Higher Things

John Haber
in New York City

Tom Sachs, Rachel Harrison, and Virginia Overton

Can a tea ceremony come to Mars and a vision of heaven to New Jersey? Tom Sachs and Rachel Harrison are not expecting miracles.

They are, though, happy enough with a large museum installation—and, in the case of Sachs, with himself. They may also take comfort in Virginia Overton, who brings sculpture gardens to the Whitney's lofty terrace, with an emphasis on both the artifice and the garden. Cylinder Lamp (Isamu Noguchi Museum, 1944)

Tea for one

Tom Sachs sets his mind on higher things. Already in 2012, he took over the venerable Park Avenue Armory as a purported gateway to outer space. Now he aspires to the serenity of the Isamu Noguchi Museum and a tea ceremony. Can he set aside his titanic ego long enough to kneel in harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility? Can he avoid sneaking some booze and a Big Mac into the garden? Of course not, and one can hear him laughing all the way to the banks of the Tonegawa.

Obviously his own private mission to Mars never left the ground, so why should one expect more from Tea Ceremony? Whatever is he doing here in the first place? Where Isamu Noguchi nurtures maturity and silence in Modernism, much as in his influence on Gonzalo Fonseca, Sachs is among the noisiest and most adolescent of postmoderns. Where the one bridges eastern and western traditions, the other looks to Japan and sees only another site for the golden arches. Where the first designed his garden museum around the materiality of stone and the lightness of a Japanese lantern, the second reduces everything to trash and cyberspace. He treats the museum as a toy store and a site for his retrospective, which is to say much the same thing.

Space Program: Mars could not nearly fill the armory, but its video alone felt as long as a four-hour ritual. And this tea ceremony does nothing half-way. A tearoom? How about three or four different sheds, including an airplane lavatory, all of red-striped wood beams and blue Dow Chemical Sheetrock? Sachs has not just one but two fountains, one an industrial sink with liquid soap and running water, the other more like a backyard pool. Stacked iron stoves mime a pagoda, but with other grills strewn along the way.

These represent male territory, a universe in which women prepare tea while men take over now and then for a barbecue. So does a second room, for used appliances that Peter Fischli and David Weiss would envy. One device promises to dispense alcohol, just as the Upper East Side space program included a bar, here with Stoli bottles relabeled in black marker for less upscale choices. A video of Mount Fuji turns up, and so does a sign in Japanese, but sure enough from Macdonald's. And then a space suit reappears, beside the stairs to the second floor, where Tea Ceremony gives out. So much for higher things.

Sachs does not quite elbow out his predecessor, although this is hardly tea for two. The main event weaves among Noguchi's weightier work, drawing on its monumentality. The shelves for appliances could almost parallel the long shelf for smaller sculpture upstairs. Sachs has explanations for all this, on plastic cards much like the ones that usually serve as guides to each room. He swears to his own tea practices, and he claims that Japan is taking the lead to Mars, where it will have the first tea ceremony beyond planet earth. The first, that is, unless one counts this one.

Still, it all feels like excuses for more of the same, with Space Program 3.0 set for a global tour just when his pretend boom boxes and, yes, another stocked bar have come to the Brooklyn Museum. Art institutions have a soft spot for Sachs, as the bad-boy artist who can look at home in high places, much as he enlarged plastic toys as summer sculpture for Park Avenue in 2008. So what comes next to Astoria, stuffed animals by Mike Kelley lounging in the garden? Styrofoam rocks by Ryan Trecartin and a fishtank with basketballs by Jeff Koons instead of a pond? Enough with tea. Like Sachs and his guests, I need a real drink.

Cardboard idols

There are visionaries, and then there are visions. Art museums are filled with the former, but Rachel Harrison had to high-tail it to New Jersey to find her visions. Not that Harrison counts among the most storied visionaries at MoMA, and it took a camera and some scavenging to make the visions hers. The artist has a fascination with the dregs of mass culture and icons to bad taste, so naturally she skipped down to Staten Island and across the water to Perth Amboy. And there other pilgrims flocked for the icon to end all icons, the appearance of the Virgin Mary.

Erwin Panofsky did not have tabloid headlines in mind when he wrote Studies in Iconology in 1939, to look afresh at Renaissance painting and to ask: what does art show, and what does it mean? Harrison is asking the same thing, only about kitsch. Her twenty-one photographs show the same plain clapboard house from only slightly different points of view. Palms clinging to its windows look ever so real, because they are, but they seem to have appeared from somewhere beyond. The paler reflections in glass might hold other faces, other visions, or nothing at all.

They also hold the show's brightest colors, almost like stained glass, just in case one is still looking for the Virgin or for art. It takes some effort, however, to see them. Perth Amboy is an installation, its center a maze of brown cardboard. Each step along the way could serve as a shipping container or a pedestal, but missing its baggage or its cardboard idols. Maybe, like people in New Jersey, you will come with your own. The cardboard sheets stand on end only half-folded anyway, unable to enclose more than museum-goers. They slow one's pace, so that every so often one catches a photo on the wall and a vision.

Not that they stand much in the way of circulating freely. They do not connect up, and they are only cardboard. As mazes go, this is a throw-away, like multiple Donald Trumps recently at her Chelsea gallery. It does, though, hold a few additional surprises, and sure enough they mostly stand on pedestals. Harrison has been scavenging again in all the worst places, and she pulls her finds together as miniature works of art or installations. They also depict further visions.

This is not a movie. Still, further description feels like spoilers. Suffice it to say that a ceramic Chinese scholar peers at a rocky crag, while a seated doll contemplates a wall of solid green—the tarp of a construction site as seen in a photograph, maybe just across the Hudson. An Indian chief sets eyes on a glowing landscape, sunglasses set aside as if to bathe that much more in the illumination. Two dalmatians take endless pleasure in an iceberg made of more cardboard surfaced in white.

More colorful debris might represent another pedestal, made of drinking straws crumbling in all directions, if without half the luminosity of plastic drinking cups for Tara Donovan. And one last idol could well be yours. The bust of a reddish blond baring her shoulders occupies an actual cardboard box. You may come away with the pleasure of a casual stroll through the Modern, a celebration of disposable America, or a skepticism about art and visionaries, with the only laying on of hands by ordinary human beings a few miles away. Or you may just write off the whole thing as Harrison's growing obsession with bad taste. Either way, you get to consider competing visions.

Renewable or Preserved?

Among the pleasures of the new Whitney, the museum finally has a sculpture garden. Make that "Sculpture Gardens," in the plural, by Virginia Overton. Her terrace sculpture looks singular enough, although all three components come in multiples. They partake of the same benevolent vision of nature—and of how cities like New York can renew themselves by responding to it. Step inside, though, where Overton has a gallery to herself and, as a more direct route outside, a narrow corridor. Suddenly the argument between nature and culture resumes where it left off.

The Whitney never had a proper sculpture garden at what is now the Met Breuer, not even that basement moat. Now its terraces make the best way to move from floor to floor, compared to less prepossessing stairwells. The building by Renzo Piano aces yet another test as well, in dividing the fifth floor galleries among Overton, Stuart Davis, and Danny Lyon. Its first shows exploited differences in size and natural light by keeping to separate floors. A lobby display of June Leaf holds a more subtle triumph over the old building, with a table for found objects amid her "primitivist" nude paintings—like Calder's Circus but with childhood dreams fallen to industrial debris, bodily decay, and dust. Nature versus culture gets yet another life.

That argument is a mainstay of art and civilization, going back almost as long as either has existed. Scholars in the Renaissance and Romanticism loved it. While it sounds quaint in art today, where nature and culture alike tend to come in quotes, it may well take on new urgency thanks to global warming. A journal called Nature and Culture in fact devotes itself not just to landscapes, political and otherwise, but also to environmental technologies and renewable energy. So does Overton. Standard-issue backyard pools become aquatic gardens, and tall windmills spin furiously in the Hudson River breeze. Tree trunks, one side sliced off cleanly, supply benches to contemplate it all.

Is this nature or intelligent design? The black windmills power absolutely nothing—although they do pump air into the pools, keeping the plants in motion. The sheer activity in the water suggests less renewal than disarray. The benches raise fears for old-growth forests despoiled not just by industry, but even by art. They also raise fears for the sculpture in light of ordinary museum traffic. The day before the public opening, the Whitney was still debating whether people could sit on them.

For the show's sequel, "Winter Garden," the mills turn more furiously in the winter wind. And the tubs, now inverted, serve as drums to amplify what normally passes for silence. Back inside for Overton's first segment, things get messier still. The corridor has attractive enough wallpaper, of clouds and southwestern canyons, but with nowhere to stand. The larger gallery has more tree trunks, sliced just as cleanly, but as a plinth with the rough sides facing inward and one another. In each case, nature is turned inside-out.

That leaves a bundle of pipes suspended from the above, like clouds but also like materials for the Whitney. It leaves another trunk, the kind not from a tree but for a journey, papered with more reminders of the great outdoors—and it leaves an actual smoked ham. If you mistook it for resin, you could be forgiven for wanting something less gross. Is it nature or culture, preserved or renewable, an unhealthy meal or a threat? And yet some of Overton's materials come from her family farm. Both indoors and outdoors can still offer gardens.

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Tom Sachs ran at the Isamu Noguchi Museum through July 24, 2016, and at The Brooklyn Museum through August 14, Rachel Harrison at The Museum of Modern Art through September 5 and at Greene Naftali through June 18, Virginia Overton at The Whitney Museum of American Art through September 15, and June Leaf at the Whitney through July 17. Overton returns through February 5, 2017. Related reviews look at their past work, with Tom Sachs at the Park Avenue Armory and Rachel Harrison among women artists in Chelsea in 2007, as well as the opening of what was then the Noguchi Garden Museum.


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