Greenpoint gallery The Boiler is closing. The theme of its last exhibit? Death

March 22, 2019 Sara Bosworth
Stephen Kaltenbach, “What Death Does,” Installation View at The Boiler, February 2019. Courtesy of The Boiler.
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The first day of spring brought sun and 50-degree temperatures to Greenpoint. But inside The Boiler, a gallery on North 14th Street, it is raining.

Piping spits down raindrops onto the set of a staged living room in a building, which is, as indicated by its name, a former factory boiler room. It has been raining inside The Boiler for a month now. The red fabric of the couch is discolored; the books on the shelves are permanently warped. Muddy footprints dot the white wood floors.

The living room, designed by conceptual artist Stephen Kaltenbach, is the first three-dimensional installation based on a drawing by Kaltenbach of the same name: “What Death Does.” This piece feels at home in the otherwise empty industrial space, and comes to the gallery with apt timing, as Kaltenbach’s exhibit will likely be The Boiler’s last.

Stephen Kaltenbach, “What Death Does,” 1970/2017. Graphite on paper; 18 x 24 inches; Courtesy of The Boiler.
Stephen Kaltenbach, “What Death Does,” 1970/2017. Graphite on paper; 18 x 24 inches; Courtesy of The Boiler.

After 10 years and roughly 75 exhibits of large-scale sculptures, paintings and installations, the gallery is moving out. In its inception, The Boiler was an additional space for the owners behind Pierogi Gallery, founded in Williamsburg in 1994 by Susan Swensen and Joe Amrhein.

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Swensen and Amrhein moved Pierogi Gallery to the Lower East Side in 2016, citing the slow withering of Williamsburg’s arts scene — but they kept the old boiler room and its feel of “raw, original Williamsburg,” Amrhein told the Brooklyn Eagle, citing the “aesthetic of decrepit.”

Amrhein joked that if Kaltenbach’s exhibit had gone up in 2009, when The Boiler first opened, they wouldn’t have needed to install a rain machine. “The roof would just leak,” he said. Amrhein and Swensen, who have been married for 20 years, added bathrooms and lighting and fixed up the 40-foot walls. But they stopped there, wanting to maintain the character of the original space.

“The Boiler was unique for New York,” Amrhein said. Even so, he and Swensen had a hard time programming the space, especially as the artist community in the neighborhood became more and more diluted. “As gentrification took hold, it forced artists out.” Amrhein noted his concern for how a changing New York City would sustain a new generation of artists and talent. “It’s the doughnut effect — in the art world.”

The interior of The Boiler. Courtesy of The Boiler.
The interior of The Boiler. Courtesy of The Boiler.

When Pierogi Gallery first opened in the mid-90s, Williamsburg was in its creative prime, said Amrhein. The neighborhood helped open the gates to the rest of the borough — “it became undeniable that for art, you had to come to Brooklyn.”

But by 2016, the arts scene had thinned out considerably. Pierogi Gallery no longer benefitted from the once heavy foot traffic of art-seekers, and Amrhein and Swensen relocated across the East River, where the Lower East Side offered a higher density of galleries and gallery-goers.

And now, once they leave the Greenpoint space behind, the couple behind The Boiler will have moved on from Brooklyn entirely.

“What Death Does,” which so smoothly mirrors the “aesthetic of decrepit” Amrhein valued in the gallery’s character, is on view until March 31. It is the last exhibit The Boiler will present in its current form.

Amrhein hopes the owners of the space, who have been “great landlords” for the gallery, will retain the name. “This name belongs with this space,” he said, looking around at the empty room around the staged set. “It’s been an incredible reward.”

The Boiler is open noon to 6 p.m. from Friday-Sunday and by appointment. It is located at 191 N. 14th St.

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