Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
Back to Reviews 96

Simon Ungers
Tom Kinslow

 5 x 5 x 10
(with light),

Ludwig Wittgenstein
hallway in Vienna

simon ungers

at petra bungert

by Michael Brennan 
Simon Ungers is an artist and architect who 

has been working in the U.S. and Europe 

since 1987. As an architect, he and his 

partner Tom Kinslow received wide acclaim 

for their T-House in Wilton, N.Y., in which 

an elevated rectangular library was 

cantilevered transversely across its 

residential base. As an artist, he has 

become known for site-specific 

installations of large scale Minimalist 

objects, usually referred to as "site 

constructions" or "spatial constructions." 

Two earlier works, Red Vertical, seen at 

University at Buffalo Art Gallery in 1995, 

and Red Slab in Space, installed at Sophia 

Ungers gallery in Cologne in 1993, were 

uniquely integrated into their setting and 

strongly dealt with both the architectural 

space and viewers' physical/psychological 

interaction there. Ungers' work reflects 

ideas ranging throughout 20th-century 

modernism, from early Russian 

Constructivism to the abstract sublime as 

defined by Clement Greenberg via Kant and 

Burke to the postmodernism of Jean-

Francois Lyotard as articulated in his 

essay "The Sublime and the Avant-Garde" (in 

The Inhuman).

Ungers' latest work, 5 x 5 x 10 (with 

light), which was installed at Petra 

Bungert Gallery earlier this summer, is a 

particular and engaging experience. Ungers 

has constructed a five-foot-square, ten-

foot-tall vertical chamber within the 

gallery's tiny but beautiful main room with 

its abraded floor and lovely walls of real 

plaster. Within the center of the chamber, 

and visible through its one open side, is a 

thin nine-foot vertical rod of cool 

fluorescent light. This light runs 

silently, pure and pale, without any 

annoying flicker or transformer hum, 

consistent in its white-blue color from end 

to end. The fluorescent tube is set into 

the chamber's floor and ceiling, so that 

the tube's ends and fixture are concealed. 

The tube only appears circular at these two 

terminal points; otherwise, its long 

vertical expanse tends to optically flatten 

out against the back chamber wall. This 

effect is curious, because when you look at 

the center of the light it functions like a 

painting, but when you look at either end 

you are clearly seeing sculpture. The 

interior walls of the chamber catch the 

cast light and glow against the brightness 

of the burning gas bulb. On either side the 

chamber is flanked by two narrow 

passageways that lead to the windowed front 

of the gallery. These passages are usually 

filled with warm summer light that softly 

frames 5 x 5 x 10 (with light).

The phenomenon of this piece, in spite of 

the fluorescent tube, seems more closely 

aligned with Barnett Newman than Dan 

Flavin, in that it's an attempt to 

construct meaning beyond its means, rather 

than resting as a literal encryption of 

meaningful forms. The color and scale of 

5 x 5 x 10 (with light) recall Newman's The 

Voice (1950), a white-on-white painting on 

view at MoMA that has similar proportions. 

Ungers' work wisely tempers any Abstract 

Expressionist heroic content with a 

literalness inherited from Minimalism and 

the early Russian moderns. As Ungers 

acknowledges the history of modernism and 

moves on, he has created a tidy and 

compelling century's-end test piece with 

5 x 5 x 10 (with light) that raises the entire 

reductivist program that extends from 

Rodchenko to Newman, through Mies to Judd 

and beyond. Here it is the whole modern 

argument placed in a walk-in closet (with 

an accompanying valise-sized edition).

With a work like this, it's easy to 

overemphasize the light. For one thing, 

it's electrified, and like any other light 

sign is designed to get your attention. 

White light itself is on metaphorical 

overload in this culture, simultaneously 

operating as a stand in for idealism, the 

good, the divine and the transcendental 

throughout the history of Western culture 

from Homer to the Olympics. But the silent 

success of 5 x 5 x 10 (with light) is the 

enveloping chamber. The chamber carries the 

full force of the work, because it mediates 

and integrates not only the light but also 

the structure of the gallery and the way a 

viewer passes through the space. The work's 

volume and proportions remind me of the 

main hallway view from the Vienna house 

designed by Ludwig Wittgenstein, especially 

in the manner that both spaces squeeze the 

light for a full-blown effect; the way 

windows are "blown" in film when a 

cameraman ruins an interior shot by using 

too wide an aperture.

All in all I think 5 x 5 x 10 (with light) 

is a wonderful installation that inhabits a 

difficult space between the disciplines of 

painting, sculpture and architecture, 

between the literal and the metaphysical, 

and deftly recovers what Habermas has 

called "the unfinished business of 

modernism" while addressing all those 

nagging issues of spirituality in an anti-

utopian art and what that might mean at 

this late date.

Simon Ungers at Petra Bungert Gallery, 225 

Lafayette Street, Suite 303, NY, NY 10012

June 21-July 20, 1996

Michael Brennan is a New York painter who 

writes on art.

Back to Reviews 96