PRINT November 2006


IN 1975, WHEN CURATOR MARCIA TUCKER decided to fill the Whitney Museum of American Art’s second-floor galleries with a retrospective of Richard Tuttle’s then largely unknown art, the American press had a veritable field day. “Seldom has so little art been assembled in such ample space,” David Bourdon declared in the Village Voice, further deadpanning that the entire exhibition “would almost certainly fit into a single piece of carry-on flight luggage.” Hilton Kramer, predictably, went beyond twee snarkiness to outright scorn: “To Mies van der Rohe’s famous dictum that less is more, the art of Richard Tuttle offers definitive refutation,” he opined in the New York Times. “For in Mr. Tuttle’s work, less is unmistakably less. It is, indeed, remorselessly and irredeemably less.” “Lessness” (to borrow from Kramer’s lexicon of excoriation) was doubtless at issue, but it was also precisely the point. When Tuttle affixed a short length of rope to a mammoth white wall, he meant to challenge normative perception and to redirect attention from the discrete thing to its contingent preserve, where such unremarkable visual incidents as scuffs on flat white paint came uncannily into focus. Maybe it is because this passage of ontological modernism into phenomenological Minimalism is an old story now that Tuttle’s return to the Whitney last year was an anticipated (and then confirmed) coup; however modest in scale or whimsical in material the work may have been, it was also flat-out gorgeous, with the artist looking like nothing so much as an accredited formalist.

Fast-forward a few months to the 2006 Whitney Biennial, where New York–based artist Gedi Sibony’s sculptures were on view, and the terms of the Tuttle account vertiginously returned. Comprising industrial floor covering, a hollow-core door, fiberboard, a garbage bag, vinyl, and plywood, the works on view exhumed the specter of lessness in the best possible sense. Their impoverished fragments of the built environment—selected with careful attention to color, texture, and visual weight, and then worked, reworked, and reworked some more, and then sited, resited, and finally, provisionally, left alone—enacted a series of quietly vulnerable interactions. The garbage bag, draped over a spindly wooden frame, graced the ground and cast a long, attenuated shadow (Their Proper Places the Entities from Which Partial Aspects Emerge, 2006); the door buttressed a carpet nestled between it and the wall (Untitled, 2006); and some forlorn remnants were poised, kissing, corner to corner (Neither Attentive Nor Inattentive, 2006). The almost accidental appearance of these interventions belies the fastidiousness of Sibony’s approach, the innumerable dress rehearsals that precede the main event. When successful, the exhibited sculpture stands just on the edge of failure—precipitously close to being mere junk in a room—the better to stage Sibony’s own skepticism about his ability (or desire) to transcend the obdurate properties of materials, much less to redeem them.

Each facet of Sibony’s installations depends, in ways both obvious and subtle, on the other works with which it will interact and on the architecture. Like a kind of semiotic game, the production of meaning relies not on the objects but on their relations. (Titles like “The Qualities Depend upon Other Qualities,” deployed for Sibony’s first solo show, at Canada in New York in 2004, yet equally applicable for most of his others, admit this, too.) This logic of ambient recombination as instantiated meaning is especially consequential because certain components transmogrify over the span of years, appearing in differing guises from show to show: A flat-weave gray mat that Sibony used in his contribution to the 2005 SculptureCenter exhibition “Make It Now” was mailed back to him in a cardboard box, and, for the time being at least, the artist considers both objects—the box and the rug still crumpled within it—a freestanding, untitled sculpture. A single twig can accrue its own archive. But in most cases, salvaged items alternately lean, are propped, or balance on one another, heightening the anthropomorphism nascent in the works’ human scale and in their often limb- or trunklike forms with suggestions of surprisingly intimate narratives of coupling. Sibony’s recent work A Sense of The, 2006, could not be more explicit or more arresting in this regard. Here, a fine post and lintel of wooden strips (Stonehenge evacuated of all its weight) and its curvilinear double, fashioned from a bent stick, bow toward an invisible midline where they meet and are mutually supported.

That so much can come from so little is the key to Sibony’s practice and the basis of the comparison with Tuttle that critics writing on his work are wont to draw. But morphological resemblances do not analogous projects make. Shrugging off claims of affinity, Sibony jokingly suggests that while there might be some correspondences (“There aren’t too many people working in beige and gray”), they don’t run deep. And yet Sibony’s work does acutely engage the notion of precedent, as his Whitney installation made clear. The small gallery in which he exhibited had last been used months before, during the museum’s Robert Smithson retrospective. Sibony preserved part of one wall, where paint had been applied around a shelf that had since been removed, just as he found it; elsewhere he allowed an old label to remain visible through a fresh coat of paint. Such details simultaneously canceled and preserved the specificity of the site and secured Sibony’s connection to it. They likewise traded on ideas of absence generally, and on Smithson’s dialectic of site/non-site more specifically, while additionally evoking Robert Rauschenberg’s 1953 Erased de Kooning Drawing as an architectonic palimpsest. Paradoxically, erasure and persistence were coincident.

The same can be said of other pieces in which Sibony has emphasized histories of place by physically incorporating traces of his venues’ prior lives into his own intrusions. He has consistently been conscious of the exigencies of locale—or “situation,” as he puts it, perhaps unwittingly conjuring shades of Robert Morris—as inextricable from an urban ecology of dereliction and gentrification. For 2004’s “Colony,” an exhibition in an empty TriBeCa warehouse that was built in the mid–nineteenth century and appropriately “colonized” by enterprising curators just before it was converted into condominiums, Sibony rendered his work mimetic of its setting by using materials related to the renovation—for example, blue tarps. Similarly, the metal beams of a partially demolished wall at the SculptureCenter became the primary element of his contribution to “Make It Now” (on the floor near their base was the aforementioned mat, under a layer of cardboard), while for a show at Harris Lieberman in New York in 2006, Sibony dragged a section of wall-to-wall carpet from the adjoining video gallery into his space and exposed the struts and lathing between two rooms.

In his oft-cited 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood,” Michael Fried famously damns Minimalists for indulging in a mode of “theatricality” of which Sibony’s tableaux might be said to partake. In this vein, the most compelling moment of Fried’s text comes when he describes the “disquieting” experience of happening upon such objects in a darkened room. They can function, he maintains, like “the silent presence of another person” waiting for the viewer “as subject.” Undeniably a sort of performed paranoia, Fried’s remarks nonetheless resonate with Sibony’s work, which the artist most frequently describes in relation to people and the derelict if potentially “numinous” (per Sibony) sites they occupy. The power of his art might be that it does not derive from spectacularizing tactics nor from the artist’s desire to elicit a particular response; instead, it is there, waiting, open-ended, for engagement that may never transpire. (This is also its poignancy—the fear of lessness as less, after all.) The question of meaning that Sibony poses and his attempt to realize communication, even communion—wrought with almost embarrassingly raw emotion and subtended by unfashionable faith—within the bureaucratized space of the gallery are what propose a model of generosity very much his own.

Suzanne Hudson is a New York–based art historian and critic.