The Scrap Heap of Art History

John Haber
in New York City

Antony Gormley, Nancy Rubins, and Philip Pavia

Abstract Expressionism has had the singularly good fortune to remain controversial. It can stand for Modernism at its most male, American, formalist, and pretentious—or childlike, rebellious, sloppy, and just plain rude. Minimalism has had the misfortune to look older and clearer as the years go by. As the art of modular construction and institutional materials, it has settled easily into an institution.

However, nothing else so accounts for the continuity between Modernism and art today. In Minimalism, one can sense at once the scraps in an early collage and the sprawling installation art of young artists now. This spring, three artists again managed to push late Modernism to both extremes. Nancy Rubins's Small Forest (Paul Kasmin, 2004)

In different ways, Antony Gormley, Nancy Rubins, and older sculpture by the late Philip Pavia had become just part of the New York landscape. In different ways, too, all three brought out the link between Modernism and the junkyard, while each tried awfully hard to impress with the aura of great sculpture. Which wins out—the scrappiness of contemporary art or pretension? I still hardly know for sure.

The saint in the monkey house

Thanks to postmodern criticism, Abstract Expressionism can seem at any given moment dogmatically formalist or self-involved, too wrapped up in fine-art traditions in exile or in the export of American culture, perversely male or overly ambivalent about the remarkable women who also got to play. Besides, a two-year-old child can do that, right? No wonder it still packs a wallop, even in the new Modern's overblown hanging.

Minimalism has had the misfortune to look older and clearer as the years go by, the art one cannot touch or the art of public memorials. One forgets how the scrappiness of industrial materials links it to Pop Art and appropriation. One forgets the installations that allow one to reshape it at a glance or even a touch. One forgets the unrelenting physicality that links it to the human body, turning the industrial landscape into what Hal Foster has recently called art as prosthesis.

I felt much of that again at Sean Kelly, where Antony Gormley takes his outsize sculpture to America. See, with Minimalism New York no longer needs to "steal the very idea of the avant-garde": it walks right in and picks a fight. Gormley's very first room identifies art with a physical confrontation, the confrontation with a doubling of one's body, and the body with an extended space. Gormley constructs a humanoid from metal spikes, like bolts radiating outward from a denser framework of small metal housings. This man is truly nuts.

One has trouble deciding whether the figure suffers the thrusts passively, like a postindustrial Saint Sebastian, radiates aggressively outward, or simply disperses into the space of the gallery. One has trouble deciding what creates the illusion of form, whether the spikes in place of planes for Michael Richards, the more realistically modeled torso, or the spaces between. One has trouble disentangling the radial lines from the aura of the gallery or the line of one's vision. In a second room, two other figures composed of metal blocks pursue the robotic or prosthetic metaphor more obviously, as well as following more literally the Minimalist prescription of modular form. Even with one of the two suspended upside-down, they look more leaden, but then English artists often risk an overdose of seriousness when they turn up the irony.

In back, however, Gormley returns to form, his as well as Minimalism's, with a truly nasty vengeance. He fills the large main gallery with metal hoops, packed tightly so as to sustain their form only by pressure from each other and the walls. They seem to bar entrance, to disturb a gallery's proverbial white cube, and yet also to define the space more clearly. They also define an apparent path through the space, outlining a more or less circular tunnel into the room and back to where one stands. One could almost live in it, like a Wagon Station by Andrea Zittel.

One first hesitates to touch, then plummets on in—or at least no one stopped me from trying. I had the room alone, stepping over and through the hoops, at first gingerly, then more like a kid on the monkey bars, and all too soon indeed like a monkey in a maze. I tried not to disturb anything, until I discovered the hard way that the pieces were more likely to disturb me. I grew determined to complete the circle and more perplexed than frustrated that I, at least, could not. I had become like the humanoid at the core of that spiked sculpture, the hoops its nuts writ large, my sight lines its spikes, the patches of floor and relative clarity of its rectangle my prosthesis. I felt glad to escape.

Baroque Minimalism

Paul Kasmin is no stranger to scrap metal and airplane parts. When the gallery borrowed the adjacent space to display Frank Stella a few years back, I felt that I had entered a hanger. Judging by the titles of his work, Stella had long been chasing the Great White Whale, but his delight in broad curves and the textures of paint and metal had me thinking more of flight. More recently, in Kasmin's usual confines, the same Frank Stella who had nurtured blackness came out from under wraps—or at least stripped off the paint and much of the formalism—letting found metal twist and shine.

Nancy Rubins again combines sculpture, spare parts, and the imagery of flight. Where Stella approaches each component with his customary analytical eye, however, Rubins embraces them.

While Stella calls his work painting even when the paint has vanished, Ru bins's airy, bulky constructions happily expand to the three-dimensional space available. While Stella makes one imagine that he—or the work's own organic logic—created the twisting forms and smooth or roughened surfaces, Rubins lets rust, steel, and fragments of the original paint job speak for themselves. These were airplane parts, collected industriously from the junk yards of America's declining aerospace industry. And while Stella's works hang or float at eye level, hers reach toward the ceilings.

All that gives Rubins epic ambitions that can seem dismayingly conservative. In many ways, her idea of sculpture dates back before Modernism, much less Minimalism. It may create art that confuses base and superstructure as well as Constantin Brancusi, but whereas Brancusi can fool one into thinking that he has left only the base, Rubins loves the superstructure. If the Minimalists set as their goal sculpture that cannot "get it up," Rubins will not stop soaring.

Yet she also displays an appealing literalism, making Stella's dialectics sound evasive by comparison. Not that she cares much for his disdain of illusion. She constructs each of the two pieces on display around supporting steel posts bearing small, welded, regularly spaced rectangular frames. The parts spread outward from these centers, while drawing stability from cables tied here and there to the frames. I know, or at least I trust, that the posts and tension somehow hold the whole thing up, but it looks very much as if the wires are the only things holding it down. It really does seem to fly.

Critics have compared late Stella to the high Baroque. Rubins's heavily wrought objects and simple effects may seem even more predictable and derivative. One may miss arguing back with his generation's claims to rigor. Still, I shall embrace pleasure, too, from time to time. And there is something to be said for placing the American dream in context of twenty-first-century economics rather than Melville.

Scrap this one

So has Modernism been thrown upon the scrap heap of history? Whether or not some other twentieth-century ideologies have recovered their bite, at least a bit of this one has been rescued from a Bronx scrap yard. Long displayed outside the New York Hilton, three sections of a four-piece bronze sculpture by Philip Pavia went missing from their temporary storage, at the Hippodrome, a midtown office building. When a scrap dealer went to claim the last piece, he helped put the pieces together.

A few years ago Damien Hirst's London gallery reported that the janitor had mistakenly trashed his entire exhibition. For at least a day, most newspapers took his commentary on the nature of his art at face value. I suspect it speaks more to my cynicism and distrust of Hirst than my command of postmodern theory that I did not. And, sure enough, Hirst had planned the event from the start. I could only hope, in honor of Andy Warhol, that the janitor finished cleaning out the gallery with Brillo.

Out of concern for the 94-year-old sculptor, one might hope for a similar explanation. The story did come to light on April Fool's Day. Apparently, however, the scrap dealer purchased the bronze in good faith. The sellers' motives remain unclear. Still, whether they took the pieces by mistake or stole them for a quick buck, they had to assume the objects are worth more as scrap metal than as art.

Besides, pieces ranging up to ten feet tall and a thousand pounds were heading out the door in broad daylight. To rub it in, no one can say exactly when, perhaps as far back as March 8. The name of the sculpture? The Ides of March. Beware.

The sculptures may get the last laugh, however, on permanent display at Hofstra University, and Modernism has received new life from assaults on it before, that old postmodern paradox. Come to think of it, despite Lenin, capitalism seems to be chugging along in its most rapacious form these days. And, despite Reagan, Marxism, too, got some things right. Recall the actual quote from Lenin, about working people, that Reagan was appropriating: "Capital crushed these talented people in thousands; it killed them and threw them upon the scrap heap." Job creation fell again for April Fool's Day, too, in joyous celebration of the jobless recovery.

The turn of events acquired a special poignancy when Pavia died soon after the work's recovery. I can personally verify, however, that one possible allegation against the sculpture is baseless. The canyon of skyscrapers along Sixth Avenue looks every bit as faceless without them. As one last irony, the Hippodrome is named after a Beaux-Arts arena torn down in 1939. And in the musical On the Town, visitors to the city are still puzzled by its disappearance in 1944. Maybe in another fifty years they will still be puzzled by the disappearance of the Soho scene, the growth of Chelsea, and the uneasy triumph of Post-Minimalist sculpture without Richard Artschwager.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Nancy Rubins displayed at Paul Kasmin through February 12, 2005, Antony Gormley at Sean Kelly through June 25.

 

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