December 23, 2013

A Chelsea Minute

Four recent Chelsea shows demonstrate how two major art world players stick to the formula, how another’s legacy continues to strengthen and how a newcomer attempts to breathe new life into Duchamp’s best idea.

Richard Serra’s massive new installation at Gagosian Gallery continues his tried and true audience-friendly environments. Without a doubt, Serra’s huge, raw, rusted steel walls create a Disney-like art experience as one walks the undulating passageways that sometimes narrow to just enough room to allow single ectomorphs to squeeze through. This shared negotiation with other visitors is coupled with the impossibility of one comprehending the entire form of the room-scaled, gargantuan “sculptures.” Our perception of these forms is rendered incomplete, mysterious and theoretically infinite because of their huge size and Serra’s apparent negation of Minimal Art’s “gestalt” object keeps his recent work at least interesting.

Sophie Calle, on the other hand, ventures into pathos in her Paula Cooper show, Absence, a series that Calle began in 2006. Mining the “universally resonant” territory of death and the loss of a parent, Calle goes to obsessive but aesthetically pleasing lengths to document her mother’s passing using “photographic documentation, narrative texts, found imagery and personal iconography.”(1) Calle’s cunning in accessing the melancholy and anguish in her viewer is somewhat diminished by our knowledge of how easily emotions like pity and compassion can be coaxed.

Meanwhile, Brice Marden’s graphite drawings at Matthew Marks confirm his essential position as one of the chief architects of Minimalism. Marden’s dense, obdurate blacks and grays shift in and out of focus visually as one tries to adjust to their unfortunate presentation behind sheets of Plexiglas. Cerebrally brilliant, Marden’s reductive forms establish the Minimalist trope of “less is more,” perhaps even more courageously than Frank Stella’s “black stripe” paintings of some of the same years. Again, the aesthetic quality of these graphite planes, characterized as “luxurious surfaces” in the press release, threaten to distract us from Marden’s lean toughness and the then burgeoning theories of literal art, reductivism and the grid.

Up at Gladstone Gallery, young upstart Cyprien Gaillard dramatically stages an antiseptic construction graveyard in homage to Duchamp’s readymade, or more accurately the “altered readymade.” Today Diggers, Tomorrow Dickens is the title of this show and the backstory of where Gaillard lifted this phrase from is almost more ironic than the show itself.(2) Nestled in Gladstone’s 21st Street “white cube” are 15 or 16 excavation machine heads – the earth-moving shovels that scoop up dirt or remove rocks in construction work. Into the shovels’ holes, where the bucket would be attached to the arm of a Caterpillar or backhoe, Gaillard has inserted long cylinders of “yellow hued banded calcite, which, though mined by similar machinery through a process of destruction, now rests in perfect equilibrium in the grip of the sculpture – an essential part of the work.”(3)

Whether their “perfect equilibrium” counters these brutish readymades’ historical reference to that other shovel, the urinal or the bottle rack opens a debate on the merits of “new readymades” one hundred years after the fact.(4) Roberta Smith has taken the position that Gaillard’s shovel-heads have been “tamed by their isolation and by the rods of beautiful, fragile yellow onyx that run through the holes.”(5) Thus, Gaillard’s “alteration,” or more semantically and historically accurate, his “aid” to these readymades, transforms their “anesthesia” into more profound readings and that may or may not mesh with Duchamp’s original intentions:    
“A point which I want very much to establish is that the choice of these ‘readymades’ was never dictated by esthetic delectation. This choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste – in fact a complete anesthesia.”(6)

Gaillard’s objects, physically and psychically, very certainly were chosen, as well as “aided” with the calcite cylinders, to convey new readings and meanings. To quote Smith’s review again: “The rods have a civilizing effect on the otherness of the shovels, like the gold ormolu with which Europeans decorated, and appropriated, Chinese porcelains.”
This in and of itself is not counter to Duchamp’s original idea:
“One important characteristic was the short sentence which I occasionally inscribed on the ‘readymade.’ That sentence instead of describing the object like a title was meant to carry the mind of the spectator towards other regions more verbal. Sometimes I would add a graphic detail of presentation which in order to satisfy my craving for alliterations, would be called ‘readymade aided.’”(7) 

Gaillard’s calcite rods are that “graphic detail of presentation” which does indeed “carry the mind of the spectator towards other regions.” Moreover, his 21st Century grasp of the essence of the readymade is made robustly more effective in the prehistoric, scarified ambiance of this herd of shovelheads.  


IMAGE: Installation view of Today Diggers, Tomorrow Dickens at Gladstone, NYC; © Copyright Cyprien Gaillard and Gladstone Gallery.  


1. Quotes from Paula Cooper Gallery press release.  

3. Quotes from Gladstone Gallery press release. 

4. I will explore the "new readymades" in my curatorial survey, "Readymade at 100," for American University's Museum at Katzen Arts Center in November 2014.

5. Smith, Roberta. "Cyprien Gaillard: Today Diggers, Tomorrow Dickens," New York Times, November 14, 2013.

6. Duchamp, Marcel. "Apropos of Readymades," 1961.

7. Ibid.

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