PRINT December 2007

David Rimanelli

LAST SUMMER, I visited my parents’ house, specifically to check out the condition of the hundreds of books I had left in storage years ago. There in the mercifully dry basement I found two separate stacks of boxes, one containing my mother’s old books and the other, mine. In one of her boxes I discovered a faded copy of William Empson’s classic work of literary criticism Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930): It was the first New Directions paperback edition, priced at $1.85. This book, like many from my mother’s library, had always fascinated me as a child, long before I ever read a word of it. It has the best cover ever, with a huge black “7” emblazoned on an otherwise plain white facade. I took her copy with me when I left, though I had my own at home and the cover design hasn’t changed. Some months later, walking through Carol Bove’s exhibition “The Middle Pillar” at Maccarone Inc. in New York, I told the artist about the book and how it was . . . relevant. I had thought, in some inchoate fashion, that the peregrination of my mother’s Empson into my library had something to do with the feelings Bove’s art awakened in me. Then she said that, actually, one of her shelf assemblages included that very book and was even titled after it. I felt completely deflated, as though my vague notions concerning the permeability of generations and sensibilities, and moreover the use I had hoped to make of them in writing about Bove, had suddenly disintegrated before the simple fact that she had already used Seven Types of Ambiguity herself. Perhaps I knew this but had forgotten about it. Still, I remained stubborn about the book: It was something I shared with two disparate people, one very close indeed, the other an artist whose work interested me. I started telling Bove about my mother and her very ’60s and early-’70s life; she seemed interested.

During that same walk through the gallery, a man approached Bove and told her how much he admired her work and that he had been following her shows. He didn’t strike me at all as an art-world type, so his following Bove’s work struck me as both charming (people outside the art world can still relate!) and weird (how exactly does he “follow” her career?). “The only thing that’s missing is Alan Watts,” he remarked, although if he had seen Bove’s installation at the ICA Boston in 2004, he would have heard a recording of Watts intoning “The Future of Ecstasy,” in which the countercultural demiurge describes how “in the ’60s, everything blew up. . . . Scandalously, hippies did not adopt the ascetic and celibate ways of traditional holy men. They took drugs, held sexual orgies, and substituted freeloving communities for the hallowed family circle.” I tried not to listen to the conversation between Bove and her fan, pretending to study the 1959 Bruce Conner collage that she had borrowed for the show, but this encounter was fascinating, perfect in its oddball way. “So many things are about other things,” the Watts aficionado concluded. (My mother had owned a slew of books by Watts, too, ’70s Vintage paperbacks.)

“The Middle Pillar” was a splendidly replete exhibition, in which Bove displayed works in various media and configurations that more or less covered, so to speak, her aesthetic and intellectual predilections from when she first began showing, in 1999, up to the present. Interspersed amid her own works were several paintings by Wilfred Lang (1915 –1994), a virtually unknown hippie-psychedelic/retro–Vienna Secession Bay Area artist whom Bove’s grandmother had collected in depth; a small (borrowed) Arnaldo Pomodoro sphere (circa 1963), the cynosure for Setting for A. Pomodoro, 2005; and the aforementioned Conner, September 13, 1959. There were also artworks by Bove that bore inescapable similarities to those of other artists, viz., Yin, 2006, a floor piece composed of railroad ties, evoking Carl Andre; The Sun, 2007, a “dematerialized” string-and-nails work that looks like a Frank Stella–plus–Josef Albers mandala; and The Night Sky over New York, October 21, 2007, 9 PM, which recalls various suspended kinetic works by Richard Lippold (1915–2002), foremost one at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York.

Given its potential referential surfeit, “The Middle Pillar” never felt overburdened by artist directives with respect to interpretation. Bove, it seems, really does believe that her work is to be completed by the viewer, following the happenstances of wandering attention, daydreaming, and slippery, self-effacing memories. But given her attention to formal detail and the specificity of reference, one could hardly characterize this as a hermeneutic free-for-all. Bove’s works are properly understood as works that hinge on the duration of experience; you have to be there, perambulating through the installations for a while, for the psycho-sensuous effects to kick in. Otherwise, it might all just look like post-post-post-Minimalism, and that’s a bore and a chore.

More is more. I’m an idiot when it comes to spiritualism, but I Googled Israel Regardie (1907–1985), author of The Middle Pillar (1938), a copy of which Bove includes in the bookshelf tableau Easter Everywhere, 2007. Regardie was a student of theosophy, yoga, and the occult; he also hooked up with some latter-day Rosicrucians and was tight with creepy Satanist Aleister Crowley. The Middle Pillar is about balance, or the harmonization of opposites, or some such; I’ll never read it, but for Bove purposes I’m glad I caught the gist. Consider what kind of balance is at stake in Setting for A. Pomodoro. For starters, it helps to know who Arnaldo Pomodoro (1926–) is, or at least have some basic sense of him as a late Italian Futurist gone the way of corporate atrium decor. Bove told me that she saw Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, as the ur-form for Darth Vader—a decidedly personal yet compelling reading. But she is sure that a Pomodoro sphere—in this case, a big one that once stood in the sculpture garden at UC Berkeley, a pitted, craterous, rather derelict sphere—served as the model for the Death Star, the ruinous Death Star of Return of the Jedi. This is genius—the tortuous Aufhebung of avant-garde and kitsch.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.