The Great Indoors I

John Haber
in New York City

Summer Installations 2004: Heading Inside

Whatever happened to summer sculpture? This summer, one can easily have missed it.

Summer was there, honest, and so was challenging art. The great outdoors had simply moved inside—to installations or to the still more private space between one's ears. Art had turned the urban environment into indoor representation, thanks to Mark di Suvero and Franz West. It hid from the public, with Peter Wegner. It even took to Grand Central Station, Rudolf Stingel, in case you wanted to leave town. No wonder summer practically disappeared. Mark di Suvero's Aesope's Fables (Madison Square Park Conservancy, photo by Jerry Ruotolo, 1990)

Disappearing summer

Did you miss it? I almost did. The parks appeared all but empty, as if nothing should spoil the new lawns along the Hudson, the newfound elegance of Madison Square, with its retro hamburger stand by Danny Meyer of the Union Square Cafe, or the bleak security around City Hall. An audio walk in Central Park with Janet Cardiff imagined lost loves while the life of the park flew by. The usual summer Brooklyn display between the bridges came early and disappeared before I knew it.

The little remaining display outdoors seemed to strive too hard for permanence. Urban architecture became itself the focus, with Andreas Gursky and "Tall Buildings" at MoMA QNS. In art, it seemed, summer just carried on the imposing New York landscape of offices and chilly streets. Even the sky was gray and cool.

After several years of gambling on unknowns and cramped installations, Madison Square Park turned to the reliability of Mark di Suvero, with some of the work dating back fifteen years. Known for rusted, steel-beams that combine the industrial esthetic of David Smith with the higher ground of modernist pyramids, di Suvero has always had a surprisingly deft touch. Here the wide-open constructions begged Alexander Calder and Calder mobiles to let in the light. As viewed from a distance, three vertical beams twisted and crossed along their gradual ascent, as if each pair gently marked a cartoon X in the sky.

In City Hall Park, a reduced summer show took Roy Lichtenstein at his blandest, as if phasing the summer exhibition out a year at a time. As so often, his sculptures play down the cartoon, the roots in pop culture, and the magnificence of his brush and play up the permanence of his place in history. No wonder he quotes Constantin Brancusi's Endless Column.

Uptown, at Central Park and Lincoln Center, Franz West struggled against invisibility. His rugged, patched, metal surfaces pay their dues to Minimalist talk about materials, especially industrial materials, but they also evoke the comfort of well-worn jeans. They are so user friendly, in fact, that kids played on them and adults turned to them as park benches. For the most part, they also tuned out the art entirely. The work had failed to engage the senses, intellect, or emotions fully enough.

New York City began its public art installations indoors this summer. "Tall Buildings" did it on a scale that even the architects of Lincoln Center or of landscape in an artist's book would have relished—with architectural models. Andreas Gursky's photographs looked huge by comparison. And The New York Earth Room, by Walter de Maria, still lurked beneath them all. That left it to two others to take to the ground as well, behind closed doors and as carpeting for an urban landmark.

Did you miss it?

Peter Wegner's contribution to the summer is not easy to find. Nonetheless, it draws on the surrounding streets, as if to dissolve the boundaries between the art market and the world. In a period that has put the whole idea of "avant-garde loft" or "gallery district" in quotes, his room quotes them both to perfection. It incorporates the art scene's central neighborhood indoors, as surely as earthworks incorporated the space of nature into art. It also pushes its encyclopedic impulse to the verge of terror.

Has he taken up a gallery—or a cause? For months I had passed a ground floor space on the fringes of Chelsea. It sure looked like a gallery, but never open to the public. Even now, I can't tell you for sure its hours, its survival, or its mission. Signs on the Bohen Foundation, in the Meatpacking District, still say closed on Saturday, but I kept finding life there—even, on occasion, a visitor. Inside, the staff could only speculate on the show's duration, as if they, too, could not reach the end of its narrative.

For a time, the floor holds a long row of metal slits indistinguishable from the street grating above a subway line and tempting artists to create a fictitious End Station below. Tracks cut into the floor, as if to revive the abandoned trolley on the old cobblestone streets or the trains of the elevated freight line above. What is a remnant of the original flooring, and what is there by design? I have no idea, but I can say that the interior design—attributed to Lot-Ek, a maker of "container home kits"—makes a handy exhibition space. The tracks allow Bohen's office cubicles to shift position freely, to accommodate a greater variety of visions.

An exhibition here can only come as an anticlimax, but Wegner does his best to pull in still more of the world. He approaches art and architecture with an obsession that would drive Joseph Beuys to Xanax. A taut column of tightly packed colored paper runs wall to wall, and the view through the grating adds mystery to its rigor. Wegner's rigid shapes and airy colors fit perfectly with the gallery office, while undermining its inherited beauty.

Does any of this make sense? It sure had me puzzling. It makes me think of Ilya Kabakov and his empty museum, but in a gallery context that makes art's emptiness all too plausible. If Dia:Beacon turns minimal art's open encounter with the viewer into a monument, Wegner turns every scrap of paper into a dossier.

His title may or may not offer a clue. To get the full effect, try to imagine it in the original capital letters—or, I am tempted to say, the original German: Complete & Final Color Theory Superseding All Previous Theories & Pre-empting All Future Theories with Add'l Thoughts on the Poetry of Commerce, the Cruelty of Systems & the Banality of the Grid, Accompanied by a Footnote Re: Architecture1. Aren't you glad you asked? Now if only I could locate the footnote.

Calling art on the carpet

So much for grand buildings and vertical columns. Rudolf Stingel carpets Grand Central Station with a charming perversity. He sets unnaturally blue flowers over hot pinks and a dreadful paler pink background. Maybe they will appeal to suburban commuters.

Like Wegner, Stingel straddles installation, Minimalism, and Beuys's turn of the color wheel. One can walk freely on his art, as (at times) with Carl Andre. It recalls cow wallpaper by Andy Warhol as well. So does its color scheme, not to speak of imagery that points simultaneously to nature and mass production at its most tasteless. In each case, Stingel ups the ante—even on Andy Warhol. One cannot help stepping on the work to get where one is going, and at this scale the color becomes downright nauseating.

A fabric covering may also suggest Christo's way of wrapping large spaces, giving visual unity to diverse human experiences. Vanderbilt Hall sorely needs a unifying purpose anyway. Once a waiting room, it now looms too large for its lack of purpose. People barrel right through its center as they cross between 42nd Street and the main concourse. A downward visual thrust almost promises to tame the high-ceilings and classical architecture, so often ignored after the main hall's starlit ceiling.

Stingel is capable of more, especially when he more directly tackles painting, a space, and the aura of a work of art. Still, his move indoors falls flat. He has ditched up exactly the same floor pattern before, in another city, like a global traveler without a flying carpet. It is neither seasonal nor site-specific work. Perhaps it needs Wegner's footnotes to indicate New York.

Stingel's lively precedents also underscore what goes wrong. Unlike Christo, Warhol, or Andre, he disdains beauty, sarcasm, and human interaction alike. He prefers the old-fashioned pretense of an artist dictating esthetic experience, even if people fail to take dictation. One does not participate in shaping one's encounter with the room, and neither does the hall's function, architecture, or history. Forget mind games about art and reality. Stingel is just elevating cheap carpeting to fine art—or painting, as he prefers to call it.

The insistence on esthetic purpose puts old questions about art and its limits back on the table—or maybe the floor. Yet the grand scale renders the outcome curiously tame. People in search of the installation have crossed it without so much as noticing it, and other travelers must care less still. Somehow, Stingel never thrusts one's face in the work or, more dangerously, the floor. He stands at the brink of a central concourse that carries passengers and the eye everywhere. If only art and the charged experience of a train station had room to collide.

BACK to John's arts home page

Mark di Suvero occupied Madison Square Park through October 31, 2004, Franz West had work at Grand Army Plaza and Lincoln Center through August 31, Peter Wegner had the Bohen Foundation more or less through June, and Rudolf Stingel carpeted Grand Central Station through July 29. An accompanying review continues the story of New York indoors the same summer, with architecture, as seen by Andreas Gursky and "Tall Buildings." Another review takes that tour of Central Park with Janet Cardiff.


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