“Miracle in the Scrap Heap: The Sculpture of Richard Stankiewicz” at AXA Gallery until September 25 (The Equitable Building Atrium, 787 Seventh Avenue, at 51st Street, 212-554-2015).
Rachel Harrison, Hirsch Perlman, Dieter Roth, Jack Smith, Rebecca Warren at Matthew Marks Gallery until September 13 (523 W. 24th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-243-0200)
“A working facility when Stankiewicz was there, this is now part of Seattle’s Gasworks Park.”
Thus reads the caption to a text illustration in the fulsome catalogue that accompanies a new show reassessing the modern American sculptor Richard Stankiewicz (1922-1983). The picture shows a disused oil and coal conversion plant, fenced in, arrested in what British neo-romantic painter John Piper liked to call “a pleasing state of decay.”
The gasworks are now part of a riverside park, to be savored for their weird and inadvertant sculptural beauty. I wonder whether in some degree the efforts of artists like Stankiewicz, who was stationed in the town during his military service, has informed our culture that we can now appreciate industrial detritus. Go to the old printing factory that is now the people’s art palace Dia:Beacon and you can see a room of unsentimental yet aestheticized photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher of similar facilities.
As surely as decaying plant can transmogrify from social scourge to aesthetic marvel, so can the value and impact of an appropriated medium. The overall impression of the nicely installed show of around 40 pieces at the AXA Gallery is of elegance. This is interesting as Stankiewicz’s material of choice was junk – tools, implements, machine parts, engine parts, unidentifiable scrap.
The rusty surfaces are always in an advance stage of atrophy, but there isnt a hint of threat in the mottled textures or jutting edges. On the contrary, the evenness and consistency of the metals, with their treacly blacks and earthy browns, has the glowing aura of classical sculptural materials like bronze or marble. “The Miracle of the Scrap Heap” is how critic and sculptor Sidney Geist termed Stankiewicz’s achievement, in a phrase that serves as the exhibition’s title.
The problem is that the “miracle” was unfailing. There is barely any ambiguity in Stankiewicz’s choice of medium, although that choice was a defining feature of his career. Rarely has the hackneyed term Midas touch had such pertinence: By so truly transforming junk into an art material, he lost any *double entendre*. In achieving such rich surfaces from poor materials, he smoothed away the very *frisson* that should have given his creations edge. The triumph of art was too complete.
Stankiewicz is being presented as a seminal figure in the emergence of a new aesthetic. He is certainly an undervalued link in the chain from cubist collage to postmodern appropriation. But the handsome, likeable, substantial work on view here reinforces the traditionalism of Stankiewicz, not his subversiveness.
Marcel Duchamp, the housegod of postmodernists, is recalled not so much for his strategy of *objet trouvé* – laying claim to an unmediated mass produced object as art – as for the symbolist allegories of such objects in his paintings. Even in Duchamp’s day, the cranks and wheels that also find favor in Stankiewicz were steeped in nostalgia. They were virtually Victoriana.
Stankiewicz trained in Europe with old-school modernists like Ossip Zadkine and Fernand Léger. In New York his name was linked with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and neo-dada. But Stankiewicz seems temperamentally incapable of any kind of aggression or brutalism, or even submission to chance – which is, in a way, passive aggressive. He was a classic modernist: a maker, not a breaker-down. He is far closer to Picasso than Duchamp. (In turn, his influence was more on Jean Tinguely, the Swiss kinetic artist, than on minimalism or arte povera. This show, appropriately, travels to the Jean Tinguely Museum in Basel next Fall). In Stankiewicz’s hands, junk is merely stuff to the point of transparency, like paint. Rawness and rust are his patinas of choice, rather than signifiers of angst or anything portentous.
But this doesn’t detract from the pleasure or satisfaction of his work one iota. His wit is protean, and his sense of humanity enthralling. Often he recalls African art, especially when he goes for spiky, fiddly edges, as in “Tribal Diagram” (1953-5). His subtle transformations can turn, say, a gas tank and a cylinder can into a middle-aged couple, as in the 1954 work in iron of that title. More “grown up,” abstract pieces are masterful essays in drawing in space, which can stand their own next to a David Smith.
He seems happiest, though, intimating human or animal forms. Although his complexity is playful and invigorating, he is especially magical when intervening the least, in the untitled steel piece from 1963-9, for instance, where a moulded machine part affixed to a half-circle of tubing has the poise of a classical portrait bust.
“Miracle in the Scrap Heap” is definitely for all the family. For a nervy coda, check out the five-person summer group show at Matthew Marks. Curated by Jeffrey Peabody, a director at the gallery, this grouping gathers artists of different generations who extend Stankiewicz’s penchant for junk.
There is something of a misnomer, however, in identifying detritus as “materials immediately at hand.” Often, artists will have to scour unlikely places to find just the right kind of trash, whereas in a professional studio, marble or clay, the time-honored materials, really are just at hand. Two of the pieces in this show by the German Dieter Roth (1930-1998) actually count among their materials chocolate, yogurt and fruit juice. In his handling, the material is as remote from sweetness and luxury as Stankiewicz’s machine parts are from pollution or exploitation.
Two personalities of markedly contrasting sensibility dominate this show – Roth and Jack Smith (1932-89)- to the point where the presence of the three younger and living artists seems timid and tenuous. Artists of markedly contrasting sensibility, Roth and Smith represent dark and light, tragic and comic, with tellingly different relationships to the materials they use. Although Roth’s mixtures of drawing and collage are artfully put together, they have about them a sense of disintegration, chaos, entropy. In their deep-set brooding romanticism they cast gloomy, nihilistic shadows, whereas the garish, flamboyant, extravagant creations of Smith, the filmmaker and cross-dressing performance artist, are a riot.
Both artists found a use in their assemblages for the ubiquitous mass-produced pens of the era. In Roth, the familiar green Pentels are simply stuck to a surface, forlorn signifiers of impotence. In Smith’s “The Crab Ogress of Mu,” however, painted Bic pen bodies keep company with plastic flowers, glass beads, seashells, costume jewelry, tin cans, and other scrap to form a fabulous hanging fetish. Walking past it, one can almost hear it jangle like a skeleton in the cupboard.
A version of this article first appeared in The New York Sun, August 21, 2003
* Hirsch Perlman takes snail-pace exposure photographs in which he makes light by waving around various objects, but it is the light, surely, not the objects, that are the object. Rachel Harrison has a fondness for boring video and trashy toys, but these days, who doesn’t? Rebecca Warren’s work in (we are told) recycled artist materials are purportedly deconstructions of masculinity but that doesn’t register visually in her expressionistic sculptures.print