Kenneth Baker

  • Kenneth Baker

    TOWER OF POWER

    SOL LEWITT’s show at the Ace Gallery in New York was the most memorable one I saw in 1995. Playing out obvious structural permutations in classic Minimalist style, LeWitt filled each of Ace Gallery’s huge skylit rooms with towering, systemic, bottom-heavy constructions of cinderblocks. Their tremendous scale made these structures read as crushing arguments for the perversion of sculpture by architecture, and vice versa. The largest piece—an enormous open grid of thick, chest-high walls with a tall tower surmounting each juncture—consumed space so greedily that it seemed to swallow

  • Joel-Peter Witkin

    Our trust in the camera as witness to reality (as opposed to fabricator of it) is always an issue in Joel-Peter Witkin’s work. By showing us morbid or monstrous images, the veracity of which we would rather not believe, he exposes our faith in the camera.

    For underlying that faith is the hope that truth can be objectified—recorded by the camera as it happens—relieving us of responsibility for deciding among ourselves what to regard as real. Witkin delights in frustrating people’s trust in the camera with pictures such as Woman Once a Bird, Los Angeles, 1990, in which a naked woman, her head shaved

  • ADDITION + ABUNDANCE: SIGMAR POLKE

    THE RECEIVED VIEW OF Sigmar Polke’s art is that it responds and corresponds to an international culture awash with disposable images whose plenitude flattens their meaning and whose reproducibility deprives them of origins. When I first saw his work, in the early 1980s, I felt relief, not that it was less pessimistic than I had expected, but that it was more puzzling. Polke’s paintings showed that it is possible to do well—without pretension or preciousness—what David Salle was already famous for doing shabbily, with opportunistic haste: to layer images from disparate contexts so as to engender

  • ALL THINGS CONSIDERED: TONY CRAGG

    THE MORE REPRESENTATIONS OCCUPY the world, the more the world eludes representation. Trying to evoke the world, to make a subject of it, to catch it by the tail thematically or just evocatively—by means other than representation—has become a mark of ambition in contemporary art. Now more than ever, Piero Manzoni’s Base del mondo (Base of the world, 1961), the inverted outdoor pedestal that, at a stroke, makes sculpture of the whole planet, looks like a philosophical milestone of art.

    Clever strategies abound for embroiling the world in art and vice versa, but they too often end in brittle topicality

  • David Kezur

    From Bruce Conner and Edward and Nancy Kienholz to Mike Kelley to Bay Area newcomers like Nayland Blake and René de Guzman, found-object (and purchased-object) sculpture has such a rich history in California that I am continually surprised that it has not yet played itself out. It is as if the hard detritus of contemporary life were a compost that—mixed with artistic intelligence—is perennially capable of sprouting new forms.

    David Kezur, who now lives in New York, began making poetic structures of salvaged junk while he was living on the West Coast. Many of the components of his works suggest

  • Stefan Kürten

    Stefan Kürten’s paintings are slight, self-effacing, but nonetheless wise. Many of them are small, less than 12 inches square, and are strewn with homey, literally thumbnail-size sketches. Kürten’s subjects are generic, as his titles suggest: Jewelry, Hearts, Sperm, and Eggs, 31 Sunsets, Beauty Supplies, Bar Codes, etc. (all works 1990). Blithely, he makes the point that the daily glut of media images ultimately trivializes the image generally.

    Kürten’s method and the visual quality it generates are crucial. To make a picture, he takes a primed, stretched canvas and sets it face down on a coated

  • TEMPTATION

    As everyone must know by now, the contemporary arts in America are under a campaign of intimidation by opportunistic politicians and spiteful bureaucrats. Issues of content aside, there is more to public backlash against the arts than a periodic overflow of the traditional anti-intellectual current in American life. People know that the promises of American ideology—daily reiterated in the idiom of merchandising—have been betrayed and that there’s nothing they can do about it. They know that the fundamental promise of freedom has been betrayed when freedom boils clown to “disposable” income, to

  • James Lee Byars

    This installation of 25 works by James Lee Byars stressed a little-acknowledged effect of his work: frustration. Ordinarily, this discomfiture is the result of our inability to crack the code of Byars’ art, or perhaps of our being unable to decide whether it has any meaning except as evidence of his careerism. Here Byars fueled those quandaries by ruling out close inspection of his work. All the objects on view were corralled within a circle of gold leaf applied to the floor, a level down from the museum’s entrance. (An identical solid circle of gold—this one void of objects—was applied to the

  • Ann Hamilton

    Despite the lack of an internal device for marking time, a signature element in most of Ann Hamilton’s pieces, her recent installation, entitled between taxonomy and communion managed to exude the esthetic air typical of Hamilton’s art: a sense of transcendent awareness arising from obsessive labor and material repleteness.

    For between taxonomy and communion Hamilton used raw wool to cover the floor and walls of a large room with a low ceiling and a single doorway to about waist height. The wool was then covered with rectangular slats of glass joined at their edges with a powerful, flexible

  • David Rabinowitch

    In the mid ’60s, David Rabinowitch planned a large series of sculptures, each to be fabricated in a different wood. Though the shapes of the proposed objects are relatively simple, the difficulty of constructing them using seamlessly joined, individually planed sections of wood is so formidable that to date few have been realized.

    One of the finest single-work New York exhibitions in memory, Open Wood Construction (Poplar), 1966, was fabricated only last fall by Tadashi Hashimoto assisted by Satoru Igarashi in the gallery where it remained on view for four months. The beauty of the object lies

  • René de Guzman

    Reiterating the critical gambit of Robert Smithson’s celebrated “nonsites,” René de Guzman fills Plexiglas boxes with organic material including fluids, hair, dried sponges and weeds. De Guzman views his handling of solid geometry as a critical invasion of the theoretically inviolate interior spaces of Minimal sculpture. Both artists redress the Minimalist legacy, yet they play the gambit in very disparate emotional keys.

    The decorative and elegiac quality of de Guzman’s objects would have been anathema to Smithson. Where Smithson wanted to purge sculpture of its residual human reference and

  • John Scott

    The “hand” is held in low regard in progressive circles these days. Though John Scott made his reputation exhibiting robust, tarry drawings that evoke the violence of contemporary life, in this show he seems to have yielded to fashion. The works are all custom-fabricated or altered objects, more in the spirit of Hans Haacke than of Max Beckmann or Asger Jorn. The one exception is a piece entitled Selbst (Self; all works 1989), in which an announcement for Scott’s show bearing a patch of his own skin tattooed with three roses and a number is enshrined in a jewelry display case. Though Scott’s

  • Chester Arnold

    The legacy of the vogue for “bad” painting has been a lot of bad paintings. But when and if the art world rewards skillful image-making again, Bay Area painter Chester Arnold will be in a strong position. Arnold has evolved his own brand of dreamy, intermittently nightmarish realism. It is governed by a rich, flickering touch that is equally conversant with the American reverie of Charles Burchfield, the landscape space of early Dutch painting, and the cryptic, in-yourface narrative of the late Philip Guston. Several of the big pictures in Arnold’s latest show have worm’s-eye vantage points,

  • “Against Nature”

    “Against Nature: Japanese Art in the Eighties” attempts the impossible task of encapsulating a distant art scene using the works of 10 artists (nine individuals plus the Dumb Type performance group). The show is a collaboration between two American curators, Kathy Halbreich and Thomas Sokolowski, and two Japanese, Fumio Nanjo and Shinji Kohmoto. Unfortunately, the selection of work seems both too sparse and too ill-focused to make convincing any inferences about Japanese art in the ’80s.

    The show and its catalogue argue that the most vital, independent current in recent Japanese art is one that

  • ABSTRACT JESTURES

    EVERYONE KNOWS THAT abstract painting is “back,” after a decade’s spate of image-ridden art, but what kind of claim on our attention can it make? Is it now—can it be—anything but a periodically reappearing spoke on the Great Wheel of Art Fashion? Those who say that abstract painting is back are often saying nothing more than that it is back at the heart of the contemporary art market. But I think we might legitimately intend more than that. The past ten years’ engagement with tactics of representation in and around art has changed irrevocably what and how picture-making means, including abstract

  • Dawn Fryling

    The Bay Area has long been associated with mildly expressionistic figurative painting, but in the ’80s installation work has emerged here as another important regional art tendency. San Francisco artist Dawn Fryling belongs to a new generation of installation artists coming up behind already prominent people such as David Ireland, Tony Labat, and Paul Kos.

    I’ve seen only two works Fryling has shown and both have been impressively straightforward and lyrical. The first, a piece titled Nine Marks, 1988, appeared in a juried group show. It consisted of nine thrift-shop overcoats hung on the wall in

  • Mario Merz

    In Mario Merz’s show here, the art looked like it had been brought to the laboratory for examination under controlled conditions. The setting was so clean, so sanitized of all sense of signifying context, that it left Merz’s work looking theatrical and self-important. Arte povera’s arbitrariness reads as material poetics only in situations that exhale some—any—air of cultural history. But MOCA, once you’re inside it, seems as rootless as a space station, and Merz’s work only heightened that impression.

    What this commissioned installation revealed was the tacit psychological program of the building’s

  • Carnegie International

    People not already briefed on the strangeness of high-ambition contemporary art must have found the 1988 Carnegie International exhibition both a bafflement and a revelation. Those who entered wondering what they were “supposed to see” confronted a wide, confusing spectrum of stylistic cues. But the semiotic static of art sophistication abated here and there. Works like Wolfgang Laib’s beeswax hut and Bill Viola’s video room had a visceral immediacy, attesting that good new art does not have to come cloaked in theory to be convincing.

    The International offered unanticipated glories of color and

  • John Meyer

    Even among Bay Area painters, John Meyer is a strict abstractionist. Although he sets rigorous limits on his work, he puts it through big changes from one show to the next. In 1985, he had a show of work that consisted of rectangular sheets of lacquered aluminum. They marked Meyer’s attempt to produce a perfectly true—that is, flat and uninflected—surface. Yet their material qualities were subsidiary to their optical effect: acting as mirrors, they improved the appearance of anything glimpsed in them. Meyer went on to make a series of monochromatic red lacquer paintings on stretched butcher

  • REFERENCE TO BREAKDOWN: JOEL SHAPIRO'S SCULPTURES OF THE '80S

    JOEL SHAPIRO’S POSITION AMONG contemporary sculptors is in general an enviable one. He has a distinguished international exhibition record, solid dealer representation that continues to generate sales and commissions, and a body of work that is expanding and maturing free of the taint of cynical strategy. So why write about him now, when critical support for his work has for years been, if not highly vocal, certainly loyal and well-founded?

    My reason is that I think Shapiro’s art has begun to become invisible to the art world, despite (or maybe because of) its seemingly wide acceptance. Some