Beyond Infinity

John Haber
in New York City

Sarah Sze, Andy Coolquitt, and Michael Mahalchick

Sarah Sze clings to every shred of civilization and her studio. With it, she takes on some of the big boys, in an era of big-box stores and big-box installations. She also makes the results very much her own, in the most boisterous and vulnerable show of 2010, and she makes a fun contrast with boys tearing the place apart in the shape of Andy Coolquitt and Michael Mahalchick.

Sze calls her follow-up a year later "Infinite Line." And indeed to a mathematician, as opposed to an artist, a line is always infinite. The appeal of this mini-retrospective, though, lies in its intimacy. Rather than one big work stretching out to infinity, it contains quite a few smaller works that talk directly to the viewer and to each other. After the startling scale and unhurried pace of Sze's New York installations over several years, and I include a closer look at that last show, one could almost get to know her. All one has to do at the Asia Society is to look along the walls and into the fragments that have fallen to the floor. Sarah Sze's Infinite Line (Asia Society, 2011)

Constructing dimensions

Unlike a mathematician, Sze is never all that at home with idealizations anyway, especially the one dimensional. She does deal in line, but it spins out precariously and unpredictably. A floor away from U-Ram Choe, one room at the Asia Society adds a second dimension, in works on paper from as far back as 2001. Spirals appear everywhere, as in deep orange on deep blue, accompanied by light blue disks. Other images might pass ambiguously for twin tornados or stacks of LPs, but even a ruler refuses to run in a straight line. They hint not just at lines run out of control, but also of globes and planets as open and unsteady frameworks—already the subject of her 2010 construction Planetarium.

Line may veer off course in a second way, as linear perspective. In a second room, for the third dimension, lines converge into or out of a wall in wood, string, or black cut paper. A few eye charts lie about, all the more unfamiliar for being plain and easy to read, and Sze has compared their shrinking letters to perspective as well. Other skeins of colored thread come down off the wall in parallel as if scrolling off an unseen machine, and the sense of motion is an illusion not so very far from perspective's illusion of space. Other tokens of motion range from a seismograph to scattered New Jersey Transit tickets. She could almost have assembled everything the day before, only to see it fall apart—and she has the coffee cups, pliers, and Magic Marker caps as tools of the artist's trade to prove it.

Like everything else in her art, the line between two and three dimensions is less than stable. The room for drawings includes lined paper that scrolls down, one of a handful of allusions to the artist's Asian American heritage that I should not overplay. It serves not for writing or drawing, as for contemporary artists like Wei Ja, but for a cutout, taking the shape of a fire escape to the gallery floor. Assemblage in turn includes the flatness not just of eye charts, but also a tiny star chart made out of what looks to me like an obsolete floppy disk, while a deconstructed Asian rock garden bears the title Random Walk Drawing. Circular sheets of paper are suspended vertically above or beside their cutout color pieces, and circles of paper or light on the walls could be the moon or stars. Photographs further mediate two and three dimensions, with images of rocks or trees in daylight and in sunset.

They mediate, too, between nature and culture. That is humanity's fate as well, not to mention that of artists out to negotiate the space of painting, but Sze takes it personally. She may seem to veer to one extreme or another, but never for long. Her 2006 Corner Plot picked up Fifth Avenue architecture a bit too neatly, but as a pyramidal ruin next to the greenery of Central Park. Her 2011 addition to the High Line, Still Life with Landscape (Model for a Habitat), offered a temporary home for birds, but its title alone bridges everything from nature to urban architecture. It just happens to be a nature and an architecture touched by art and human debris.

Her largest and most dramatic work to date insisted on the debris. Also in 2010, it came together in a single installation, and one could hardly see it apart from a context of trashy installations and consumer America. Now, though, one can better spot the architecture, and one can see the nostalgia in recycled objects like a Rolodex as a longing for connections or for home. Drawings run to unreal cities and offices, higher than the eye can see. One sculpture amounts to a bird's nest of sticks striped in color, and the assemblage between photos of nature may allude to Frank Lloyd Wright and Fallingwater.

She still has a fondness for subtitles and afterthoughts, and those at the Asia Society pick up much the same themes. They speak of day and night, months from a dark time of year, and another kind of spiral in the Guggenheim as a Ruin. They do not entirely give up on Wright's utopianism. She even creates four "portraits" by asking people for the "twelve seminal events" in their lives, which she then turns into sketches. Perhaps she still believes that art can embody a moment of transformation. I cannot pick out the events, lives, and transformations from the teeter-totter of horses, the Chrysler Building, a math class, and apartment complexes, but that says something, too. For Sze, in more ways than one, memory is a construction.

The use of wondering

To see that construction in process, consider in more depth her most impressive work yet, in Chelsea just over a year before. Just for starters, I wondered where a piece begins or ends. A pile by the gallery front desk seemed a work apart, and yet its lines lead into an installation filling the entire main hall. It appears to contain any number of tall sculptures, until one notices the narrow bridges leading from one to another. Sze calls it The Uncountables (Encyclopedia), but I gave up counting. One can fairly wonder whether a work like this will ever end.

If that question sounds familiar, it should. The Way Things Go, the Rube Goldberg device on video by Peter Fischli and David Weiss, rolls ever so improbably along. Sze, too, has one holding one's breath, wondering how long the work took to assemble and whether it will survive. She piles objects on shelves and shelves on objects, with stuff stuck under legs to level them. Unlikely cantilevers and weights hold it all in place, at least for now. Upstairs, Landscape for the Urban Dweller marks boundaries in thread on the floor, but one becomes a part of its delicate balance all the same.

Sarah Sze's The Uncountables (Encyclopedia) (Tanya Bonakdar, 2010)Elsewhere, Patrick Jackson's "Tchotchke Stacks" came with warnings everywhere not to touch their tenuous towers of shelving and kitsch, but I could only presume that no one at Sze's opening got too drunk. That had me wondering, too. What sets her apart from last year's model, that trend for overblown conceptual trash heaps, the kind that have more modest artists longing for the handmade? And she does have it all—milk cartons, Windex, portable fans, stepladders, dead rats, and drafting tools. However, amid the macho displays of creative destruction, Sze wants ever so much to hold things together. She is making architecture, just as her Corner Plot mediated between Central Park and Fifth Avenue.

It is also the encyclopedia of her life—or at least her past lives. Looking at the plastic bottles and paint chips, one critic compared it all to a Walmart, while a friend thought instead of the cramped exotica in Chinatown storefronts. Both are right, but these items are also the materials of a studio, where the Windex might help clean up. The dead rats curled up on a shelf are plaster, and the shiny blue poison that apparently did them in is simply pigment. Sze also takes the frailty to heart. In the back room, a torn black stretcher survives as if from an emergency vehicle.

The big boys may look on with envy, but the show has just as much in common with any number of women, including women in Pop Art who mined the same cultural landscapes. Like Phoebe Washburn, Jessica Rankin, and Jennifer Stockholder, Sze gives a comic twist to household items. Like Tara Donovan, she transforms them by the sheer scale of their accumulation—or by fluffy clouds painted on the milk cartons. Like Julie Mehretu, Ingrid Calame, or Judy Pfaff, she creates a dense weave of thin lines between two and three dimensions. For all its fragility, each airy installation allows anyone to enter, much like the gallery itself. Of course, I had to wonder how long they will last.

She is not exactly pleading for a feminine or even feminist art—not when she is taking on the Enlightenment encyclopedists. And the Enlightenment project continues to self-destruct in the aforementioned Planetarium, a loose sphere of bent wood slats from which lights project onto the floor like drops of water. The projectors, of the dated sort used for transparency masters, help illuminate images of planet earth, in soil and greenery. Like the materials, not so much discarded as treasured, the work is really quite down to earth. Like her watery contraption at the 2004 Biennial, it rises and falls with planetary rhythms all her own. Perhaps more than anyone since Fischli and Weiss, Sze preserves a sense of wonder.

Installation and community

Can an installation still be overwhelming and not mind-numbing? Can it stop short of an artist's private language or a five-ton public spectacle? For a brief while, those labels actually passed for compliments. In the boom years, it seemed, what artist (mostly male) did not deserve a memorial to himself? That model has taken a hit, just as painting as self-expression took a postmodern hit the generation before. And yet painting is back, and piles of trash are not exactly going away.

Take not just Sarah Sze at her most fragile and expansive, but also Michael Mahalchick and Andy Coolquitt on the Lower East Side. Matt Hoyt, like Bill Walton or Bill Jenkins, has approached the problem by sheer modesty, with small objects and, amid all the clutter, a delight in the handmade. Like them, Mahalchick seems desperate not to promise too much, with his mess tossed here and there—rearranged, like (seriously) some slices of bacon, as needed in performance. Coolquitt delights in excess, in big boxes, bright colors, brighter lights, and marks of destruction. Yet he has ties of his own to formalism. One enters past a "chair" of fabric-covered metal, its rigid V right out of the Bauhaus, and Cordy Ryman could almost have made his column of colored stripes, give or take its melted disposable lighters. Andy Coolquitt's Chair w/Paintings (Lisa Cooley gallery, 2011)

Others try to ground an installation in architecture, set design, or the artist's studio. Guyton/Walker have their own modern stage, and Leslie Hewitt manages all as if dissolving the gallery walls. Mahalchick loves to be on stage, perhaps especially if need never get out of bed. At the 2012 Dependent art fair, he reportedly took advantage of the hotel room to restage a certain famous bed-in for peace. John Lennon and Yoko Ono could not have sung "Give Peace a Chance" for half as long—or with half as knowing a carnival air. His exhibition includes a guitar, a cot, studio scraps, and not much else.

Coolquitt, too, has trouble leaving anything behind, and even a good show looks like a fire sale of his personal life. His private obsessions extend past the lighters (and a sign thanking you for not smoking) to fruit drinks, beer cans, and sculpted hands with a certain obscene gesture. A box allegedly holds dead squirrels. One has to wonder about his lifestyle. At the same time, he longs to recreate the gallery as a public space. His welcome extends to a title like A nice soft space, for wall-mounted cushions, and to the centerpiece, a plywood box covered with Plexiglas that he imagines as an old-fashioned hardware store counter.

Sze herself hints at model cities, with fragile utopias that never reach completion and always threaten to come apart. Coolquitt's utter disorganization leans more to furniture than architecture, like an artist or a dorm mate obliged to make do. He indeed calls the show "Chair w/Paintings," after that more or less actual chair. He likes tubular designs, sometimes topped by lampshades—although the actual lights come as the end of a giant dumbbells, one end up against the wall. Again he is adding pop-culture glitz to Minimalism. These things become repeated elements, but rarely side by side and never quite coming together.

He is acting out some old dilemmas—not just in art, but in America. Does democracy rest on liberty or community? No wonder America captured the avant-garde with Abstract Expressionism, and critics still debate whether to see most the abstract or the expressionism. No wonder, too, that Mahalchick never does get all that far past a private joke, while Coolquitt comes alive in Lisa Cooley's new, larger space. One hardly dares lean on the counter or against the cushion, and one has to keep circling past that chair to find more stand-ins for the artist, who somehow left his pants on the floor. One can, however, feel both overwhelmed and quite at home, with today's signature Neo-Minimalism, as with Jeff Landman and Martha Clippinger.

BACK to John's arts home page

Sarah Sze ran at Tanya Bonakdar through October 23, 2010, and at the Asia Society through March 25, 2012, Andy Coolquitt at Lisa Cooley through May 6, and Michael Mahalchick at Canada through April 22. Patrick Jackson ran at Nicole Klagsbrun through October 23, 2010, and Judy Pfaff at Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe through October 16. Related articles describe Sze's "Corner Plot" more fully, in context of women architects in 2006, and her addition to the High Line.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME