Thursday, March 2nd, 2006

Rachel Whiteread at Luhring Augustine, Calder at PaceWildenstein, Philip Grausman at Lohin, Geduld

Luhring Augustine thru March 31, 531 W24, 212 206 9100

PaceWildenstein thru March 4, 545 W 22

Lohin, Geduld thru March 11, 531 W25, 212 675 2656

Rachel Whiteread Bench 2005 plaster and wood, 26-3/4 X 61-3/8 X 14 inches Courtesy Luhring Augustine
Rachel Whiteread, Bench 2005 plaster and wood, 26-3/4 X 61-3/8 X 14 inches Courtesy Luhring Augustine

Monuments maybe every sculptor’s dream, but they can be a mixed blessing. They communicate beyond the artworld with a big public, and put the sculptor in a line from Stonehenge, the Gothic Cathedrals, Rodin.  But they consume disproportionate energies to their aeshetic return.

A sculptor can have any number of  new ideas in the maquette studio for the time and energy, usually demanding assistance, needed to realise a single piece at a monumental scale.  A maquette, thanks in part to the dollshouse effect, inspires a natural empathy: literally issuing from the hand, it conveys tangible emotion, a felt quality, that will inevitably get lost when transformed into a relatively depersonalized monolith.  The biggie is seen by more people, but people who are rushing to catch a train, or sit with their backs to the piece to enjoy a sandwich, or delinquent kids looking for a surface on which to skateboard or graffiti.  Alienation, starting with the production process, is felt all around.

The other problem with monuments is that often the artist is making them has become a monument, too: self-important, fixed in their ways.  The paradigm of the modern sculptor ruined by success is Henry Moore—or that at least is a received wisdom endorsed recently by Rachel Whiteread, explaining in interview why she didn’t want to be typecast as the kind of artist who makes memorials.  This expectation arose in part from her successful, widely admired Memorial to the Victims of the Holocaust in Vienna’s Judenplatz, inaugurated in 2000 after years of planning and negotiations. You could say that her new series at Luhring Augustine represents a struggle to find a post-monumental identity.

Ms. Whiteread was a natural for the Holocaust commission (won in competition) because her often poignant art deals inherently with memory and literally with loss.  It is a strength and weakness alike of her work that her career is predicated on a singular sculptural strategy: To make solid the negative space surrounding, or more intriguingly, sometimes, inhabiting the objects from which her works are cast.

The irony with Ms. Whiteread is that, unlike 9 out of 10 sculptors, she is far more effective when struggling to produce a big, public statement than when (no pun intended) casting around for smaller ideas, making sketches, exploring tentative explorations.  The projects that really extended her are the ones that also extend her medium and the viewer’s notion of sculpture or of the very experience of things. Besides the Holocaust memorial, this would include “House,” (1993), a cast of an entire terraced house in London’s East End, shamefully demolished weeks after completion by a philistine municipality; the similar treatment of individual rooms and staircases; and her contribution to an ongoing series of temporary pieces on the vacant fourth pedestal in London’s Trafalgar Square—her solution was to cast the plinth in transparent resin and mount it in reverse upon its original, a temporary apotheosis of the support, the ultimate celebration of the overlooked.

On a smaller scale, and in the works that seem spinoffs of her ambitious projects, Ms. Whiteread’s aesthetic can quickly degenerate into a boutique-version echo of itself: Elegant, occasionally suggestive, but gnawingly banal.  The Holocaust Memorial teased-out the negative space behind shelved books, a multilayered evocation of the People of the Book, the sense of missing volumes, of untold tales, of cruel statistics.  Following the commission, Ms. Whiteread turned out smaller works and variations which cheapened the memory of her original insight., At her best, Ms. Whiteread’s sculpture exploits and thus transcends the mundanity of the things in the world that occasion it; at second best, which never lurks far behind, mundanity claims her art for itself.  Maybe it is because the Whiteread casting process pushes literalism to such an extreme that it results in an aesthetic binary: the sculpture will be extraordinary or all too ordinary.

Her latest works derive from “Embankment,” (2005), an installation (which I am yet to see) in the gargantuan Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern, on view through April.  This work is made around 14,000 white plaster casts of different cartons, stacked to varying heights, amongst which visitors walk.  At the smaller but still voluminous Luhring Augustine, where individual sculptures are sparsely installed, there are two bodies of work: “pure” cartons, and cartons stacked in relationship with actual, appropriated furniture.

The problem with the carton motif is that there isn’t a significant differentiation between its exterior and its interior.  In a Whiteread there can be a crucial difference between a thing cast from without and within, to imply surrounding or vacated space.  The difference with a carton is academic—wherever the cast is taken, the result in a lumpen box that looks just like a carton only it isn’t empty and isn’t made out of cardboard.

The relationship of cast to actual in works like “Wait,” (2005), where six plaster units surround a chair, or “Surface,” where a table cohabits space with four carton-shapes, seems gratuitous.  There is none of the sinister poetics of the Columbian Doris Salcedo’s collisions of cement and furniture.

For Ms. Whiteread, attention to small, banal things produces results that are small and banal.  She is no Chardin, nor even Richard Tuttle.  The act of variation merely produces upscale tschotkas.  In small fry mode she mimics her  conceptualist mentors in the casting of negative space, Bruce Nauman and Joseph Beuys, whereas when confronting complexities, both thematic and technical, she can tap a richer vein of metaphor and association.  But don’t despair of Rachel Whiteread—just wait for the next monument.

installation shot of PaceWildenstein's exhibition, Calder: From Model to Monument
installation shot of PaceWildenstein's exhibition, Calder: From Model to Monument

Alexander Calder ought to be an example of a sculptor ruined by success: He was extraordinarily fecund in his early years, pioneering new sculptural forms with the mobile, the stabile, wire construction.  But exploring these further and making them bigger was no kiss of death, as a stunning show at PaceWildenstein’s second Chelsea space, leased from the Dia Foundation, makes clear.

The beauty and intrigue of Calder often has a lot to do with an inherent tension between human touch and machinist impersonality.  The son and grandson of sculptors and a trained engineer, his genius melted the distinction between art and technology.  His mobiles were “drawn” in wire, metal, found objects, often revealing a nervous, wobbly line, but then “worked,” miraculous staying aloft, floating, shimmering.

A similar dualism comes across in his late stabiles, the subject of this show.  These mammoth steel plate pieces arose from lucrative sculptural commissions during the building booms of the 1960s and 1970s.  Far from leaden or officious, however, they extended the elastic, exuberance of his mobile inventions. Actually, they knowingly riff a sense of the ponderous as circus-clown imitations of elephants and whales.  Beefy, bolted-together forms force an equation between heavy engineering and animal stockiness.

Most of the show is of working maquettes.  It is fascinating to chart upward progressions in scale when there are intermediate models to hand: “Jerusalem Stabile” (1976), for instance, a red-painted steel 1:3 model, which just shy of 12 feet high dominates the show.  A must see show, but who can explain the bizarre, pretentious catalogue which represents the works in scaleless, surfaceless, computerized graphics—defeating the whole point, I would have thought, of this otherwise thoughtful exhibition?

Philip Grausman Sussana 1996-1999 fiberglass, 120 x 72 x 102 inches Courtesy Lohin Geduld
Philip Grausman, Sussana 1996-1999 fiberglass, 120 x 72 x 102 inches Courtesy Lohin Geduld

When it comes to a debate about intimacy and monumentality, Philip Grausman portrait sculpture throws a cat among the pigeons.  He makes images of people which are at once familiar and depersonalized, obviously born of observation and yet coolly hieratic.  They are installed in Lohin Geduld’s cramped quarters with the same dramatic effect as Ms. Whiteread and Calder are in their respective, sprawling art barns.

The heads in stainless steel are set on tubular pedestals of the same material, crowded into a back room like some Roman mausoleum.  There is something martial, even vaguely fascistic, in their polished metallic surface.  They look a bit like life masks at first, but have an animation that is only possible from sculpture worked ex nihilo.  Still, they elude the old category distinction of carving versus modeling in the way they are at once severe and fluid.

The show is dominated, however, by “Susanna,” (1996-99) a ten foot high version of a female head in fiberglass.  Dwarfing its surrounding space, it brings to mind Magritte’s surrealist fantasy of a comb and shaving brush in mammoth disproportion to its bedroom, or else romantic meditations of people amidst monumental classical ruins.  The white material has an ethereal, weightless quality, giving the woman’s serene expression a Buddha-like calm.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, March 2, 2006