Penitence Alley, 1989 - 1991

by Martha Schwendener

Penitence Alley, 1989-1991

The New York Times


Vicolo della Penitenza or Penitence Alley in the Trastevere section of Rome was the site of a short-lived artists’ residency called the Rome Studio, initiated by the American art dealers Barbara Gladstone and Thea Westreich. The artist and gallerist Janice Guy served its director and she has now organized “Penitence Alley, 1989-1991” at Higher Pictures Generation, a terrific group show of artists who made work at the Rome Studio.

What’s special about this exhibition of photographs, paintings, sculpture and videos is not just the roster of famous artists — Richard Prince, Sarah Lucas, Christopher Wool, Franz West and others. It captures a moment when many of them were viewed as visionaries rather than brand names in a market-driven art world, and shows them in dialogue with Rome, an art mecca for several millenniums.

Thomas Struth photographed the artist Meyer Vaisman performing a typical Italian hand gesture. On Kawara’s recognizable date paintings is in Italian. Michel Auder’s video “David Hammons, Cindy Sherman” (1990) captures Hammons in his nearby studio at the American Academy in Rome. The same video shows Auder’s partner at the time, Cindy Sherman, puttering around her studio making her “History Portraits,” inspired by artists like Raphael, who painted his Renaissance frescos in the nearby Villa Farnesina.

In this sense, the exhibition highlights not just contemporary art or a particular residency, but the fascinating interconnections between art, history and place — with Rome, in its full grit and glory, as a backdrop.