Artists Work Here
Mana Contemporary Offers Alternate Ways of Viewing Art
By Ilene Dube
Jersey City—sometimes called New York’s sixth borough, or the new Brooklyn—has become a highly desirable place to live, and among its cultural draws is Mana Contemporary, a 35-acre collaborative community bringing together dance, art and music in a sprawling red brick complex that once housed a tobacco warehouse.
Founded in 2011, Mana Contemporary’s cluster of warehouse and factory buildings, originally built in 1890, offers artists high- ceilinged studios, a supply shop, framing, packing, conservation, restoration and storage services. The “hive structure” encourages the exchange of ideas between painters, sculptors, filmmakers, dancers, recording artists and others. Plans call for a 1,400-seat theater, four restaurants, several more art exhibition spaces and studios for 250 artists, as well as studios for architects and interior designers.
Mana was started by Israeli-born moving magnate Moishe Mana—“the man with a van” who had a plan bigger than Moishe’s Moving & Storage, one of the companies he still owns. Mana dropped out of law school in Tel Aviv and, coming to the U.S. in 1982, slept on a bench in Washington Square Park while washing dishes.
A true life rags-to-riches character, he moved into in an abandoned Brooklyn building selling socks, gloves and scarves on the street, and by 1988 was grossing $12 million a year, with branches of Moishe’s Moving & Storage across the country. Soon he added real estate development, media, and wine, fashion and document storage to his empire, before realizing the potential in art storage. Some of Mana’s clients were art collectors, and the former tobacco facility could offer ideal storage conditions while also making the artwork available for viewing. Art storage clients include major museums as well as the collection of the Milton Resnick and the Pat Passlof Foundation.
On a recent visit I parked next to a vehicle that looked as if it was covered with a hard, crinkled aluminum foil—even in the parking lot you know you’re in for an art treat. A vintage water tower is perched atop the main building, like a crown atop a hipster industrial complex.
In an explosion of stimuli reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s vision of the future in the 1982 film Blade Runner, video screens throughout the building display behind-the-scenes views of creative types working within Mana’s walls.
During my visit, hallways were filled with Carole Feuerman’s lifelike bathers, sculpted in resin. One in a pink latex cap is pregnant; another, black like onyx and wearing a gold cap, stands on her hands. One sat on a diving board, another hugged a beach ball, her eyes closed and mouth in a frown. Droplets of water on their surfaces make the figures hyperrealistic. Speaking with a thick New York accent, Feuerman describes how she casts the figures on human models, and then exaggerates the pose. “You have to get the emotion right,” she says. “You can sculpt the detail but you cannot sculpt the emotion.”
The petite, long-haired septuagenarian began the bathers series in the late 1970s. “The biggest challenge is to sculpt the strength of the human spirit,” she says. “That’s what makes it art, not just a man jumping off a diving board.”
With artist studios, exhibition galleries and performance spaces, Mana is what many contemporary museums are striving to become. Unlike museums, however, it is a for-profit enterprise, with space rented to nonprofit foundations. All exhibits and programs at Mana are open to the public at no charge, thanks to this business model.
Armitage Gone! Dance company practices daily on Mana’s fourth floor behind a glass wall, allowing visitors to observe the rehearsal process. The dancers are silhouetted by light coming in the eight-paned warehouse windows. “My work is about taking the classical tradition and moving it forward into our time,” says Karole Armitage, who danced in the companies of George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham, and has been called the “punk ballerina” by Vanity Fair. She uses fractal geometry—clouds, mountains and seashores, rather than the lines and angles of Euclidian geometry—and likes to incorporate visual arts. Mana is a perfect space in which to do that, she says. “Incorporating for profit and nonprofit, Mana is the future. It’s like a kibbutz, with the sharing of ideas, dialogue and finances.”
In the 15,000-square-foot model museum of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Richard Meier on the second floor, visitors see artifacts, a research library and exhibitions, revealing the design process of the New Jersey native. There are 400 architectural models, including the Smith House, part of a series of now-iconic houses Meier designed at the start of his practice, and large-scale study models of the Getty Center. Meier’s personal studio is here. An open drawer filled with papers for collage alongside a box of oil pastels makes it seem as if the artist will step out at any moment and create before your very eyes. His daughter, furniture designer Ana Meier, has a showroom next door.
Richard Meier designed the interior of Mana Glass Gallery, a 50,000- square-foot exhibition space with towering ceilings and clerestory windows. Among the largest exhibition spaces in the United States, it can display monumental works and installations.
Also on the second floor, in the studio of painter and printmaker Gary Lichtenstein, are shelves of shiny metal paint cans with pigment dribbled down the sides—a case of art supplies becoming the art. Lichtenstein has collaborated with Marina Abramović, Bob Gruen, Robert Indiana and Jessica Stockholder, among others, on screenprint editions. What he likes about being located in Mana Contemporary is having the ability to exhibit as he is working, and to explain the process to visitors cruising through. “It develops an appreciation of the process that you don’t get by just looking at art on the wall,” he says.
The International Center of Photography opened a branch at Mana in 2015 as an extension of its Manhattan campus, housing a state-of-the-art collections facility and a media lab, which allows visitors and scholars access to its images. The Center’s collection of more than 150,000 works includes daguerreotypes, gelatin silver and digital chromogenic prints, as well as American and European documentary photography from 1930 to 1960. The archives of major photographers Robert Capa, Cornell Capa and Weegee, among others, are housed here.
Complementing locations in Italy and Sweden, the Florence Academy of Art has a branch at Mana, where it makes use of the copious light coming through those magnificent paned windows. The studio is purportedly an exact replica of the original academy in Florence. And on Mana’s ground floor, bookdummypress, a publishing company and online bookstore, specializes in artist publications with a goal of keeping the traditional book dummy intact. Workshops are offered on the history of book construction, editing and design.
A separate building on the campus houses the Keating Foundry led by master sculptor Ben Keating, who promises to help anyone create the sculpture they envision. Visitors can watch the age-old process of lost-wax casting, where a wax model of an object is placed inside a metal flask covered in plaster and fired. The wax is obliterated in the kiln, leaving behind plaster filled with molten metal.
Keating’s own work, surrounding him in the studio, is especially interesting. There’s a cast metal antique clock and a wing chair with its back torn away. If these look like furnishings from Miss Havisham, it may be because they are based on his grandmother’s. Part of an installation, “The Piece of Her That’s Missing,” Keating created these distorted representations of all the furnishings that remained in her Brooklyn home after she died. Keating, whose soft “r”s lend credence to his Brooklyn roots, continues to live in her Park Slope house. He and his assistants are suited up in fire-retardant cloth and wear helmets with glass shields while they work.
A poet who studied forestry at SUNY Oswego before spending eight years at the Johnson Atelier in Trenton, Keating ran a foundry in Brooklyn, doing casting, fabrication, restoration and installation for clients such as the George Segal Foundation, Kiki Smith, Tom Otterness and Julian Schnabel. When Hurricane Sandy flooded Keating’s operation, Eugene Lemay, Mana’s chief executive, invited Keating to move his studio to the collaborative campus.
Lemay, an artist and photographer, was once a driver for Moishe’s Moving & Storage. He is known for a series of large-scale, abstracted photographs composed of digitally altered layers of Hebrew text. One of the first artists to have a studio at Mana Contemporary, Lemay realized artists need a place to eat and added a one. The café is also intended to be a gathering place where artists can share ideas and give birth to new ones.
Today Mana’s Jersey City complex is almost 1 million square feet—the equivalent of five Walmarts. Following the success of Mana Contemporary, Mana created a similar facility in Chicago and an art fair in Miami to coincide with Art Basel.
There’s a modus to his method. As a real estate developer seeking to create “Tribeca West” in Jersey City, Mana knows that a large arts complex is just the thing to draw potential new residents.
Among the artists in the Eileen Kaminsky residence program is Witches of Bushwick, a gender fluid collective from Brooklyn. As part of their experimentations at Mana, they are recycling some of their own body materials, and an installation included live models, wearing nothing but latex caps like those on the Feuerman bathers. The Witches performers are covered with a greasy substance and some are suspended from the rafters wrapped with animal pelts.
All that the cast aluminum vehicle in the parking lot promises and more are here to stimulate the imagination at Mana Contemporary.
On view at Mana Contemporary, 888 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, through August 1: The T’ang Horse: artwork by and from the collections of Anthony Quinn—yes, the actor was also an accomplished visual artist; and Made in California: Selections from the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, including work by Ed Ruscha and Ed Kienholz. Hours Monday-Friday 10AM-5PM and Saturdays, NOON-6PM Admission is free. www.manacontemporary.com