Remembering Jeanette IngbermanPosted: January 12, 2012
This Sunday I’ll be going to Jeanette Ingberman’s memorial service at Exit Art, the non-profit alternative art space she founded with her husband Papo Colo in 1982. It’s first show was called Illegal America, based on Jeanette’s masters thesis paper on art and the law. She had a lawyer’s mentality: a talker, confrontational and questioning, always looking for an angle into the truth or something that sounded better. When I worked there (from 2007-11), Jeanette constantly told me how similar she thought Jewish and Chinese culture were, with their focus on family and food. I would nod in agreement but think to myself, isn’t that how all cultures are? I knew it was her way of expressing closeness, knowing how important my “Chinese-ness” was to me. And I saw how she looked for connections with anyone that walked into Exit Art’s massive Hell’s Kitchen space no matter who they were. “Hello! How you doing?,” she would excitedly ask a visitor.
I like remembering the way Jeanette talked, her voice a buoyant, piercing instrument salted with a proud Brooklyn accent. She used to sweep into the curatorial office, plop down on a chair with her laptop and chat it up with me and Exit Art’s other curator, Lauren Rosati. She would read absurd emails sent by upset visitors or acquaintances, weigh in on a headline in The New York Times, complain about the latest awful show at so-and-so gallery or museum, and update us on the state of her and Colo’s diet and the political dynamics of the food industry. In these sessions, she avoided work discussion, never asking about the status of a show or checking on an important detail she was fuming over just earlier. It was her way of releasing stress, and it was her telling us that work was just an extension of what she was passionate about as a person. This was the way we should be, she seemed to be teaching us.
This partially explains how she saw Exit Art as an island, special in the way it expressed marginality without apologies and a cultural jungle populated by strange-looking plants and animals that were hybrid species. It was always an us-against-the-world attitude; we played with an edge. Her voice, together with Colo’s moody hum, carried the signal of Exit Art, a signal that I think pulses inside me now too.
I called her when I decided to leave Exit Art. It was a Monday morning before anyone had gotten to work and I remember my nervousness. She was in the hospital, had been there for the past 6 months dealing with her illness. I knew she was weak but I wanted to tell her voice to voice. Her’s cracked when she answered and it sounded like I woke her up. “Oh hi, Herb!” she said excitedly, “How you doing?” I told her I was fine and that I was sorry, but that I had to leave Exit Art for another job. I spit it out quickly wanting those seemingly embarrassing facts to be released. The words she left me with will remain between Jeanette and I, but I felt much better afterwards about moving on because of what she said. And in fact, she gave me words to live by, motto versions of what she had been teaching all along, of what she was all about.