7.19.17 — The Culture of Clutter

To pick up on Dia:Chelsea from last time, Hanne Darboven left behind an impressive collection, but what exactly was she collecting? Did she herself even know?

Her house near Hamburg preserves its contents, and I can only imagine the clutter. It could not possibly have the obsessive organization of her best work, but that, too, is fiendishly elusive. Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983, back after nearly twenty years, fills nearly sixteen hundred sheets—and every wall, through July 29, and then some. Hanne Darboven's Konstruktion (Dia Arts Center, 1998)It is always willing to start over and never willing to stop.

It rests on sheets of uniform dimensions, many with identical off-red borders from typing paper or the covers of a newsweekly. Yet it may shift in a moment from fine art to clips from popular culture—framed at times only by the blackness of a stage curtain and the triangle of a spotlight. It has sums that add up while accounting for nothing, street scenes without a map, calendar pages that come and go as they please, and music based on nothing more than her number schemes. Even her start and end dates are arbitrary. Darboven surely did not set to work in 1880, and her images include European cities from long, long ago. And then she left off well before her death in her late sixties, in 2009.

She could deliver the “cultural history” of her title, if only one could pin it down. Her found or rephotographed images range from Marlene Dietrich and Casablanca to the Beatles and Frank Stella, with stops for political events along the way. She labels one set Wende, or turning point—a term that, perhaps by coincidence, often applies to Eastern Europe after Communism, although the Berlin Wall had not fallen in 1983. She may also imply a personal history, in the hours spent collecting and her tastes as a collector, although Darboven did not select covers for Der Spiegel. Some sheets contain letterhead from the family business, but with no clues to what it was. Her Opus 17A for double bass plays in the background, like a figure from classical music that refuses to quit.

The whole work occupies a moment in time about to slip away. If Darboven fits with Minimalism and conceptual art, she fell into them naturally during an extended stay in New York in the 1960s. She ends well before the Internet, with images now available at the swipe of a finger. When I first caught her work, I thought of it as quaint as book art, although many of its pages rest too high on the wall to turn or even to see. Devices like postcards are familiar enough now from younger artists—and date paintings from On Kawara. It is chastening to recall that she got there first.

Her collection could have fit comfortably in “The Keeper” last summer, if only the New Museum had found room (and I have wrapped this review into my earlier report for my latest upload). It even includes a teddy bear, along with a rocking chair, some kitschy mannequins, a crescent moon in wood, a crucifix, and a Bible. The sculpture seems to have tumbled right out of the pasted images, and it helps give them a greater presence. It helps place her cultural history in space and time as well. It invokes a lost innocence and a settled guilt. If Darboven belongs to the beginnings of Postmodernism, she also belongs to the Germany she knew.

She lived in a culture that could still make Hitler the cover story, where an American news magazine never could, because there the weight of the past refuses to lift. Her images keep their distance, even when one spots old favorites. They also retain their immediacy, even when they threaten to lose any meaning at all. They are at ease in the old world, but without nostalgia, and uncomfortable in the new, but without an easy irony. A system, she insists, will never reach totality. Yet she cannot quit searching for either one.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

7.17.17 — Minimalism as Lightweight

As Minimalism goes, Kishio Suga is a lightweight. Not that his largest and latest work at Dia:Chelsea, through July 29, lacks heft. Its cracked timbers rise nearly to human height, with a thickness that would embarrass a human waistline. Slim metal beams lie across them as well. Together, they construct a monumental architecture, with the plinths as ancient columns and the metal a modern steel frame. If they lack for walls, unlike Richard Serra, so does the Parthenon.

Like architecture, too, or for that matter like Serra, they are both welcoming and confining. Feel free to explore, but on their terms. In the course of exploration, you may see them at any given moment as a game, a comfort, or a threat. You may wish to be careful so as not to knock them down, lest you injure a work of art, another human being, or yourself. Serra’s rusted steel can seem precarious, too, even at its weightiest. Still, for all his ambition, Suga’s obstacle course is far lighter, more open, and deliciously random.

Suga is like that, and so is Mono-ha, the Japanese counterpart to Minimalism. Where Minimalism works between sculpture and industry, the Japanese movement works between architecture and landscape. It often rises vertically, where an American like Carl Andre would hesitate to defy gravity, but with open sight lines. It also both accepts accident and human intervention. Additional steel plates stack between many of Suga’s beams, to level them. The weathered materials seem more natural than impersonal.

Like a Japanese garden, they also come with spiritual pretensions that an American would shun. Suga calls them Law of Halted Space, while other titles speak of phases and transformation. Together, the six works amount to a modest retrospective, from 1968 to the present. A stone looks left over from the building’s infrastructure, perhaps as a door, with the artist’s doodlings in vinyl. Others stick to wood, metal, paint, stone, and earth. More than Lee Ufan, Suga has to get back to the garden.

More than others, too, he is not above muss and fuss. It weakens the smaller works while heightening the larger ones. The second largest connects its stones by wrapping them in thick wire. Another depends on Suga to hold it up. Where John McCracken would simply lean a plank against the wall, he leans two against each other—and even that does not promise a firm balance. He has to place stones at the feet of each one.

The fuss can get in the way of what Minimalism and Mono-ha share most. At their best, both oblige one to focus not just on objects, but also on oneself and one’s environment. When human perception does play a role, it does not always play to the work’s benefit either. Friends swore that the wood smelled like puke. (Maybe they should have reflected on what that says about the normal treatment of materials or about themselves.) As a sculpture garden, the installation may appear at its most enticing as one looks from one work to another.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.