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Mattress Factory celebrates 25 years of the works

Museum's art installations have played to all senses

Thursday, December 26, 2002

By Ellen Wilson

It was 3 o'clock in the morning, and there were high school kids in prom clothes sprawled on the floor within James Turrell's "Rise," watching the 10-minute cycle of changing light as though it were a sunrise. "Instead of going to the morgue, they decided to go to the Mattress Factory," says Michael Olijnyk, the museum's curator and co-founder. He seems pleased.

The Mattress Factory collaborates with the Carnegie International, curated by Mark Francis and Lynne Cook, housing four of its artworks. Ann Hamilton's "offering," which combined a case of slowly melting wax ex-voto heads, a coal miner's ledger and 30 free-flying canaries, occupied a nearby museum property. The other International installations were John Cage's changing installations at the mattress factory," Tatsuo Miyajima's "Over the Border" and Christian Boltanski's "Archives of the Carnegie International, 1896-1991."

Related information

Mattress Factory Timeline


The prom-goers were enjoying the 25-hour party in June that marked the 25th anniversary of this installation-only art museum on Pittsburgh's North Side. "James Turrell: Into the Light," a special exhibition to celebrate the museum's anniversary, will run through April 2003.

The story of the Mattress Factory is inextricably linked to the story of installation art, a genre that is as much spirit or concept as bricks and paint. But any history of the Mattress Factory must begin, prosaically, with the building.

"Barbara Luderowski bought the building to make a space with multiple dimensions," explains Olijnyk. Packed into the former Stearns & Foster warehouse was a vegetarian cooperative, exhibitions of different types of art, theaters, a dance studio, and living and working space for artists. It was 1974, and the idea of questioning authority pervaded the art world just as it did everywhere else.

"Artists were rebelling," says Olijnyk of the roots of installation art, "making work that was inaccessible to galleries. What's interesting for us is that ... music, painting, all of it exists in installations."

When pressed for a definition of installation art, Luderowski, the Mattress Factory's executive and artistic director, says simply, "It's what we do." She adds, "The need for pigeonholing, boxing and otherwise proscribing an art form is counterintuitive and counter to the actual process."

Installation art is generally created for a specific site out of almost any medium and results in an environment that immerses the visitor in what is often a multi-sensory experience. While certainly not new -- think of the Paleolithic caves of Lascaux -- critics generally agree that it owes its current prominence to the turmoil of the '60s. As Michael Kimmelman wrote in The New York Times in 1998, "Whatever [installation art's] formal kinship is with even older art, it grows out of what happened 30-odd years ago: that we came to be aware of the gallery as an active container of meaning and of ourselves as implicit participants in the art."

It is rare for an institution to show installation art exclusively. "The Mattress Factory does belong to a 'type' of institution that initially came to the fore in the 1980s with the adoption of unorthodox spaces toward site-specific installations by resident artists," says Madeleine Grynsztejn, curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. "Within that model, however, the Mattress Factory is recognized as a world-class example. What sets it apart in particular from other models of its type is its continued commitment to developing new projects, even as they retain some works on a permanent basis." Grynsztejn, familiar to Pittsburgh from her job as curator of the 1999 Carnegie International, adds that the Mattress Factory is "highly regarded" in the Bay Area of Northern California, and "resonates with institutions such as [San Francisco's] Capp Street Project and the Headlands

Japanese Yayoi Kusama was one of three artists in an exhibition guest-curated by The Andy Warhol Museum curator Margery King. (The other two were Greer Lankton and Andre' Walker.) Kusama stands within her "Dots Obsession," one of three installations she designed (two, "Infinity Dots Mirrored Room" and Repetitive Vision," are still up), dressed to blend in.

Art Center [in Sausalito, Calif.]."


Olijnyk joined Luderowski in 1978, but the Mattress Factory as it exists today was born in 1982. That was the year of the first installation exhibition, "Factory Installed," when Olijnyk and two other artists, Athena Tacha and Diane Samuels, were invited to do site-specific installations in the second-floor gallery.

"This was the first time that I consciously set out to combine my interest in the visual arts with my passion for architecture," wrote Luderowski in the first catalog produced by the museum, "Mattress Factory: Installation and Performance 1982-1989." The Mattress Factory is unusual both in that it presents only installations and performance pieces and, in the extent to which it is willing to indulge the artist, providing not only a stipend, but also materials, labor, travel and living expenses, a residence and intangibles such as documentation and promotion.

"It's about helping someone try something," says Olijnyk, who has added the job of general contractor to that of curator and oversees construction of the installations. And that, once again, goes back to the building, which has been renovated over the years, but not so renovated as to prohibit certain acts of destruction for the sake of art.

"We may have an artist saying, can we cut a hole in your floor?" Olijnyk says. "And we want to say yes. We can't do that if we just installed a $10,000 oak floor."

"The thing that is deeply distinctive about the Mattress Factory is that they are willing to go over the top with their artists to achieve whatever the person wants to do," says Winifred Lutz, a Philadelphia-based artist whose Garden is part of the permanent collection. "They have a nonconformist mindset, and so it's not 'Oh, you can't do this,' it's 'How can we do it?' This is very important and very unusual. As they become more successful and bigger and more watched, this could become more difficult.

"I'm not saying that sometimes relationships with artists haven't been uncomfortable, but that's because you've got a strong-minded person at the helm," Lutz adds. "If you have someone with a strong temperament and ambition and passion, they are going to knock heads with whoever they work with; that's just the way things work. That includes the artists. Both Barbara and Michael work on their hands and knees while the artist sometimes acts like a prima donna. [Barbara and Michael's] interest is the art, not the prestige of the Mattress Factory."

One early landmark event was when Luderowski and Olijnyk met James Turrell in the early 1980s. The three reached an agreement for Turrell to create installations at the Mattress Factory, the first permanently installed Turrell works in the United States, during a cab ride in New York. The museum's first permanent installations, Turrell's "Pleiades" and "Danae," were completed in 1983.

There were few construction drawings for these early Turrell works. For "Pleiades," the space was built and then Turrell worked with the lights to achieve the effect he wanted -- a strange and amorphous shape created in part by the attempts of the viewer's eyes to focus in the dark. As Olijnyk puts it, "Light isn't the material -- perception is the material."

One year after Turrell's first installations at the Mattress Factory, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the first time the award was given to a visual artist. (Artist Robert Irwin also won that year.) It was one of many happy examples of the Mattress Factory putting its faith in an artist ahead of the curve.

Another is Yayoi Kusama, whose "Infinity Dots -- Mirrored Room" and "Repetitive Vision" were installed in 1996 on long-term loan. Kusama was well known in the 1950s but largely forgotten until the late 1990s. Now her work is included in most contemporary museum collections, including that of the Carnegie Museum of Art, which owns a mixed-media work from the early 1960s, "Silver Coat."


In need of more exhibition space, the museum acquired 1414 Monterey in 1986. Rather than the art transforming the building, however, the building inspired the art. When Luderowski and Olijnyk saw the house's abandoned kitchen, they sent photographs to British artist Bill Woodrow, who wrote back "Don't touch a thing" and then came to install "Ship of Fools: Discovery of Time," a golden disaster scene with rising flood waters and a charging water buffalo.

Richard Armstrong, director of Carnegie Museum of Art, calls the Mattress Factory a national model both for "its willingness to attach itself to artists early in their production, and the fact that it located itself in what might be considered a challenging neighborhood."

"Pittsburgh is unusually fortunate in having two such art facilities who are so sensitive to their neighborhood context," Armstrong continues. "The two are the Mattress Factory and the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. Now we are in the process of watching a third one being introduced, and that is the Pittsburgh Glass Center. It's amazing that we'll shortly have three such places in areas that really need this kind of attention.

"I would never miss a [Mattress Factory] exhibition, and it's rare that people come to town without my taking them there."

"I always loved the Mattress Factory," says Mark Francis, former curator of The Andy Warhol Museum and, with Lynne Cooke, the 1991 Carnegie International. "It was an important ally for me, both with the 1991 International, when they housed four of our projects ... and with The Warhol, as a North Side pioneer.

"I do think the audience for what they do is, or was, tough," adds Francis, who is now a director of the Gagosian Gallery in London and the newly appointed chair of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's art advisory committee.

Maybe the audience is a hard sell, but currently 27,500 visitors per year attend the museum, with 61 percent coming from the region and 34 percent from farther afield. International visitors make up 5 percent of the total. In the early years, the average number of visitors was around 10,000. Membership currently is about 600 individuals and businesses. Staff has grown to 10 full-time and seven part-time employees, up from the original two. And to date, the museum has worked with 136 artists and produced 165 installations.

The financial picture, too, is one of growth. The first corporate gift the Mattress Factory received was $50,000 from AT&T. Now the museum receives six-figure gifts from private and government donors, both national and local. The recent auction to celebrate the 25th anniversary brought in around $100,000, $20,000 more than the 20th anniversary auction. The budget for 2002 was $1.168 million.

A new building at 516/518 Sampsonia, expected to open in February, will house education and office space and will connect to the original building via a three-story glass walkway. With a full-time education director and an assistant, the Mattress Factory is able to run an in-school program as well as professional development programs for teachers. Another building on Jacksonia Way has recently been purchased, but plans for its use are not yet finalized.

The future

In 1994, Sara Radelet joined the staff as assistant to the director, and in 1998 she became assistant director. Radelet grew up on the North Side. "I used to hang out at the Mattress Factory when I was in high school, and when I came home to visit my parents I would always go say hi to Barbara and Michael." Radelet was living in Minneapolis and working for a nonprofit housing development company when, during one visit home, Luderowski mentioned that they were restructuring the staff and looking for some help. Radelet sent in her resume.

"I oversee fund-raising staff and help Barbara with the day-to-day operations," she says of her duties.

  Aside from installations, the Mattress Factory occasionally sponsors performance artists. On Aug. 4-5, 1983, the Australian performance group Chrome roamed through Downtown, imitating passers-by and marching to their own music played on drum, flute and didjeridu.

Talking about the future, however, is more complicated. "It's hard to tell what any of us are going to be doing in five years," she points out. "Frequently we hear questions about what will happen if Barbara retires. We're building our visibility to help people begin to see the Mattress Factory the way people outside of Pittsburgh do, which is not so directly linked to the personalities of Barbara and Michael."

To that end, from January to November of this year, the organization went through a strategic planning process to look at all aspects of the museum, from board and staff structure, to facilities, educational programs and the artistic program.

"One of the key goals outlined in the board and staff sections included working on a transition plan," Radelet says. "We want to stabilize the museum for the future no matter if Barbara is here, or Michael is here, or I'm here."

"My view of the future," says Luderowski, "is to create, explore, expand the view of what the Mattress Factory is. We do deal in installation art -- that will always be the core of our program -- but we are interested in creating a community that would include other disciplines. We want to continue to add to the community, both physically and in terms of new kinds and varieties of artists that flow through here.

"A creative think tank," she says in summary.

A living thing

In 1993, when Lutz began to create the garden in the vacant lot next to the Mattress Factory, she found the original basement of the Stewart Paper Company. This was incorporated into the garden, along with bits of old reinforcement rods and concrete beams. People who had lived in the area since the 1930s contributed old photographs of the neighborhood, which have been enameled and placed onto the walls. The piece was officially dedicated in 1997 at the first Annual Garden Party, but like any work of art, it needs to be maintained.

"When you design something like that, where it has a living component and a maintenance component, which everything does, you always provide a maintenance plan, which tells whoever is the caretaker what needs to be done for it to survive," says Lutz. "The garden is not going to stay the same, and the maintenance plan should allow for that."

Earlier, a visitor had pressed Olijnyk: Could it be considered a work in progress?

"Well," he had said, "It's a garden."

It is a garden, no doubt about that, but it is a garden with a soundtrack, a strange combination of bird song and wind chimes broadcast from the side of the building, which changes as a visitor moves around and explores. German artist Rolf Julius designed this "Music for a Garden" in 1996 to create, as Olijnyk says, "rooms of sound."

The effect is peaceful but powerful, and Olijnyk still seems to enjoy it, even after six years. This is a garden the way the Mattress Factory is a museum, turning aside expectations and perpetually reinventing itself.

While visitors to Turrell's "Pleiades" are supposed to sit and let the piece work on them, many of the installations encourage more active involvement from the visitor.

"Our rules are different because we've built the pieces, so we know how to repair them," says Olijnyk. "We don't have to have that much separation between the public and the piece. Better to see it that way than have it roped off.

"We're not a regular museum," he says. "We're doing everything wrong."

Ellen Wilson is a freelance writer.

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