A Closely Watched New York Gallery Returns, Offering a Smoke-Filled Café and Performance Art

On Thursday night, after a torrential downpour, a line formed on Avenue A at the corner of 9th Street. The crowd had weathered the rain to attend the opening of “The Café,” the first show in nearly a year at O’Flaherty’s, an artist-run space that has taken on a few forms at once: a collective, an experiment, and a selling entity.

Its packed openings stand out among those of many other downtown New York galleries for a variety of reasons. One is that it isn’t just a gallery. Yes, it does sell and show art, but the space has a tendency to feel like an ongoing party as well. Now, it’s set up as a makeshift eatery too.

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The founders, painters Jamian Juliano-Villani and Billy Grant, have now relocated O’Flaherty’s to the former home of a theater run by the Upright Citizens Brigade. Their first presentation there could be seen as an exhibition, but you might call it a performance as well. You can eat there, you can buy art there, and, most importantly, you can hang out there.

At the entrance, Juliano-Villani and Grant set up a table with a pair of sleek Apple monitors, a vase of flowers, and printouts introducing the show’s latest concept, the typical things you might expect at a gallery reception desk. Inside, the offerings diverge significantly from anything traditional.

“We were told we could never get this restaurant legal,” an ironically worded press release reads. “We can’t, but that doesn’t matter. Just taste our food before you hurt yourself.”

Grant, who manned the desk as roughly 400 guests filtered in to fill the space to capacity, was coy when asked about the write-up. Were there really permit troubles? All he would say was: “This is poetry.”

There is a rich tradition of artists launching food ventures. “The Café” owes something to the spirit of Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1971 collective FOOD, a restaurant in SoHo that served bone marrow and live brine shrimp. It also owes something to Los Angeles–based artist Kim Dingle, an O’Flaherty’s alum who ran a vegetarian restaurant out of her studio.

In “The Café,” the art was on the periphery. All of the seven artists participating have at some point worked in New York. One guest posed for a photography with his arm stretched around a 1984 plaster piece by American sculptor George Segal featuring a woman, legs splayed, sitting in a wicker chair. It’s the sort of work you’d expect to see in a blue-chip gallery, not in a smoke-filled East Village diner, and it was priced at $200,000.

There were works by artists more familiar to the downtown scene, like a sculpture by Brandon Ndife, whose work appeared in the 2021 New Museum Triennial. But then there were stranger additions, like a 2001 Catherine Murphy painting of the artist’s name written backward in a frost-covered window. The work, which critic Roberta Smith once called a “tour de force,” is on sale for $160,000. At the opening, it became the backdrop for a photo-op for a server modeling a chef’s hat and apron printed with black text that read: THE ODIOUS SMELL Of TRUTH.

O’Flaherty’s has been written about as a reaction to the commercial art world’s wide-scale marketization. Yet Juliano-Villani seemed serious about selling the art on view anyway. In an email to ARTnews, she said, “We are looking for the right people, as the works are coming from artists and collections that are close to us.”

As for the opening itself, the party brought less mayhem than previous ones held at O’Flaherty’s. Perhaps it was a sign of a newer, slightly more cleaned-up O’Flaherty’s—the emphasis, of course, being on “slightly.” Cigarette smoke still filled the space, and guests still spilled everywhere. The art remained unusual too. One TV mounted high on the wall played Cory Arcangel’s Pollock and American Pickers (2012), a 16-minute-long video that, despite being made a decade ago, barely appears in any reviews, suggesting that it remains a deep cut in the practice of a well-known artist.

Add to all this strangeness the artists and other creative types who were working as servers in this café, doling out bar food and Frosé drinks priced between $5 and $10. Served circulated between the main room and a minuscule kitchen in the back to bring food out, though few people actually ordered anything. One waiter, the artist Devin Cronin, said she had discovered the gig via a targeted ad on Instagram stating that O’Flaherty’s was hiring. She was hazy on the details of how she’d come to known O’Flaherty’s, and quoted fashion photographer Terry Richardson, saying, “It’s who you know and who you blow.”

As the night went on, the air inside became increasingly unbreathable as cigarette smoke filled the space. “You know how I know they didn’t get a permit? They’re passing out ash trays,” said Robert Girardin, one attendee at the party. “They’re trying to get shut down.” Girardin and others who spoke with ARTnews felt the space has provided a break from the art world’s formalities. “It’s nice to have a spectacle, not everything being so tight.”

At a table in the café, some gathered to recall other artists that contained the same ethos. One was the artist Sven Sachsalber, whodied of heart failure at 33 on the verge of stardom, having just begun to receive positive notices for works such as one in which he searched for a needle hidden in a haystack by a curator. His 2020 work Untitled (Schweiz), a yellow ski-suit mounted to a blank canvas, hung on one of the cafe’s walls.

“He wanted what I had, I wanted what he had,” mused the artist Armando Nin, who reminisced on a period of time before Sachsalber died, when the two worked together in his Brooklyn studio. As he spoke with Nick Farhi and Andrew Kass, Nin seemed to view Sachsalber as belonging to a bygone New York art scene, when their work and their social world felt more intertwined.Nin said he now paints the walls at the Guggenheim Museum.

There were signs that the O’Flaherty’s that opened in 2021 may be different from its 2023 iteration. Private security manned the door, to avoid the cops showing up to overcrowding, as has happened in the past. Artists expressed a collective anxiety that the gallery might be at risk of becoming overexposed. “I feel like if this space was open all the time, it would be filled with NYU kids with their laptops, said Kass.

Othersembraced O’Flaherty’s commitment to not caring about tastes. Albert Samreth, another artist in attendance, described the gallery as filling a social void for reluctant insiders. He called O’Flaherty’s “the Museum of Ice Cream for people who went to RISD.”  

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