Lamentations

John Haber
in New York City

M. Meshulam and Carl Andre

Maybe art just picked a bad week to commemorate 9/11. On the very anniversary of the Iraq war, George W. Bush's high-tech victory blew up in his face, just as his stubborn pursuit of Cold War visions, with a fantasy missile defense to match, blew up in the face of nearly 3,000 Americans at Ground Zero. Art, too, has been rehashing anniversaries and reworking plans for downtown for so long that yet another kind of memorial seems almost pointless. Why demand remembrance of what refuses to become the past?

Maybe it helps, then, that two shows look at first to have little to do with public events. M. Meshulam and Carl Andre both have large, calming exhibition spaces. Both produce work so spare, traditional, and seemingly innocuous that I relaxed more than a little guiltily. With Andre especially, the very idea of representation does not come easily to mind. He actually remembers another event entirely, too, but few would know what or why. M. Meshulam's Untitled (633) (Gallery 444, 1999)

I should not be writing about either one, I suppose. Both still seem a guilty retreat from younger downtown artists. Rather than raw urgency and much-needed controversy, they contribute by sharing something personal. They both draw on the languages of abstract art and literal memorials, to make the formalist and political debates alike over presence and absence look almost naive.

Game over

Meshulam certainly starts with two strikes against him. For one, he lives in Israel, and so often artists working at the edges of Western painting turn into Modernism Lite. When one combines themes of terrorism and Israel, too, one expects enough anger and misery to reduce any artist to clichés. On top of that, Meshulam's dealer borrows the thirty-sixth floor of a Madison Avenue office building, just off another memorial to everything and nothing, Saint Patrick's Cathedral. Perhaps an even more cutting Israeli video artist, Yael Bartana, could take it over.

In practice, both associations—with Modernism and corporate America—hold true and, surprisingly, hold real comforts. The office space looks ample and pleasant without partitions. The view enlarges the space further, giving the art more breathing room. One thinks about living and working precariously in the sky.

Meshulam's reworking of European Modernism has its seductions, too. The colors are deep, soft, and comforting. The layered brushwork, like Alberto Giacometti's drawing style, invites contemplation, not least because it stays thin enough to let oil saturate the ground. One approaches strokes almost like tape marks only to see the grain of the canvas exposed. The generous surfaces and reticent images allow one to settle for esthetic concerns, and the exhibition puts some of the coyest first. I cannot get too worked up over a pair of giraffes and a dove.

In retrospect, the blue stands for the New York sky, and the textures already raise issues of presence and absence, of what comes forward and what painting leaves out. The images, too, strain for the sky, and the strain becomes more evident as one gives the show more time. He loves tall, doubled, slightly tilted objects. And once past the giraffes, they take on more disturbingly human overtones, like empty chairs or shadows of the towers themselves. A par of vases fall like bowling pins. The woman in white, a quote from Claude Monet, tosses in an ominous wind.

The more time one gives, in fact, the more innocence becomes implicated in disaster. The same deep blue washes out The Scream by Edvard Munch, overlaid by computer options: "Ok, Cancel, Help." Elsewhere block letters, as if by Ed Ruscha, say "Game Over." How strange to discover that both paintings date from well before 9/11 or even the infatida—to the 1990s.

Still, the paintings reach out for comfort. Pale stick figures, crossed off as in a casualty count, hold hands. The vase holds an olive branch. Amid the figures falling through the sky, a few have the safety of parachutes. Mostly, however, simplicity—of the signs and or of fields of color—carries the emotional weight. It mixes what may not have happened with what is no longer there, what may look quiet and hopeful with what may never fill the void.

Not another Minimalist

Andre has plenty of experience dealing with puzzles of presence and absence. On the one hand, Minimalism ditched the illusory presences of representational art. On the other hand, it replaces representation's gap between the signifier and the signified with real objects: what you see is what you get. Art's old games with signs starts to feel glib anyhow, now that art often functions way too brazenly as a symbol of wealth, power, or self-expression.

On the one hand, Minimalism refuses abstraction as well, with its elevation of the present art object above kitsch. On the other hand, it objectifies the distance between object and viewer, as a present moment in a real space. You are there, and whether the art object is still there, too, is for you to decide.

So no wonder Minimalism, at least since Maya Lin, has become the official language of memorials and of grieving. New York's past fills the nooks and crannies of her basement for the Sculpture Center. Spareness rather than heroism in full-dress uniform dominates the designs for memorials to the Holocaust, Columbine, the Irish famine, the World Trade Center, and pretty much everything else these days.

In sculpture and design right after 9/11, the model felt liberating. In summer sculpture across the water from Manhattan a year later, artists themselves were looking for rougher edges and other answers. Theodor Adorno's tired line about the need for silence after the Holocaust may have come true for the wrong reasons. He hated breaking the silence. Today one grows tired of so many images and so many words.

In short, Minimalism has started to play nice. Dia:Beacon has given it airs to go with its canonical status. Donald Judd's latest show resembles nothing so much as an elegant interior with expensive brass lamps. Well in advance of wrapping Central Park for The Gates in 2005, Christo already has to disassociate himself from the marketing of its souvenirs.

One expects such niceties at Paula Cooper gallery, along with a room too wide open for anyone but a Minimalist. If Minimalism once seemed less like art than theater, only once has an artist brought this stage truly to life, when Céleste Boursier-Mougenot filled plastic pools with water and wind chimes.

Sign language

With his last show at Cooper's old Soho quarters, Carl Andre converted me to an admirer of that already settled generation. Yet his latest shouts "Do Not Touch" as much as any Old Master. With the gravity of a memorial, it even reinforces suspicions that an art of openness has become an official language of death—or even a dead language. Surprisingly, though, this memorial, too, one should indeed remember.

Carl Andre sets out gray stone blocks on edge, like mass-produced cinder blocks but a tad larger. Their neat rows fill the interior with ample space to circulate. The vertical slabs and Cooper's cathedral-like ceiling make inescapable the association with tombs. They also remind one how much, more than even beside a tomb, they can never restore to life.

Real disasters never come with such regularity, even when artists like Sue Coe depend on them. Real tombstones take on odd shapes, personal messages, and long years of weathering. They turn civic spaces into history lessons. One can accept death and even a graveyard as an organic growth, but one cannot take rubbings here, and no other life forms will rise from the ground.

One cannot step on these stones, but they become one's surroundings, and the surfeit acts as another overflow from presence into absence. They overwhelm the senses from every side, and one almost forgets to count them—ten by ten, a hundredweight. The very mathematical and conceptual rigor adds to the gravity, but no literal associations convert the numbers into a sign.

I do not want to like work this grand. I do not want to absorb a proud title like Lament for the Children, one more memorial for Oklahoma—or for the future. However, if so many works, like the actual Oklahoma memorial and its row of chairs, bow toward Andre's influence, the artist manages to turn against all. He recovers the absence that, all along, was his. He strips away the representational accretions that others have added. One wonders why they ever bothered to try.

Like all art as memorial, works like these leave one all too aware that the monumental has passed from life and still one remains alive. If that realization comes with a touch of guilt, artists have expressed their guilt at even approaching "The Art of 9/11." Yet it brings comfort, too, and it offers yet another reason for art's place at Ground Zero, just as in the Washington Mall. Both artists speak more in sorrow than in anger—and more in persistence than sorry. Meshulam does it by deferring the literal, Andre by refusing it altogether. They point to the value of art, as not only a symbols but also a sign, in that middle realm between the ground and the sky.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

M. Meshulam's "Borderliness" ran at Gallery 444 through April 8, 2004, Carl Andre's "Lament for the Children" at Paula Cooper through April 3. Other reviews look in greater depth at Andre, including my first appreciation and a full retrospective at Dia:Beacon.

 

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