The grandest retrospective of the fall season in New York is easily the show of early neon sculptures by Keith Sonnier in the sprawling Ace Gallery spaces on Hudson Street in SoHo. It's been up since late September (and is scheduled to run through the end of the year), and is definitely worth a visit, if only to get a jump on the Minimalist revival promised by the big survey, "A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958-1968," at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art next spring.
Though Sonnier is more likely to be called a Postminimalist, his early work is still a throwback to a much simpler time, when the cutting edge was content to occupy itself with elementary geometry. This fascination with squares and lines, voids and structures, which was held to be so timeless and universal then, may seem a trifle silly today. As a Postminimalist, Sonnier was among the first to inject a little bit of electric bugaloo into the cold vaults of Minimalist epistemology.
His insouciant approach to pure geometry is suggested by his BA-O-BA series (1968-74), which combines large squares and circles of glass leaning against the wall with bright neon-tube lines, and Neon Wrapping Neon (1968), an almost comical delineation with neon of Minimalist-type volumes in space. Centerpiece of the show is Fluorescent Room (1970), a similarly comic -- and sensuous -- reflection on mass and scale, in which huge blocks of yellow foam rubber are covered with green or orange fluorescent powder and lit with black light. It has a gloomy presence that Minimalism proper only dreamt about.
The show also includes a couple of pieces from the now-forgotten "information art" movement of the 1970s. Scanners (1975), a collection of cb radios playing ambient broadcasts, provided a prescient esthetic appreciation of the otherwise unremarkable bits of data flying about in the ether.
The other notable set piece of the fall season is Gregor Schneider's installation at Barbara Gladstone Gallery. The young German artist (b. 1969) is amply celebrated for his ongoing Dead House project in Rheydt, Germany, an ordinary dwelling that the artist, beginning at age 16, has obsessively turned into a labyrinth of dead ends and hidden spaces. The environmental sculpture was also presented at the 2001 Venice Biennale in the German pavilion, and is currently on view at L.A. MOCA.
The cutting edge loves esthetic nihilism, and Dead House gets a special frisson from its similarity to one of the darkest perversions of contemporary culture, the hidden chambers constructed by pedophiles and other sex criminals. Schneider hints at this criminal mania without the actual crime, needless to say.
For the installation in Chelsea, he's done something different, something that's appropriately New York. He's converted Gladstone's back gallery into an utterly realistic urban alley, a dimly lit, dead-end space that opens onto 24th Street (rather than in the gallery itself). The "street" is accessible 24 hours a day, and is best visited at night (when it is attended by a guard stationed on the sidewalk). In its desolation, the work speaks of a different New York, one safely in the past or ominously in our future. Both gallery and artist are to be congratulated.
One more award: One of last month's great shows was out in Brooklyn's Red Hook district, where the giant of the 1980s East Village art scene, Dragan Ilic, had his first New York solo show since 1985 at Kentler International Drawing Space at 353 Van Brunt Street. Hanging from the ceiling was one of Ilic's signature drawing devices, a huge 4 x 14 ft. slab of rubber stabbed through with a grid of 7,000 red drawing pencils.
Visitors were welcome to grapple with the massive work and add their marks to the collaborative drawing on the surrounding walls. It's a fantastic thing, and belongs in the Whitney Biennial, back then or now. During a trip to the gallery, Ilic spoke of donating 50,000 pencils to East Timor through a Christian charity. "The sister called me back," he said. "She needs paper now."
Considering the futuristic look of his work, Held was asked at his opening whether he used the computer to design them. "Are you kidding?" he said, "I can hardly deal with email." The giant, mural-sized painting at the rear of the gallery is $500,000.
The resulting images, most frequently in shades of yellow, red and brown with accents of blue or violet, have an elemental sensuous appeal. But they can be appreciated as well as irregular topological models generated by a kind of emotional physics. The exhibition is accompanied by a color catalogue with an essay by the critic Jeffrey Hoffeld. The paintings range in price from $3,000 to $12,500.