Walking the Blank

John Haber
in New York City

The 1997 Chelsea Arts Walk

I was taking a long afternoon stroll by the Chelsea piers, and I was not alone, but it was only gallery-going. The weekend was the Chelsea arts walk, just one year after the district came so fully to life.

In no time it has become an institution—no, virtually a multinational corporation. And the corporation's office plan for future visitors includes blue-chip artists fascinated with art as text. It includes Germans in an increasingly European and global art scene to match the extension of galleries east. And it includes artists still giving to Minimalism the plain sense of things. Terry Winters's Range (Matthew Marks Gallery, 1997)

Westward ho-hum

The organizers already styled this week the second annual walk, and their official tone could be felt everywhere. Chelsea's almost-new gallery district changed scarily, in fact, in just the summer.

Chelsea went last Spring from the purity and wealthy populism of the first Soho escapees and welcoming organized walks to the blue-chip core of the art world that could not be bothered with Soho's rabble. Over the summer it changed again, expanding so fast it could just as well be Soho with poor subway connections.

Oh, I came much as a year ago, wanting to see everything and imagining I still could, and surely I would come again. But increasingly I was peeking my head into doors and forming snap judgments. I had already backed quickly out of two shows as living-room decoration—blown glass and garden prints—before noticing that the names on the wall were Lynda Benglis and Jennifer Bartlett, "serious" artists. Or maybe I was right the first time.

A whole new block of galleries extends the craze south to 20th Street, where an eleven-story building offers two or three galleries on almost every floor. It makes for a bigger challenge than 57th Street's elevators, especially if one becomes too tired to tramp the whole way down.

Still, it is all Chelsea and all very upscale. The tall building holds such familiar dealers as John Weber, with a cramped, offhand group show of its familiar environmental artists. It was as if to say, "All right, damn it. We're here." And where does one find yet more mirror pieces from Robert Smithson, given the artist's sad accidental death in 1960s? The hardware store?

Jacques, write home

I confess it, however: I like blue chips. Let me describe in passing just a few of them.

I enjoyed my encounters with Terry Winters, with his dense lines and fields of primary color, and the ever-serious abstract painter Thomas N., as I shall leave the spelling for my own protection. (Ok, I can do it: Thomas Nozkowski, on display at Max Protech.) Over at Marks's other gallery, Ronnie Horn has a mixed show, its high point two dark blue-glass boxes. Ankle high, they seem to contain oceans by mere accidents of light.

Zoe Leonard, at Paula Cooper, creatively reverses the idea of environmental art, evoking and using nature but ultimately leaving the human artist in control. A tree trunk reaches to the ceiling, held up by an obvious, attractive metal scaffolding. A room that looks like autumn fallen leaves and seed cases actually contains fruit, zippers, and who knows what else.

Joachim Koester, a Danish photographer at Greene Naftali, makes up for his plain images by playing Shostakovich as background music. He wants to echo and to reinforce the ghostliness of bourgeois houses in those long northern nights. Only in New York could the mournful strings and their edgy rhythms instead cheer me up.

I found intriguing a show called "Word to Word." Contrary to what this promises, and despite a Barbara Kruger, not every work bears text. At first I thought this meant that the gallery, Linda Kirkland, had settled for cheating with a trendy theoretical grabber. Then it struck me—most or all involve writing in the sense of paper-scale gesture.

When Jacques Derrida made "writing" a hot topic, the French philosopher referred to the wear and tear that rubs the edge off old coins, but only as a metaphor, part of theories to describe how words evolve from symbolic pictures. Kirkland's show is a healthy reminder that touching is not always just a figure of speech, that art and writing alike are physical gestures, each a hopeful, willful human performance.

Mass transportation

And then the Germans, most of what I remember from my afternoon—Martin Kippenberger at Metro Pictures, Rosemarie Trockel at Barbara Gladstone, and more, many more. They showed me that an American can at last start to feel culturally behind. I found plenty of reasons to ask for footnotes.

Kippenberger, in addition to his cartoon paintings, created a stairway to nowhere, and that was not a metaphor for the gallery next door. He called it a portable subway entrance, reveling in the contradiction of a tunnel entrance that stands in the street, above ground. I thought of those great Central American ruins, with stairs that are built of earth and yet reach for the sky.

The artist documented the project with obsessive care. The gallery showed photographs, summaries, position statements, and in another room the object itself. At the end of the project, it had been crushed and destroyed. I was unprepared for the twisted mess of light aluminum I saw, and I am still uncertain what I saw.

I know that Kippenberger created it as a template for a system that would stretch across the globe. The project might well have been parodied the 1960s' earthworks back at Weber. It could equally well have meant a utopian gesture, a metaphor for art's ability to burst borders as it gives in to the ravages of time, commentary on Germany's heavily socialized infrastructure, one more grandiose way for an artist's ego to take over a gallery, or none of the above.

I had best not take the multiple-choice test. I must certainly not try to describe Trockel's videos until someone explains whether the rush of heads talking in German belong to terrorists. (Well, actually the videos transform her friends and household environment into an eerily personal formalism, but then terror is like that.)

Andre Gerski was just setting up next to Terry Winters, filling the room with sneakers. It resembles a Doonesbury strip on Nike's Third World exploitation, but not as successful, since at least one passerby asked if they were for sale. At least Americans will have to stop associating Germans with marching boots, and Germans will find that much less need for Kippenberger's missing subway.

Joseph Stashkevetch's highway scenes with watercolor, charcoal, and conte crayon have cut-off compositions and the look of out-of-focus photorealism. In the 1960s, such lifelessness would have meant existential despair. In the 1980s, they would have snidely ripped into the mass culture of anonymity. In this gentler age, I think they have a genuine appeal to the artist, and at Morris Healy I too found them virtuosic and very pretty.

Also at Protech, Max Mohr sculpts surgical fabric into novel prosthetics for a maimed art scene. Stretched suspiciously like condoms for superheroes, they form shapes that would not be out of place in Benglis's decorator living room, were they not also like limbs and warped toilets pointing wildly. In materials and implications, Mohr wants to be polymorphously perverse.

Back to basics

Then at last I could escape the galleries, back to the very institution that started it all. Perhaps sadly for a budding American writer, I found I understood the subtext most when I returned to artists of the 1960s. I went to the Dia Center for the Arts, the pioneer on West 22nd Street and beyond, and it was worth it. I had a chance again to know Minimalism as a contemporary of performance art, not just fancy furniture and layers of archaic scribblings. I could again encounter artifacts that can never become complete without the experience of a viewer, that can never be described except as sculpture in human terms.

That glass house, or Pavilion, by Dan Graham remains on the roof, but I most wanted to see the new shows. First came some old Dan Flavin work (old, naturally, because Dan died this year). It included Icons—a row of odd boxes with little lights on them, including ordinary small red bulbs rather than his trademark neon tubes. This early one, from maybe 1962, seemed kind of a period piece, like the prop for a sign at a nuclear lab in a 1950s' sci-fi movie—well before his fluorescent art gave way in the hands of others to LEDs.

But a wall from 1970 is utterly gorgeous, beyond anyone's vision of New York versus California Minimalism. It is made of roughly ten-foot squares, open metal frames that overlap to create door-like spaces in a continued wall. They stretch almost the length of the gallery and appear to hug the room's "actual" right wall as one enters. Each frame has a vertical red neon on one side, a vertical blue neon across from it.

As one walks in, the frames look like that gallery wall, only transformed. The red and blue tubes seem to face each other off as if each frame contained within itself its own optical negative. Together they cast a serene blue light on the wall to the left—and indeed over the whole room. Before long, the experience changes again, and the work becomes more open, physically quite as much as metaphorically, as one realizes that there remains enough room to walk to the end of the wall and around it.

The insight only intensifies as finally one gets comfortable walking through the frames. At that point every door has become an opening—into the room and into the mind. A work that had started as controlling, if beautiful, ends with a different kind of beauty. This beauty is not a gift from the artist's greatness, but an interchange with him. It is a beauty that comes from inside anyone who cares enough to receive it.

Sometimes, a Flavin inverts one's experience of solid and space. For Olafur Eliasson, a wall of light or mist can look solid. Flavin's familiar white neon tubes fill the space with so much light as one stares that they dissolve the solid wall behind them, by the sheer intensity of neon glare. Here the neon intensifies the ordinary experience of space and solid ground, while also giving them the ethereal look of a photographic color negative come to life.

String theory

Upstairs, with Fred Sandback's acrylic-thread pieces mostly from the 1990s, I at first did not see a work at all. Really. I looked around, turning quizzically to the guard—and then I spotted the first thread. Soon I found more and more of the works, some just white, others in many different colors, all in different degrees of disguise from the wall.

Sandback claims he is not out to take over and alter a space, as David Hammons or Keith Sonnier have done with their own urban disguises, as he thinks environmental art too often does. He has a point. He sinks into the space, and I did, too.

Some threads have a 90-degree kink in them, while others make up pairs at right angles. Still others come in parallel rows—all at different angles from the wall. The arrangements create planes in space, and most works consist of two such planes in a room. As one walks, at moments the two align at edges to form the sides of an imagined solid figure. Solidity and the imagination join, as human creations available to anyone.

In this way, the work increasingly takes on physical weight, but without ever touching the bareness of the room. It starts as a work of zero dimensions, a point, invisible. Then it has two dimensions, a plane, and it ends—if ending makes any sense here—as three dimensional. As I walked about each room, I felt that I moved within some kind of solid matter. The air, the very air, had grown dense enough to hold me and to slow my reactions down—to where, perhaps, they ought to have been all along.

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The "Chelsea Arts Walk" in New York City consisted of gallery shows and open studios timed for a full weekend, September 19–21, 1997, most along West 20th through 26th Streets between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues. Among those I visited on Saturday, September 20, were Paula Cooper, the Dia Center for the Arts, Barbara Gladstone, Morris Healy, Linda Kirkland, Matthew Marks, Metro Pictures, Max Protech, and John Weber.


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