Machine Dazzle

New York

Left: New Museum curator Gary Carrion-Murayari and New Museum associate director Massimiliano Gioni. Right: David Droga, New Museum director Lisa Phillips, Generational curator Lauren Cornell, and Matthew Dipple. (All photos: Nicholas Hunt/Patrick McMullan)

THEY CALLED THEMSELVES ZERO and their heyday was quick, perhaps even unnoticed by most at the time—the artists will tell you this themselves. Hans Haacke, one of the group’s many noteworthy members, stood on the balcony of the Standard East, the site of the New Museum’s afterparty for its latest exhibition, “Ghosts in the Machine,” curated by Gary Carrion-Murayari and Massimiliano Gioni. The show digs up a history of kinetic and optical art, some of it centered on Zero, much of it created in the 1950s and ’60s (though art made over the past two decades as well as throughout the early twentieth and even late nineteenth centuries was also included), in hopes of shedding fresh perspective on our iPhone-dependent existence.

Howard Wise in 1966,” said Haacke, referring to the gallery that first showed several of his works. I nodded. “You don’t know it,” he continued, noting it was the only New York gallery in those days that expressed interest in Zero. “Nobody does.”

The esoteric, however, has the potential to age well. And the crowd that filled the New Museum on a recent Tuesday night seemed positively enchanted by the array of fans, helium balloons, wire sculptures, black lights, and motors scattered throughout the four floors, making up an exhibition that elicited all sorts of breathless ruminations: “When was the last time you saw so much Victor Vasarely? Amazing” (Guggenheim deputy director Ari Wiseman); “It’s a beautiful, absorbing show—how rare to be surprised like this” (Lucy Chadwick of Gavin Brown); “This is by far the most ambitious exhibition the New Museum has ever done” (Sperone Westwater’s David Lieber, co-organizer of the well-received 2008 show at his gallery, “Zero in New York.”).

Carrion-Murayari says that the show’s goal was to reveal a “minor history” of artists enthused by the capacity of machines to enhance our experience of the world. “Ghosts in the Machine” homes in on lesser-known artists—though works by Jeff Koons, Stan VanDerBeek, and Richard Hamilton are also on view—that used industrial materials to explore ways that art, coupled with technology, could alter (or in many cases transcend) one’s physical and psychic states.

Left: Stan VanDerBeek's Movie-Drome. Right: Johannes VanDerBeek, Johanna VanDerBeek, Sara VanDerBeek, and August VanDerBeek.

Or, in the words of Gioni, as he stood shifting from foot to foot, routinely checking his BlackBerry while addressing a cluster of journalists Tuesday morning: “I wish a machine were here instead of a person.” An apt sentiment for a man currently leading the New Museum, the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, and the 2013 Venice Biennale. He laughed and jokingly paraphrased Martin Amis, who noted that humans and machines don’t belong together, a concept that both this exhibition and current daily experience emphatically contradict. By midafternoon Tuesday, Instagram was chock-full of images of Haacke’s cobalt chiffon sheet held in the air by a motorized fan.

Off in the show, Peter Schjeldahl circled Emery Blagdon’s wire sculptures dangling from the ceiling. Blagdon created these by the dozen, shooting electricity through each as a way to harness “healing powers.” He later died of cancer. “But he really thought it would make him well,” Schjeldahl observed, staring up at the intricate webs. A nearby companion nodded, adding, “He did paintings too. Called them ‘my pretties.’ ”

Up on the fourth floor, just off the elevator, visitors sprawled over pillows scattered about VanDerBeek’s immaculately reconstructed, mid-’60s Movie-Drome. VanDerBeek had hoped to develop a worldwide database where film and images could be endlessly shared and viewed. He built a silo where he imagined these would be projected. Inside this contemporary realization of the piece, people snapped images of the images, which streamed from their phones into that now weirdly quotidian international network of databases and beyond.

I wandered through a set of thick black curtains into a black-lit room, where a white elastic cord was pulled from the ceiling to the walls to the floor, creating a massive geometric web, which, controlled by an electric motor, slowly stretched up and down. A photographer with the New York Times shot pictures nearby. “The last time I saw this was decades ago in Buffalo. I took LSD and it was fucking great.”

Allese Thomson