Spring smiles on sculpture, or so it seems in Chelsea, where we are knee-deep in 3D. Today’s top sculptors can be counted on to think big. When they’re not questing after the elements, they’re modeling the cosmos.
Start with severe Richard Serra, who introduces five new sculptures in a show called "Rolled and Forged" at Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea. The top god of contemporary Minimalism, Serra lays claim to the entire broad-shouldered heritage of the 19th-century U.S. steel industry. He’s our own Man of Steel, whose titanic works tower over the efforts of fellow Minimalists like Donald Judd, a carpenter (like Jesus!), or Carl Andre, a bricklayer, or Dan Flavin, who does lights. (The vast voids of Michael Heizer and James Turrell are something else again, but they’re out of town.)
Gagosian has three times before filled his spacious gallery with Serra’s giant steel curlicues, towering as much as 14 feet above viewers and generally challenging human comprehension -- really, how do you make such things? Now, as if worried that his sculpture was becoming just too damn awesome, Serra has come back to human scale (if not human weight and mass).
One gallery is filled with Elevations, Repetitions (2006), seven or eight parallel rows of steel slabs, shorter than most visitors, who seem happy to move among the different pieces of the sculpture while "peaking over the fence," so to speak, at others in the room. Another gallery has Equal Weights and Measures (2006), a set of six forged steel blocks, each of them the same dimensions, but set on a different side so that they appear to be of varying heights and sizes -- and each block so heavy that they may as well be immobile.
"I have more to say about the processing of the weight of steel, more to say about the forge, the rolling mill and the open hearth," Richard Serra promised in 1988. Indeed. A survey of his work is slated for the Museum of Modern Art in 2007.
Four blocks south at Matthew Marks Gallery on West 22nd Street are new fabrications of three classic works by Tony Smith, who died in 1980. (The fabrications of the originally editioned works are overseen by Smith’s daughters, Kiki Smith and Seton Smith, and by artist colleagues who worked with Smith when he was alive). Marriage (1961, 10 x 10 x 12 ft.), Night (1962, 12 x 12 x 16 ft.) and We Lost (1962, ca. 11 x 11 x 11 ft.) are based on the cubic or rectangular module, and are therefore suggestive of Minimalism, as is the fashion these days.
But Smith was an Abstract Expressionist, and the works are the essence of Ab-Ex sculpture -- elemental black forms that suggest modernity and timelessness both, blank portents like those of Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman. I maybe have some biases here -- I was married to Smith’s third daughter back in the 1980s (she died in 1988) -- but take it from me (anyway, since when was the in-law tie an unambivalent relationship?), Smith’s work is the bomb. Or don’t take it from me -- at Sotheby’s New York on Thursday, May 11, 2006, a beautiful bronze floor sculpture of Smith’s trademark Smoke, from an edition of six, sold for $144,000, more than three times the high estimate. Go, Tony!
If Serra’s brute material encapsulates a kind of 1960s American pragmatism, and Smith’s perfect black geometry a ‘50s Existentialism, what does Mark di Suvero represent? Go see at Paula Cooper Gallery on West 21st Street, where di Suvero has taken over the light-filled, wood-vaulted space with Time Out for Nicole d’Oresme (2006), a 27-foot-tall structure of five intersecting I-beams inspired by the 14th-century French astronomer (and looking a bit as if it were made by "les constructeurs" from Fernand Leger’s large-scale, post-war paintings).
Di Suvero’s gargantuan constructions of industrial girders, fashioned into tripods that could double as abstract orreries, seem designed to calculate the rotation of the heavens like a modern-day Stonehenge. A group of gestural ink drawings in the gallery front room link di Suvero’s constructions with Franz Kline’s abstractions. A small print, done in an edition of 30, is a bargain at $2,500.
Di Suvero isn’t the only artist looking skyward. In his first show at Andrea Rosen Gallery, the artist Josiah McElheny presents the show-stopping An End to Modernity (2005), ostensibly a scientifically accurate model of the Big Bang, via 255 chrome-plated aluminum poles and approximately 1,000 hand-blown glass globes and discs, hanging from the ceiling like a chandelier in god’s drawing room. Originally commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts, the work is posited as a hybrid of science and design, and therefore imagined as "modernism’s explosive demise" -- a conceit that may be of largely academic interest, especially faced with McElheny’s uncanny skill.
"Anti-modernism" (in this case, that of Buckminster Fuller’s architectural theory) is also cited in the installation of three new works by Danish weather artist Olafur Eliasson at the newly expanded Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. Downstairs is Your Negotiable Panorama (2006), a circular room containing a large basin of water, a lens and a light source, which has the effect of projecting a kind of fluid horizon line around the darkened space that vibrates in harmony with the viewers’ footsteps, in an illustration of a new "metric" that Eliasson has dubbed "your engagement sequence," or YES, for short.
Upstairs is The Inverted Mirror Sphere (2006), a kind of hanging chandelier (again) made of dozens of small triangular mirrors, facing inward, where a bright light causes a 360-degree projection of the sphere’s pattern onto the gallery floor, ceiling and walls. Despite being designed as a function of local architecture, Olafur’s dramatic installation is nothing if not cosmic.
Eliasson’s Inverted Mirror Sphere also has interesting parallels with Tony Oursler’s Dust (2006), another hanging sculpture using light and form that was installed in March at Metro Pictures. A large roundish lump of white fiberglass shaped to suggest perhaps an expanding cloud, Dust was the "screen" for one of Oursler’s signature projections, its formlessness creating a perfect field for the psychological "point zero" that the artist’s work so often invokes.
A more literal notion of space aliens was found at Katy Schimert’s recent exhibition at David Zwirner on West 19th Street, which featured a group of large watercolors of faceless alien figures, raising their palms in cryptic signs, floating across red and brown watercolor expanses. In the back was an installation of tree-like forms sculpted of woven wire, along with several featureless heads, apparently made of paper, that were covered with more watercolor drawings. Initially strange, the images become increasingly likeable over time (isn’t that the way it always is?). If I had $16,000, I’d buy one of the big watercolors.
In one of P.S.1’s small galleries devoted to single works by individual artists is Johanna Billig’s Magical World (2005), a 12-minute vid of a bunch of kids practicing the haunting tune Magical World at a free after-school cultural center in Dubrava, a Zagreb suburb. The song was written in 1968 by African American singer Sidney Barnes, and the vid is indeed magical, thanks to the serious intensity and dedication and accomplishment, no matter how modest, of its young stars. Billig, who was born in 1973 and lives in Stockholm, understands the emotional power of music. What’s more, the installation makes clear the way that the film loop has evolved into a contemporary contemplative object, short and repetitive so that it can be watched over and over like a mantra.
Heiss also organized the show of 85 of John Lurie’s dourly literary gouaches and watercolors, very nicely installed in P.S.1’s "kunsthalle" space. Everyone loves Lurie, and his pictures were definitely a hit, beautifully colored and featuring the dyspeptic antics of goofy animals as well as people, like fairy tales gone wrong. Lurie especially favors gag captions that have a nasty edge -- "my assistant is gay now I paint like a fag," "bird -- idiot," "bunny I’ll kill you," "New York is for idiots," "you are an asshole" -- leading one person to say that his drawings "have no superego" and another to joke that "John has Tourette’s." Me, I just say, John, cheer the fuck up! They’re selling like hotcakes, for prices up to $20,000 each.
Spotted across the street at Bernarducci Meisel Gallery during courtroom artist Marilyn Church’s exhibition of drawings from famous trials over the past 30 years -- now available in a new book, The Art of Justice -- was Genesis vocalist Phil Collins, taking particular interest in Church’s drawing of Mick Jagger’s 1988 trial, when the Rolling Stone was accused of stealing song lyrics.
The American Academy of Arts and Letters up on Audubon Terrace at 155th Street and Broadway in Manhattan exhibits works by newly elected members, May 18-June 4, 2006 -- including artists Eric Fischl, Alfred Leslie, Jules Olitski and Nancy Spero -- and one big attraction there now is Alfred Leslie’s "Ten People, 1990-2000," a 150-foot-long array of ten muscular nudes, dramatically lit from the sides and painted in shades of gray, in Leslie’s signature style.
A new addition to the Lever House plaza and lobby on Park Avenue -- site for part of real estate mogul Aby Rosen’s collection, including two colorful sculptures by Keith Haring and Damien Hirst’s 35-foot-tall polychromed bronze Virgin Mother -- is E.V. Day’s explosive Bride Flight (2006), a pair of shattered wedding dresses held in fragmentary state in midair by dozens of guy wires. Day now works with Jeffrey Deitch; the invoice for the piece is likely to be $160,000. Next up at the plaza, a geometric painting by Sarah Morris covering the entire ceiling.
Call up Maccarone gallery on the phone and the message says, "Nate Loman’s show ‘The End’ is over," appropriate in more ways than one, as the Mac prepares to leave her lovingly dilapidated Canal Street digs on the Lower East Side to move across town over by Gavin Brown Enterprises in west Greenwich Village. . . . Roebling Hall’s original space on Whyte Street in Williamsburg closes after its current exhibition, a group show organized by Dean Daderko of Parlor Projects. Roebling directors Christian Viveros-Faune and Joel Beck are concentrating their efforts on their Chelsea space at West 26th Street and 11th Avenue.
Richard Prince is building a combination body shop, roadhouse and topless bar at the end of a dirt road outside of Rensselaerville, about 40 miles west of Albany in New York State’s own section of Appalachia. The new anti-museum could be ready by the end of the summer. . . . Goff + Rosenthal opens a new gallery in Berlin in September, planning to exhibit artists from other galleries as well as their own.
Village Voice (and Artnet Magazine) writer Jerry Saltz has been named the most influential art critic in New York Magazine’s roundup of art power figures (others include Met chief Philippe de Montebello and someone named David Rockefeller). . . . The second issue of the luxury Whitewall magazine is being launched May 24 at the Cannes Film Festival, says publisher Michael Klug.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.