Art October 2003
Whither the psychodramas?
On Miracle in the Scrap Heap: The Sculpture of Richard Stankiewicz at AXA Gallery & Ellsworth Kelly: Red Green Blue--- Paintings and Studies 1958-1965 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
On March 17, 1960, the artist Jean Tinguely nearly set New York’s Museum of Modern Art on fire. By all accounts it was a fabulous affair. The governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, was in attendance, as was the rest of the city’s elite, a black-tied assembly packed into MOMA’s Sculpture Garden for an eagerly awaited evening. Around them bristled the cables and camera lenses and stenopads of the world’s press. The occasion marked a climax for the young Tinguely, a principal member of the French art movement Nouveau Realisme, which he formalized back in France later that year; Tinguely had arrived in New York some months earlier to set up a studio under the auspices of Peter Selz within the Buckminster Fuller dome then sprouting in the museum’s garden. Yet this evening was equally significant for the throngs of the New York art world. It meant for them, finally, an affirmation of international arrival. No longer would New York play second fiddle to Paris. Even if the honor of “cultural capital” had been bestowed on New York, de facto, some twenty years before, here in the spectacle of the evening was a signal event of the transfer. The Frenchman Tinguely’s creation was titled Homage to New York.
Homage was what you might call, if you can call it anything, a self-destructing assembly of junk. Tinguely had requisitioned fifty bicycle wheels, motors, horns, smoke bombs, stink bombs, and a piano, among other pieces of urban detritus, for this one-shot machine. When set in motion, Homage could not have performed better. Out of a riot of smoke, noise, and turning gears, a can of gasoline tipped onto a candle burning in the old piano. As the piano went up in flames, a carriage—itself now in flames —shot out from beneath the piano and zeroed in on the audience. It skipped over a camera bag and lodged within a ladder used by a correspondent from Paris-Match (there’s always something in a name). The reporter stepped down, turned the carriage around, and sent the device skipping into the NBC sound equipment. At this point Tinguely’s circus act was shut down by the fire marshall, but the artist had done the trick. Homage encouraged Marcel Duchamp to remark: “we’re going to drown in a sea of mediocrity. Maybe Tinguely and a few others sense this and are trying to destroy art before it’s too late.”
Kingsley Amis once famously said that the problems of the twentieth century could be summed up in the word “workshop.” If so, a runner-up must be the word “strategies,” at least when not used in the context of a military campaign. One popular textbook on modern-contemporary art, now in wide circulation, is called Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being. Its author, Jonathan Fineberg, singles out three people in his acknowledgments as the “greatest teachers of my life”: the art critic Harold Rosenberg, the artist Cristo, and Fineberg’s father, a psychoanalyst. For Fineberg, as for his mentor Rosenberg, modern art is the act of playing out a sociopolitical “strategy.” The cover of Fineberg’s textbook features not works of art but artists at work: Joseph Beuys muttering into a microphone, Jackson Pollock dripping paint, Cristo barking orders, Robert Rauschenberg on roller skates, and so forth (the textbook also features a long section on Tinguely’s Homage). The difficulty posed by Fineberg’s treatment of art, which by now emits the odor of doctrine, is how wrongheaded it sounds to anyone, outside of the creepy cathouses of postmodernism, who appreciates art for its beauty and raw power, as well as to any artists who are compelled to create rather than destroy art in the mode of Tinguely or Duchamp. Worse yet, however, is how Fineberg’s narrative both overlooks and discounts a generation of modern artists who were not operating within and refused to comply with this mock-heroic “stategy of being.” Such artists are defined by their art, instead of their art being defined by them.
One of the few artists with whom Tinguely had an audience while in New York was the junk sculptor Richard Stankiewicz (1922–1983, pronounced Stang-KAY-vich), then working in a studio downtown. At the meeting, Stankiewicz put Tinguely in touch with his Canal Street junk dealer. One of Stankiewicz’s pieces, called Model for a Monument (1960), also went on to serve as a model for Tinguely’s flaming carriage, now preserved in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Tinguely regarded Stankiewicz as someone who “glorified what [was] destitute, outlawed, and disreputable” and who “exerted the greatest influence on [my] work.” The American is considered a forebear of the Nouveau Realisme movement, for which he receives in Fineberg’s Art Since 1940 a few lines of credit. Yet nothing in Tinguely’s breathy pronouncements or in Fineberg’s hopes for a high-art/low-art showdown seems to explain this special and largely forgotten artist, even if his sculptures resemble, superficially, the work of his junk-yard contemporaries.
This is something that many people will get to see for themselves—probably for the first time—as a new exhibition out of Phillips Academy called “Miracle in the Scrap Heap: The Sculpture of Richard Stankiewicz” makes the rounds. The title comes from a remark made by Sidney Geist. It hints at the creative and transfigurative power of Stankiewicz’s work. Stankiewicz is not someone who easily fits in the Fineberg school of art history, and goodness knows we’re the better for it. Stankiewicz, in fact, pursued something of an opposite artistic “strategy” from Tinguely. Rather than leaving behind charred bicycle wheels, Stankiewicz took worthless industrial castoffs and breathed life back into them; he gave rusty boilers and pipe fittings biomorphic and anthropomorphic characteristics; he made them amusing; he positioned figures in dioramas with titles like Family Portrait; he imbued disregarded things, if you can say this, with a sense of dignity. In the junk piles of Canal Street, Stankiewicz saw the glimmer of humanity staring back at him. This humanism, divorced of the political impulse, is precisely what put Stankiewicz at odds with the ironies of pop art and the cool sophistication of minimalism, both coming down the pike by 1960. Stankiewicz became, you might say, a medievalist working in a postmodern world.
Fairfield Porter, a longtime champion of Stankiewicz, wrote of his 1953 exhibition at Hansa Gallery, at 70 East Twelfth Street, that his sculptures “show that life is stronger than the machine.” Schooled in the modernist tradition by Hans Hofmann, Stankiewicz’s work took on a naive and special tenor in the wake of the postmodern castoffs that have passed for art in the last few decades. Fed up with New York and relocating to rural Massachusetts in 1962, Stankiewicz became the Dogon of the Rust Belt and an insider who became an outsider, as far as the art world was concerned.
It is the period of output in the 1950s and early 1960s, before the challenge of minimalism encouraged Stankiewicz to go larger and strip his work down, that comes off as the artist’s most confident and most idiosyncratic. This is the small-scale New York-era production at the heart of the current retrospective, as well as what is on display at a concurrent exhibition at Zabriskie Gallery. Since picking up Stankiewicz in the early 1970s, Zabriskie has doggedly and singularly promoted him in New York with a number of small shows.
A work from 1953 called Tribal Diagram matches an assembly of pipe fittings with sprigs and blossoms of dancing wire in a way that is somehow understandable as a model in scale. A model of what, exactly? Well, that’s not altogether certain, only that there exists the potential for something larger, as though the pipes represent a junkyard infrastructure with the wires of tiny men and women swaying on the scaffolds. This Diagram you might say provides a precis to Stankiewicz’s entire sculptural program in the 1950s, with each assembly to follow serving as a portrait of life in this mythology: The Bride (1955) (with chicken wire as a veil), Urchin (1955), Warrior (1956), City Bird (1957), Machine People (1958). In Middle-Aged Couple (1954), an exhaust manifold has been paired with a dapper stovepipe, hinges serve as eyes and mouth, and a doorlatch hangs from the neck of the left figure like a pocketbook or camera, while a slender chain hooks into the right figure like that of a pocketwatch. The crudeness of materials is there for us to see, yet the shapes appear formal and posed, chaste and solemn, as though these were ordinary folk going about their daily lives and not the superstars of the junkyard world. The best work, such as the simple Chain People I (1960) (rusty boiler clothed in the textiles of straight, sash, and roller chains), is presented in documentary form, as though here was the anthropological evidence of a strange civilization. The results are sweet and affecting. Stankiewicz was largely ignored in his own century, yet he still has so much to teach about perceiving the shape of things around us.
One artist who has carved out a nearly opposite professional existence from that of Richard Stankiewicz is the painter Ellsworth Kelly. Born just a year after Stankiewicz, in 1923, Kelly approaches the closest thing we have now to a living master, which isn’t saying a whole lot, but it is saying something. He recently celebrated his eightieth birthday, and he stays active and entertains himself by, among other things, writing letters to the architecture critic Herbert Muschamp of The New York Times. One epistle, over plans for the World Trade Center site, sent Mr. Muschamp’s heart so completely aflutter in the Sunday, August 31 “Arts & Leisure” section that Kelly’s gesture ranks as inspiring the only amusing occurrence ever to come out of September 11.
I don’t think it would be unfair to suggest that Kelly has been clever and media-savvy with his career all along, carefully with- holding his artistic intentions, navigating through the waters of formalism, minimalism, op art, and pop art for fifty years, without ever settling for one camp or another.
Although most people have labeled him a minimalist, as did Muschamp, there’s always been something more intuitive and less programmatic and conceptual about Kelly’s work than the mainline minimalisms of Donald Judd, Carl Andre, et al. Plus, Kelly’s colorful and often appealing work looks frankly too good for the typical gloom of minimalist structures.
Media-savviness alone does not a bad artist make, and through his career Kelly has quietly produced work that often stands the test of time; at certain moments, he has even created important works of an era. Such is the case with his series of color experiments that makes up the exhibition “Red Green Blue—Paintings and Studies, 1958–1965” organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and now on view at New York’s Whitney Museum. This show is so visually arresting, so imperious toward the senses, that to suggest Kelly is not here, first and foremost, a rigorous and serious artist concerned with the electric potential of formal issues is to miss out on the big picture.
In his catalogue essay, Dave Hickey recounts how Josef Albers lodged an early complaint of one of Kelly’s painting: “Albers looked at the painting for a while and pronounced it a failure because the abutted yellow and white panels lacked sufficient contrast to occlude the line between them. That line, Albers said, ruined the painting.” If Kelly has had his own “strategy for being” since then, it has been an attempt to contain as much of the history of art, including the movements of contemporary art—even the colors of advertisement and graphic design —within the borders his work. At the same time he has “occluded the line” and blurred his political boundaries in order to (in Hickey’s plodding words) “elude the increasingly Balkanized, analyzed, subdivided, and historicized categories of modernist practice by an appeal to the more complex but essentially unitary attributes of our experience in the presence of modern art.”
If not all of Kelly’s works have succeeded visually as well as the 1958–1965 color experiments, especially the more staid, all-over color panels of later work, it is because here Kelly allows us our fullest access to a formalist narrative without the obfuscation and smoke-and-mirror devices of minimalism, such as painting out the sides of his canvases, which he borrowed just a couple years later. We can detect a visual narrator puzzling out and pulling us through his visual riddles, setting out the primary colors red and blue against the tensions of green, and at the same time toying with our expectations of blue as background and red as foreground. Kelly routinely positions the colors of Miró in reverse, blue over red.
What follows in the fifteen or so large canvases, as well as the numerous prints and works on paper—sometimes newsprint and old envelopes that served as his many test sheets—is a color suite with variations in weight and mass. Kelly uses and plays with our simple visual assumption that concave shapes are plastic and foreground, and that shapes bleeding over the canvas edge are background: for example, the green and blue lozenges of Green Blue Red (1964), positioned within a field of red, conflict with our expectations of red as foreground (especially along the red-blue border) and at the same time generate a disharmony at the red-green line, playing against an already uneasy pairing. On paper it sounds confusing, but our eyes instantly understand this as a challenge, and it is this challenge that drives us through the show and leads us to anticipate a resolution, or at least the clues to a resolution, in the paintings to come. Hans Hofmann once said that “Good composition is like a suspension bridge—each line adds strength and takes none away.” For Kelly the tension is there, even as his lines are obscured.
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- “Miracle in the Scrap Heap: The Sculpture of Richard Stankiewicz” was on view at AXA Gallery, New York, from August 15 to September 21, 2003. It was previously on view at the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, from April 19 to July 30, 2003. The exhibition will be shown at The Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas, from April to July 2004 and the Museum Jean Tinguely, Basel, Switzerland, from September to November 2004. A catalogue of the exhibition, with an essay by Emmie Donadio, has been published by the Addison Gallery of American Art (175 pages, $39.95). Go back to the text.
- “Richard Stankiewicz” opened at Zabriskie Gallery on September 9 and remains on view until October 18, 2003. Go back to the text.
- “Ellsworth Kelly: Red Green Blue—Paintings and Studies, 1958–1965” opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, on August 10 and remains on view until November 3, 2003. The exhibition was previously on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego from January 19 to April 14, 2003. It will be on view at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from April 27 to July 27, 2003. A catalogue of the exhibition has been published by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in conjunction with D.A (128 pages, $49.95) Go back to the text.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 2, on page 47
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