Modernism's Lost Generation

John Haber
in New York City

Tom Burr and Gedi Sibony

From trashy, overblown installations to a trashy, underdeveloped Biennial, art everywhere seems a mess. Shows like these leave it ambiguous whether to take them as self-criticism or as a boast. Is art in a state of collapse, or has it broken out?

In the first half of 2008, two artists pursued the question back to late Modernism. Tom Burr and Gedi Sibony display scattered pieces, isolated even from one another by gargantuan gallery spaces. Both, however, may borrow forms and images from a more confident generation. For Burr, it means an artistic and intellectual circle open at once to modern poetry, contemporary opera, cutting-edge painting, and interior remodeling for long summer weekends. Like him, Sibony recalls Minimalism's theater, but the actors have left the set. Rather than rubbing one's nose in a trash dump, they let one imagine what was thrown away. Gedi Sibony's Installation View (Greene Naftali, 2008)

Is appropriation now merely a fancy name for leftovers? Burr and Sibony present even dissolution as a stage toward something else. It might be something classier, something sexier, something addictive, and something more minimal—in short, something very much like modern art. Meanwhile three artists in Brooklyn gives another view of what gets left behind in the discards. One might appreciate them all as a renovation and recovery project after Modernism.

Chick lit

More often than not, the main hall of SculptureCenter looks like a renovation project that never got past the first day. Tom Burr is determined to keep it that way at least a few months longer. Should his design ever come to completion, however, "Attic-Love" will have some very classy customers. It could even start a trend, as with Gabriel Sierra to come, toward a Neo-Minimalism or rebuilding Minimalism.

The fragments of a balustrade, newly painted white, stand ready for assembly nearest the entrance. A thick red theater curtain lies on the floor like a drop cloth, and hinged black boards might supply the remaining raw materials. A ladder stands as literally the high point, with a book of photographs draped over one rung just below eye level. It happens to concern interior design, for the homes of artists and architects. Even in the winter chill of Long Island City, one imagines a summer home. Like paintings by Jasper Johns, Burr's title quotes Frank O'Hara, the poet who lost his life to a speeding vehicle on Fire Island.

SculptureCenter likes to play up its factory origins, from the exposed brick to the basement tunnels, and a concurrent group show, "In Practice," starts with a simulated auto wreck, well before that of Jonathan Schipper. With its huge sliding door, for moving art rather than for visitors, the center could make a fine garage, and many a group show has the inviting decrepitude of a garage sale. Burr, too, responds to the fashion for recycled goods in a state of assembly. However, while a lack of unity may supply the first sign of unity, it is not the last. For starters, one might notice the three nearly identical sets of four wooden boards. Each forms a zigzag on the floor, like a pyramid with a tail—in one case suspended by a chain from the high ceiling.

"Addict-Love" describes art as a nexus of Modernism, elegance, experiment, and unconventional sexuality. The industrial materials point back to Minimalism, and the curtain recalls Michael Fried's famous criticism of Minimalism as theater. Here the stage just happens to have collapsed on opening night. Perhaps the association of theater with high style accounts for the magazine ads glued to the boards, for scotch and Chanel. The zigzags themselves have a striking resemblance to reclining nudes, in one case topped by a black boa. I cannot swear to their gender, but another book rests open to a photograph of a young, strikingly handsome Rauschenberg.

Nor are he and O'Hara the only presences. Burr calls the hinged boards Chicks—ambiguously female and the person of Chick Austin, a man and a former director of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. As for chick lit, work off in the small side room depicts Austin in an old magazine spread. He may have helped create a major museum, a circle of artists and performers, and a climate for Modernism in America, but he definitely knew how to dress. Burr's spare installation suggests what came after—art in a condition of undress.

In "Unmonumental," at the reopened New Museum on the Bowery, Burr's scattering looked merely scattershot, his references to gay culture merely cryptic. There he contributes a bulletin board on the subject of Truman Capote. Here he draws visitors more clearly into his private world. The balustrades in fact form a spiral, leading one inexorably to a record player at its center. It holds a recording of Four Saints in Three Acts, Virgil Thomson's opera with a libretto by Gertrude Stein. "Pigeons on the grass, alas." True, the sculpture garden out front by Maya Lin has no grass, but here, too, a museum is dressing down.

Contracting out Minimalism

Gedi Sibony, like Burr, makes art that looks uncomfortable under lock and key, but his new work looks ever so familiar, as if it belongs in a museum. A long rectangle of industrial carpeting hangs down on the far wall, facing one directly as one enters, and continues a few feet along the floor. A larger swath forms roughly a square off to one side, but with a healthy corner missing in parallel to the corner of the room. The mark of a fold or two, at right angles to an edge, insists on the work's geometry. For a moment, one might mistake it for an assembly of smaller squares, like a carpet of floor tiles. Had I not seen both shapes before as sculpture, the rectangle and the square?

Of course I had, but with a harder edge. Richard Serra has draped rolled steel down onto the floor, and Carl Andre has tiled corners of a room in bright metal. And once one starts seeing a kinder, gentler Minimalism even in artists like Carl Andre, Sibony makes it hard to stop. Perhaps an upright board beside a wall derives from John McCracken's plywood and polyester planks, but half smothered in something softer. Two cutaway cardboard boxes may or may not replicate Don Judd on the cheap, but they have acquired his sense of light from within. In the bent pole of aluminum blinds, apparently folded up and fallen to the floor, one could almost see a white fluorescent tube that Dan Flavin had left out to die.

By that point a critic is trying way too hard, but this art cherishes failure. Its particles of American industry have taken their hits. An abbreviated curtain never quite interrupts the entryway, and a small, open sculpture of twisted metal barely sustains its dance on the floor. Like a proper Minimalist, Sibony makes one attend to one's surroundings, and they look truly forlorn. I had never known this eighth-floor gallery so empty and discontinuous, and I had never seen it so dwarf the art. I had never seen it, too, half in darkness, with only natural light.

These tatters of office life could fit easily with "Unmonumental" or the ragtag 2008 Whitney Biennial. Again, if the work looks familiar, it should. However, those shows asserted their infirmity with pride. They built volumes out of found parts and called it a map of America. Sibony's latest seems not so much "Undone" or unfinished as finished and done with long ago. The last one to stop making art remembered to turn out the lights.

Sibony himself should seem familiar. The New York native appeared in the 2006 Biennial and, the year before, in "Greater New York." A solo show elsewhere laid out a path through the gallery, much like the curtain here and the carpet rectangle beyond. Critics often compare him to Richard Tuttle, a reminder that Minimalism anticipated its own creative destruction. Serra's steel shape may derive from fabric—the tapestry behind a throne, only with an absent monarch. What goes around comes around.

In coping with a larger space this time out, Sibony makes more of apparent failure. The room and the work lend each other structure. The objects seem less now like random intrusions and more like canny survivors. The materials could have lain there since Chelsea's entirely real commercial past, and their drabness says something real about past and present. If they do allude more directly to older art, it is because memory entails absence. When the next exhibition refurnishes the room, it will have to contend with other contractors that have come and gone.

Looking backward

Beyond a handful of artists like these, something odd has happened: appropriation has largely stopped looking back. It sounds like a contradiction, and it is—but also a lowering of ambition. An absinthe spoon by Pablo Picasso, a readymade by Marcel Duchamp, a combine painting by Robert Rauschenberg, or a Pop Art comic strip had every right to boast. As the breakthrough painting from Roy Lichtenstein says, right in its thought balloon, "Look, Mickey, I've hooked a big one." Painting today in the style of the graphic novel has more color and currency, but for that very reason it presents a simpler picture of art and culture.

Older appropriation artists, from Cubism and Dada on, set a challenge. Their work obliges the museum to store the fragments of popular culture even after its popularity has come and gone. The fragments have not lost their familiarity or their impact. And that, too, depends on their belonging to the past—a past that includes modern art. Somehow painting was continuing, even after Rauschenberg's driver had tumbled into the abyss, leaving a stone or a tire behind.

More often today, appropriation is less a rebellion than a fact of life. It hardly needs to look back. In "Unmonumental" or the 2008 Whitney Biennial, it lies around waiting for the action. Shows like these depend on art that looks stranded in an American landscape. Even its uncanny presence mimics a short attention span. Can appropriation, then, still look beyond the present instant, toward the walls or toward the past? Consider last three artists sharing a single gallery in Dumbo.

Amanda Mathis, too, assembles the materials of a gallery Under Renovation—in her case, into a heavily skewed white pyramid. Sarah Sze did much the same thing two summers ago near Central Park, in a game attempt to engage the Fifth Avenue condos just across the street. Mathis has the advantage here, in a gallery space that cannot so easily win out. Rita MacDonald could be renovating the same room, but for her it takes both Op Art and domestic fabrics. Tic may sound as if bereft of its tac and toe, but it covers one wall with twenty-four foot verticals of black and white house paint. The bands alone, one thick stripe flanked by two thin ones, get the optical activity going.

Just in case one missed the resemblance to wrapping paper or a tablecloth, they also veer into the illusion of gigantic folds around eye level. Op Art from Bridget Riley can flounder in reproduction, but even online the Brooklyn gallery wall more than trembles—and maybe it is about time a gallery did. Jennifer Dalton uses the back room for another kind of civic engagement—clever pretend social science about the politics of nonprofit gallery-goers. By comparison, MacDonald's illusionism and domesticity may sound like selling out. Maybe that is why she can erode visual and political boundaries, too.

These artists understand the original challenge of appropriation, and so do Tom Burr and Gedi Sibony. The latter start unmonumental, and they end up renovating the gallery. They keep one eye on their influences—in popular culture, modern painting, and art politics. They settle for cryptic fragments that Dalton might not bother to tabulate. Compared to Mathis or MacDonald, their narratives remain cryptic or unfinished, which only increases their power. So, too, do the connections between art's past and future.

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Tom Burr ran at SculptureCenter through March 30, 2008, Gedi Sibony at Greene Naftali through May 24. Rita MacDonald shared Smack Mellon with Amanda Mathis and Jennifer Dalton through April 20.


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