Paula Cooper Gallery February 5 – March 6, 2010
Whitney Biennial February 25 – May 30, 2010
To make a sweeping generalization about Robert Grosvenor’s choice of materials across his career would be difficult or near impossible. There is little material continuity in his work, but rather conceptual outgrowths through material explorations. His work is characteristically about material unsameness, humorous contradictions, and seemingly absurd paradoxes. His recent exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery alongside the opening of the Whitney Biennial, which includes one of his sculptures, encompasses the gamut of his wide conceptual and material concerns, as well as the importance of the context in which his sculptures are displayed.
Amid the horrific political issues depicted in many of the works in the Whitney (from the Afghani self-mutilation photographs, to the lobotomy patient video, to the disfigured American soldier portraits), one could make some overly literal interpretations of Grosvenor’s plush velvet bridge and ornamental welded metal fence: bridges and boundaries span the political, social, economic, and so on. However, this work is among the few funny pieces in this biennial. It defeats its function. The bridge, with its flimsy material lushness, doesn’t appear able to hold weight, and bridges aren’t meant to be enjoyed the way one sits on a couch. And the fence, in a similar way, isn’t meant to delineate a perimeter or contain anything—it’s simply a two-dimensional screen, like a see-through painting. In these ways, Grosvenor’s sculptures simply and impishly disregard utility.
In the Paula Cooper Gallery’s cavernous Chelsea space, three Grosvenor sculptures from the late 1980s and 1990s are displayed. Never shown before together, these pieces drive home Grosvenor’s reluctance to use any one material. Conceptually consistent, these works are about balance, utility (or the lack thereof), and the absurd. Furthermore, however, his material choices evoke the industrial—its detritus, machinery, and production. And, like other works of the late 1990s, his use of rocks and chunks of concrete calls to mind Robert Smithson’s interests in prehistoric/futuristic geology.
Grosvenor’s sculptures, with their stubborn “untitled” titles, invite an even more extreme degree of ambiguous and negotiable context. Breaking away from the Minimalist movement in the late 1960s, Grosvenor’s work shook the material sameness and conceptual homogeny that characterized many of those artists. Around this time, Robert Smithson, one year younger than Grosvenor, followed a similar idiosyncratic and divergent conceptual path.
Writing about artists who deviated from Minimalism proper in “Entropy in the New Monuments,” Smithson noted, “They bring to mind the Ice Age rather than the Golden Age, and would most likely confirm Vladimir Nabokov’s observation that, ‘The future is but the obsolete in reverse.’” Smithson called Grosvenor’s floating beams, with sci-fi hyperbole, “Grosvenor’s hypervolumes in hyperspace.” At Paula Cooper, a corresponding strangeness and alien-like intensity permeates these sculptures’ material assembly and conceptual conveyances. I have scribbled on my checklist in three different places, “What is this shape?” and, while I have generated some associations, I have no distinctive idea, which I think is his point. While “Untitled” (1991) and “Untitled” (1994) deal more with monumental balance in a totemic, stela-like way (invariably recalling fragments of architecture), “Untitled” 1986-87) evokes a bivouac or archaeological site for entropy and absurdity. A plastic canopy with cutout steel discs shelter a chunk of concrete, which rests on a blue tarp. The steel discs seem to be Calder-like wheels and the blue tarp is like an Yves Klein color-field.
In toto, this work is pretty funny in its illogical language and placement: inside of Paula Cooper’s presumably structurally sound warehouse space, Grosvenor is sheltering an industrial architectural fragment (from what?), quarantining the chunk of raw concrete from the gallery’s polished concrete floor. Again, Grosvenor is a master of the nonfunctional. I wonder if he is fetishizing the entropic, or reconfiguring the semantics of entropy, or if he even cares.
After all, Joseph Masheck has pointed out that in Grosvenor’s earlier works, his fractured beams related to Smithson’s entropic ideas, “Smithson, in ‘Partially Buried Woodshed’, stopped when the roof beam broke… Grosvenor’s works begin with the fracture of the beam.” Ultimately, though, it’s Grosvenor’s obdurate semantic and material indeterminacy that paradoxically keep his work meaningful and together. Thus, the context and placement of his sculptures make them a bit chameleonic or adaptable to circumstances, at the least. I’d be curious to see the Paula Cooper pieces swapped with the Whitney Biennial work and then re-write this review.
GREG LINDQUIST is an artist, writer and editor of the Art Books in Review section of the Brooklyn Rail. He is currently a resident at the Marie Walsh Sharpe artist residency.