On ViewLévy Gorvy
September 6 – October 24, 2018
Focus on the art itself—don’t let your attention wander, and above all don’t digress: that’s the guiding advice usually given to the working art critic. We wear blinders, because readers want our judgment of the art being reviewed, not evaluation of the gallery or museum where it is on show. But, so it is arguable, we cannot legitimately entirely separate our experience of art from awareness of that place where it is displayed. Think, if you will, how differently an altarpiece is discussed when it’s removed from a church to a museum—or how a painting is seen differently when it goes from a commercial gallery to a grand collector’s home. Thanks to Brian O’Doherty’s justly famous Inside the White Cube (1976), we are all aware that you cannot separate awareness of art from its display system. Indeed, as the subtitle of his book, The Ideology of the Gallery Space, implies, the political history of modernism (and what comes after) is to some degree, the history also of these display spaces.
Intimate Infinite is a revelatory commentary on the history gallery spaces. In the three floors of the Lévy Gorvy gallery on Madison Avenue you see almost one hundred works, most of them small enough to fit into your carry-on luggage, by twenty-seven artists. Inspired by a line in William Blake’s poem, Auguries of Innocence, “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour” this exhibition organized by Brett Gorvy focuses on artworks set in dialogue. And so on the first floor three Cy Twomblys are paired with a group of nicely varied early Robert Ryman paintings; on the second floor, we have art by Lee Bontecou, John Chamberlain, Mona Hatoum, Jasper Johns which deals with sensitivity to materials, and Brice Marden, to name six names, which deals with sensitivity to materials; and, finally, on the third floor there are seven of Jean Dubuffet’s collages, surreal works by Yves Tanguy and René Magritte, drawings by Vija Celmins, images by Bruce Conner; and on a to-die-for graceful enormous curved table, boxes by Joseph Cornell and Lucas Samaras.
O’Doherty’s book focused on the then recent development of artificially lit, plain white neutral modernist galleries, in which nothing from the external world intrudes between the viewer and the art. Here, however, we are offered something quite different—a domestic-scaled jewel case, the art gallery as container for precious artifacts. As in the typical white cube you cannot look outside, but the way that you view what is inside is highly distinctive. You are inside, as it were, a display case for luxuries. This marvelous effect, which would be hard to replicate in more populous public museum spaces is, however, reminiscent of the Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris, for there, too, the individual works become components of an exquisite total work-of-art.
Gorvy wants that we step momentarily outside the world of social media and as conveyed in the press release, “take a journey. . . through a selection of artists . . . in conversation with each other.” An eminently French conception, as classically presented in Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondances,”
La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L’homme y passé à travers des foréts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiars.
Nature is a temple, in which living pillars sometimes utter a babel of words; mankind traverses it through forests of symbols that watch him with knowing eyes.1
(Francis Scarfe translation)
Here, then, the obvious aesthetic and spiritual differences between Ryman’s materialistic painting and Twombly’s Italian-based visual poetry; between Chamberlain’s very American fascination with industrial production and Marden’s love of Chinese calligraphy; and between the contents of the precious Cornell boxes—Untitled (Caravaggio Boy) (1953) is especially marvelous—and Conner’s more aggressive sensibility: these differences all are cancelled-and-preserved in a marvelous synthesis. What matters in this setting is less the distinctions between these very diverse artist’s achievements than the common ways in which their works all have become precious. In a recently published supplement to Inside the White Cube O’Doherty updates his commentary:
Art and its reception always intersected finance. Art is made to be coopted.
Installations—a site, a place, the spectator’s literal presence—call on and sometimes attack the multipurpose, polymorphous spaces which host with equanimity the shouts of contrary aesthetics and house-broken protests.2
Intimate Infinite demonstrates that the story of the contemporary art gallery continues, in ways that deserves critical attention. In Chelsea, the grandest galleries are industrial-scale spaces, often occupied with vast art machines; here a very different luxuriously intimate effect is achieved in domestic sized rooms.
- Baudelaire, Charles. “Correspondences,” Baudelaire: The Poems in Prose, translated by Francis Scarfe, Anvil Press, 1984.
- Brian O’Doherty, Collected Essays, University of California Press, 2018.