Including several series which have never before been on public display, “Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1979–1989” takes a rare glimpse into the early work of the Los Angeles–based artist’s forty-year career. The exhibition fills a crucial gap in understanding his development: In the formative years of Conceptualism, Gaines—a longtime colleague of Sol Lewitt—created a complex, rule-based approach to his two-dimensional gridwork, which consisted of numerical sequences in pencil or ink on large sheets of gridded paper. Those familiar with Gaines’s more recent work may be surprised by the lack of any visible mention of the politics behind this seeming painstakingly developed methodology, epitomized by the nonrepresentational numerical sequence “Regression,” 1973–74.
Gaines’s foundational interest in systems-based abstraction as an implicit ideological critique over explicit political sentiment is showcased through these early works. In each work in his twenty-six part series “Walnut Tree Orchard,” 1975–2014, Gaines represents a barren walnut tree three ways: as a black-and-white photograph, a drawn outline of the tree, and a numerical sequence mapping the distance of the tree in relation to all the trees represented before it, in effect creating a numerical orchard. Here, impartial mathematical sequences provide an alternate logic for viewing the world. At the same time, the outline of the tree bears traces of the artist’s hand, which lends a touch of the spontaneous in an otherwise orderly mathematical formality. Finally, the mapped tree orchard is indicative of Gaines’s stake in both duration and the effect of time on perception. His commitment to revealing systems of representation is repeated in other series—including portraiture in “Faces,” 1978, and the human body in “Motion: Trisha Brown Dance,” 1981—each deploying systems that skirt politics to land on identity.
The two-part exhibition “Ultrapassado” exclusively includes the work of female geometric abstractionists. Taking its name from the Portuguese term for transcending, the show in its second iteration comprises multimedia works that do just that; they go beyond the normative conventions of Rio de Janeiro–based Neo-Concretist art of the 1960s that sought to overcome its inheritance of European rationalism. Instead, work by artists Paloma Bosquê, Rosemarie Castoro, and Lydia Okumura illustrate that lyrical geometric abstraction continued and still continues to be explored in New York and Sao Paulo, broadening the scope and scale of this movement’s imposed geographical and formal limitations.
While Castoro’s drawing Y Feet, 1965, clearly addresses the jostling framework of Hélio Oiticica’s “Metaesquema,” her miniature sculptures speak to an entirely different relationship. The result in Two Walls Wired, 1976, for example, joins two facing white slabs of gesso and marble dust by bent strands of steel wire, suggesting that open-ended space rather than the conclusively hard-edged is the connective force that binds geometric abstraction. The sculpture even establishes a direct connection with a work included in the exhibition’s back room, Bosquê’s site-specific installation Ruído (Noise), 2014, which trades miniature walls for Carl Andre–like steel slabs on the floor and bent wire for threads of poured resin and buttermilk.
Okumura’s installation Different Dimensions of Reality II, 1971/2014, arranges nine white aluminum plates that seem to stagger up the gallery’s main parting wall. Upon further inspection, as the work reaches the confines of its room, the white panels turn gray, and the sculpture turns into painting.
Nancy Rubins is known for her large public works composed of airplane parts, boats, televisions, mattresses, and other detritus mined from the boneyards of industrialized consumerism. Here she presents four sculptures formed from conglomerations of aluminum animals typical of fairground rides and children’s playgrounds—horses, ducks, and elephants among them—tightly bound together by wire cables. Three floor-based works rise from pedestals, expanding into multicolored cornucopias, while the largest piece, Our Friend Fluid Metal, 2014, also the name of the exhibition, emerges from a wall like zoological ectoplasm, billowing into the room above the viewer.
The brightly painted expressions of Rubins’s infantilized animals were once perhaps intended to augment the rider’s carnival experience, but with their redundancy, the paralyzed smiles and battered carcasses evoke hollow bewilderment rather than warm nostalgia, so that these works function as funereal totems to long-gone childhood pleasures.
While lacking the volume to inspire awe, or many of the other superlatives commonly applied to Rubins’s work, the sculptures do possess density and mass—qualities which strike an ominous tone. The creatures are so pitifully compressed and restricted in their suspended cages that they become not only a representation of detachment from youthful freedoms, but also a conduit for notions of seizure and abuse, relating less to animals than to the materials that Rubins’s menageries are made of. Although these structures are built from reconstituted metals, the greater suggestion is of a Benjamin Button–like societal regression should we continue to plunder and discard our finite resources.
This retrospective, which takes over the second floor of PS1, reveals James Lee Byars as a peripatetic showman whose work engaged some of the most compelling artistic questions of his time. Included in his variegated oeuvre is a collection of letters—the majority addressed to Joseph Beuys, Byars’s hero and most obvious influence—that evince the artist’s desire for creative correspondence. But, these letters, written in Byars’s intricately ornamented “star script,” evince a simultaneous fascination with gnomic indecipherability, as in all of his work. This conflicting set of impulses is equally evident in his “book” sculptures, which, in their irregular shapes and illegible typefaces, seem to flaunt their unreadability. Tropes of communication bleed into a sort of communion in Byars’s multiperson garments, such as the Pink Silk Airplane, 1969, which can accommodate one hundred simultaneous wearers. These call to mind contemporaneous works by Franz Erhard Walther, though the idea of the artwork’s activation through participation was already present in the interactive paper sculptures that Byars made after spending time in Kyoto. His World Question Center project, also 1969, was dedicated to compiling America’s “most interesting” questions—Byars’s response to Beuys’s contention that “everyone is an artist”—but left them conspicuously unanswered.
In Byars’s most original works, the opulent sculptures he produced from the 1980s on, his desires to show and to shroud are reconciled by embracing a Jodorowskyesque theatricality. Byars would interact with these works, which combine blood-red silk, gilded marble, and dramatic spotlighting, in temporal actions he called “plays.” The retrospective ultimately succeeds by presenting all of the artist’s work in such terms, with the galleries’ walls painted black and luminous gold, giving the impression of a black-box theater turned gnostic temple.
Trisha Brown’s choreography is notoriously difficult to capture, with its swift turns and continuous transitional phrases. In early works such as Roof Piece, 1971, seen through the able lens of Babette Mangolte, multiple dancers transmit simple movements to one another across New York City rooftops, invoking both the performers’ and viewer’s capacities for recall. With each performance, Brown anticipated the way her work would be seen, questioning the disappearance so often ascribed to dance. The photographs, short films, videos, and ephemera that comprise this exhibition record Brown’s performances for posterity, in turn influencing Brown’s own practice. Mangolte’s exhilarating film Watermotor, 1978, shows Brown performing the eponymous dance in real time. It’s then slowed down by half—perhaps best evidencing what Craig Owens once called “mechanical inscription,” or the multiple perspectives and temporal freeze/flow of film and photography registered in the dancing.
Since the 1970s, Brown and her company have investigated the terrain of lower Manhattan—whose buildings, seen from the windows of the space, provide an apropos backdrop and real-time reminder of context. Curated by Alex Fialho and Melissa Levin, and conceived by Sam Miller, this deceptively compact show foregrounds the conflation of site and sight, particularly in the “Equipment Pieces.” Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, 1970, uses gravity to defamiliarize ordinary movement: rigged to a harness, a performer descends down the facade of 80 Wooster Street. Photographed from below by Peter Moore, the figure is dwarfed by the architectural surface, whose pictorial flatness causes the vertical surface to appear nearly horizontal—“site-specificity” might here extend to the event’s relationship with its documentation. An iteration of Man Walking forty years later is included in a grid of color photographs documenting the company’s reperformances—yet Brown’s symbiotic relation to reproductive media, and her photographers’ collaborative voices, become lost to the digital, high-resolution ennui of contemporary image-making. In this survey of her practice, Brown’s play with the fugitive nature of movement is strongest when the process of seeing dance itself is illuminated.
Fifty years ago, architect Philip Johnson invited the edgy up-and-coming artist Andy Warhol to produce one of ten commissions for the facade of the World’s Fair New York State Pavilion—Warhol’s first and ultimately last public-art project. Working in the midst of his “Death and Disaster” depictions of car crashes and race riots, while taking his initial photobooth strips of socialites, friends, and, of course, himself, Warhol devised a work for the pavilion that would merge the profane and the portrait: blown-up silk-screened mug shots of the thirteen most-wanted men taken straight from the City of New York’s police department. As the story goes, someone in power had objections, perhaps to its coarse aesthetics, thinly veiled homoeroticism, or simply the banal subject material. By the time the World’s Fair opened on April 22, 1964, the 13 Most Wanted Men was covered in a thick coat of silver paint (a proposal to replace the work with twenty-five identical panels of a beaming World’s Fair President Robert Moses was, alas, rejected out of hand).
The making of the work, its quick demise, and its afterlife in Warhol’s oeuvre make up this meticulously researched and precisely installed exhibition. The fascinating murder mystery of the Men unfolds chronologically, weaving in appearances by potential culprits Philip Johnson, Robert Moses, Nelson Rockefeller, and most enigmatic of all, Warhol himself. Nine silk-screened portraits of the Men that were made the summer after the debacle form the core of the exhibition, which is supplemented by an array of other works by Warhol, such as Little Electric Chair, 1964–65, and Nelson Rockefeller, 1967, and archival materials documenting Warhol’s year of production on the pavilion, the World’s Fair exhibition, and the reception of the controversial destruction of the work. By the end of 1964, for Warhol, “Death and Disaster” had transformed into a Flowers elegy and the Men had mutated into the screen-test series 13 Most Beautiful Boys, 1964–66. What remains in this exhibition are the relics of an astounding transitional moment in the artist’s work.