as a “plan B to patronage,” realized they could, perhaps, support themselves. Over the next five years, again and again, they’d be amazed to see their work treated as sellable. They were finding out for themselves what they had learned as an academic truism: the market can assimilate anything, especially anti-market gestures. There is no way out of the system. You can collaborate with it gratefully, or you can collaborate with it smirkingly. The latter option is more lucrative.

The ultimate proof came to the Bruces exactly one day before our first meeting. The group had put up a lecture at Harris Lieberman gallery, “Explaining Pictures to a Dead Bull,” about the art market. It was both an earnest gallery talk and a nod to the Joseph Beuys performance “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.” Among other things, it marveled at, and condemned, the phenomenon of collectors buying photographic documentation of a performance, or certificates of an “idea.” (It also made fun of Julian Schnabel, a bold move when one of your biggest patrons is his son; “They have a great sense of humor,” Vito would only say in response). You can see where this is going. The lecture itself got sold that night. The slide projector and the chalkboard used in it were bought by a private foundation in Puerto Rico. “I used a friend’s hat in it,” said Bruce 3, bewildered, the next afternoon. “If I knew it would get sold, I would have used my own.” He stared into space and lit a cigarette. “I now owe him a hat.”

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