Field Trip: Donna Dennis on the Lower East Side

Donna Dennis’ gallery show “Houses and Hotels” at O’Flaherty’s on the Lower East Side through Sunday, April 28 (sorry!)

Take the Z! (Or the J, but the Z is more fun.) Stop is Delancey-Essex, and don’t miss it or you are going over the Williamsburg Bridge. I had never been on the Z before and it goes more or less door-to-door (there’s a six block walk north on the other side) starting at City Hall (though I got on at Broad). It was so exciting that my pal and I had to take selfies. Plus there’s this really wonderful mural in the station.

44 Avenue A at East 3rd Street
The show is four pieces in two rooms. Hours are:
Wednesday to Friday, 11a to 6p
Weekends 2 to 7p

If you miss this show, go to The Ranch in Montauk, which on June 8 will be installing “Deep Station” (1981-1985), a recreation of a subway station that debuted at the Brooklyn Museum in 1987 and has not since been exhibited. But don’t ask me where exactly to see it — the website is really confusing. I think it may be either at a horse farm or at the dock… Maybe if you know, you know? I will update if I hear back from them.

There’s no end of the restaurants in the East Village, but for an easy stop in a very pretty setting for a decent dinner with very lovely staff, I would do upstairs Bar Primi, which we did last night before a theater show over that way. After the Dennis show, we walked to Eataly Soho. More on that later.

So much background! First, I am a fan because of the PS 234 fence, which Dennis designed in 1988. (The panels were just restored as part of the school construction.) Second, she lived and worked on Duane for decades until 2019, when she was forced to take a buyout. (She bought a house upstate on 29 acres with a barn, and now lives and works there.) Over the years, she was also forced to become an activist for tenant rights and the Loft Law because the efforts to evict her were so fierce. And third, she is being celebrated as the “godmother of installation art” and “a trailblazer of the architectural sculpture movement” (New York Times) and these pieces are not easy to site, so get in there while you can.

These four pieces (she has 14 of these in total) have been sited before at dozens of places in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, including City Hall Park, Storm King and the Whitney. A Times story from decades ago described them as “Edward Hopper’s spaces made real” and that is such an apt description. The pieces are fascinating and captivating for their moody realism, their detail, and how they inhabit the past. As the gallerist at O’Flaherty’s, Jim Koenig, said to us when we visited, “She wouldn’t call herself a surrealist, but the show is surreal.”

The gallery is darkened and has piped-in cricket sounds, since the three pieces in the first room are lit for nighttime, making them all glowy and moody. And they are what I would think is about a 3/4 scale? Not dollhouses, but made just small enough to give you that squeal of excitement when you experience something mini. “The pieces were built to the scale for her studio on Duane — nothing could be taller than 12’6″” Koenig said, “but also for her working scale, physically, and the scale of memory. She was using memories of being a little girl and then travelling in her memory.”

Really, get over there if you can.

Here’s more on the PS 234 fence.

Here’s Dennis herself discussing this show:
“The topics explored in my consciousness-raising group led me to think about my childhood and the forces and experiences that shaped me as a child. The false-front hotels had been fantasies of a sort. Now, I decided that my own experiences would be a source for my work. I remembered family road trips and the nightly ritual of looking for a place to stay. I was also looking closely at a book of Walker Evans photographs that I bought at the Museum of Modern Art. One photograph in particular, “Cottage at Ossining Camp,” caught my eye. I decided to make a work inspired by it. I went to Maine to look for tourist cabins like those I had stayed in as a child, cabins that I could photograph. Tourist Cabin Porch (Maine) is the result of one of those photos. The work is, in essence, a double false front: the front of the porch, the porch, and the front of the cabin, while the interior of the cabin is missing.”

And this from a 2019 Artnews piece about her loft on Duane:
“Dennis and her neighbors have cooperated with volunteer organizations such as the Lower Manhattan Loft Tenants and the New York City Loft Tenants to resist landlords hoping to capitalize on the commercial and cultural value built by the artists. Dennis remembers testifying in a tenant suit against a former landlord in 1982. At the time, she was constructing her Masonite and metal installation Subway with Silver Girders (1981–82). When she arrived at the courthouse, she said, “I had sawdust in my eyelashes.” The judge ruled in favor of the building’s tenants, she recalled, then concluded the hearing “because Donna Dennis has to go to the Venice Biennale.”

And this from the most recent Times story about this show:
“Exterior shots of her old studio on Duane Street, with its windows aglow from the city street at night, appear in ‘The Art of Metaphor,’ a convincing short film about Dennis by the filmmaker Kate Taverna that debuted in Montreal last month. Among its strengths is Dennis’s reading from the diary in her principled Midwestern voice. The film travels this month to Boston, then Berlin and Madrid.
By 2018, among the last tenants, Dennis took her buyout and left, with her partner, for a neocolonial home and studio off the Hudson River, whose sloping grounds she compares to Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.” As she leans into the brisk March wind, clad in black, one senses her plain dealing honesty without exchanging a word.”




  1. an excellent Italian restaurant option nearby is Il Posto Accanto. East 2nd between A&B. tiny place with great, authentic Italian dishes.

  2. Donna Dennis is a treasure we are a lucky community