Thursday, July 10th, 2003

Sarah Sze at the Whitney Museum, Collage/Construction at Pavel Zoubok

“Sarah Sze: The Triple Point of Water” at Whitney Museum of American Art until October 9 (945 Madison Avenue, at 75th Street, 212-570-3676))

“Collage/Construction” at Pavel Zoubok until August 15 (1014 Madison Avenue, at 78th Street, 212-879-5858)

Sarah Sze The Triple Point of Water, 2003 Mixed media, Collection of the artist; courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery, photography by David Allison
Sarah Sze, The Triple Point of Water, 2003 Mixed media, Collection of the artist; courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery, photography by David Allison

With her installation “The Triple Point of Water” in the Whitney’s appropriately moat-like sculpture court, Sarah Sze has once again pulled off a provocative fusion of whimsy and grandeur. She proves herself a successor of one of the house gods of the Whitney: Alexander Calder. In both artists, gaiety, wit, and invention prove to be vehicles, not obstacles, to aesthetic depth. Both achieve an oxymoronically bravura fragility.

In a zany, cartoonish, and schematic way, Ms. Sze’s installation represents an eco-system. The word “represents,” in this case, could equally be used to mean “depicts” or “constitutes.” For the true marvel of Ms. Sze’s creation is that interdependence is not just the work’s subject matter but its defining quality. The way in which artifice and nature interact in her handling of materials, the relationship between the found and the manipulated, the micro and the macro, are all symbiotic. The real beauty is that ultimately even what could be construed as faults – flimsiness, arbitrariness – are folded back into the meaning of the work: stabilizing as a metaphor of the preciousness of life.

The piece incorporates actual plants, which sit primly in their pots, leaves and branches stuck into squares of insulation board that are punched along the edges to read like eroded continental plates. These squares rest horizontally on a complex grid of vertical pipework sending water through the installation, coursing out here and there to fill a fish tank or sprinkle a plant. The flora sometimes grow out, sometimes through, this unlikely support. There’s no attempt to disguise the found quality of this polyurethane material, which still sports its trademark “Pactiv.” Intermingling with the plants and grasses are finely modelled mountain ranges, which entirely throw any sense of scale. (These could equally be artist-made or readymade from a model kit, and cutely recall the Whitney’s Charles Simonds sculpture, “Dwellings” [1981], permanently installed in their stairwells.)

And then there are scattered household objects – push-pins, scissors, a tape measure, and so on. Typically of Ms. Sze, these are color-coded; on the top layer, for instance, orange is the predominant color, which could relate to an idea of light, because rays of light in the form of orange string crown the whole of her creation.

The wall label invites a somewhat literal reading of the piece in site-specific terms (life beneath the sidewalk), but this is arguably too limiting. It is much more fun to imagine “Triple Point” as a mad scientist’s model of the world. That adds an element of desperation to the hi-jinks, to the kindergarten-cum-green warrior determination to find in materials at hand a means to give persuasive shape to ecological concerns. That her installation is set off by the concrete brutalism of Marcel Breuer’s Whitney lends weight to a sense of a life-bearing planet floating precariously in a cold universe.


Sarah Sze’s genius is to intuit the dual nature of the found object as thing in itself and freed form. In her handling, a half-used bottle of Windex is at once a signifier of false consciousness (a pollutant that cleans) and a bright blue shape, jarring and harmonizing simultaneously. This instinct is invariably lacking in those invited to make large-scale museum installations, but it thrives quietly among artists working on a private, even intimate scale within the tradition of collage. A felicitous complement to the Sarah Sze experience is offered close at hand by Pavel Zoubok, a young dealer who represents important practitioners, contemporary and historical, in this now somewhat specialist niche.

His summer show deftly pairs collages and assemblages he has collected by a roster of artists. Collage, of course, is intrinsically actual, but the comparison between two- and three-dimensional appropriation and manipulation proves rich in yield. You’d expect the sculptural objects to be more visceral than their pictorial counterparts, and yet often with the artists at hand the objects are encased or boxed, or – in the case of Ray Johnson’s chopped in half-volume of Robert Frost poems – wrapped up, somehow making what’s contained more ethereal.

Joseph Cornell leads the way in this respect: He is represented by an exquisitely mysterious boxed glass rabbit; the dark, coppery luminous glow of the box’s interior is bounced around by shards of mirror. Other box makers like Joan Hall and Varujan Boghosian share with Cornell a connection with the votary, but they do not tap his particular vein of preciousness. In the case of May Wilson, her papier collĂ©, though seamless, is also visceral, whereas her found objects are sprayed in silver paint that makes them seem sealed in like cast sculptures.

Michael Cooper is an artist who links Cornell’s and Ms. Sze’s sensibilities. Mr. Cooper’s objects are diptychs of plexi boxes which contain accumulated scraps – keys, screws, ornaments – collected by color. According to Mr. Zoubok, the artist continues to add to the collection until a piece is sold. His collages here are similarly monochromatic arrangements of metallic reflective material.

Assemblages of a traditionalist stripe are provided by the redoubtable Hannelore Baron, and a kindred spirit, Ilse Getz, who offsets an artfully distressed wooden paddle with porcelain balls and a tiny doll. This is classic assemblage, a depiction of precarious beauty alienated in a brutal world.

Nostalgia is, across the board, a defining aspect of the collagists at Zoubok, which might ultimately be what edges Sarah Sze apart from their sensibility. Mind you, Al Hansen is free of it, too, with his outsiderish Venuses of Willendorf created out of cigarettes or matches. You have to love the prurient visual and verbal punning with which he intimates the pubic region with heads of spent matches.

This article first appeared in the New York Sun, July 10, 2003