PRINT May 2022


Virginia Overton, Untitled (Ladder), 2009, ladder. Installation view, SculptureCenter, New York.

PROBABLY THE OBSERVATION by Virginia Overton cited most often by writers came on the occasion of her 2013 exhibition at Switzerland’s Kunsthalle Bern. Wishing to tease out the artist’s thoughts on the found objects used for her sculpture, the exhibition’s curator, Fabrice Stroun, asked a relatively straightforward—if historically loaded—question: Is “a piece of wood looked at in a space consecrated for art . . . no longer the same piece of wood found on the side of the road”? It’s a reasonable line of inquiry, particularly given that Overton’s work suggests some nominal underpinnings, if only by virtue of how the industrial materials and objects she frequently chooses—from wood and metal to tools and signage—appear to be little altered when they become of a piece with her sculpture. Yet when she answered, Overton effectively kicked the readymade’s legacy to the curb: “Actually,” she said, “I think they are the same thing.”

Taking the artist at her word, and looking closely at the different objects in her work, one recognizes that, indeed, they never quite let go of their histories. (If there is an arbitrariness to be found here, it’s along another axis.) They never become entirely abstract, revolving around some recognition of art’s fundamental indeterminacy. More precisely, their use value remains firmly intact, with respect not only to the palpable and persistent stuff of past lives, but also—her works quietly imply—to future potential. An A-frame stepladder jammed between two concrete walls in Untitled (Ladder), 2009, is still a stepladder that could be taken down and used in the future; Sharpie scrawls on its side suggest it comes from some institution’s equipment inventory, to which it is bound to return. (The terms of Jasper Johns’s adage about doing something to an object shift subtly here into doing something with an object.) Similarly, the eight pedestals in Untitled (Pedestals), 2012—shimmed between two gallery walls so they create an improbable bric-a-brac bridge spanning the room a few feet above the floor—are immediately legible as things taken out of storage, being used (or misused) here only for a spell.

Virginia Overton, Untitled (Pedestals), 2012, pedestals, shims. Installation view, the Kitchen, New York. Photo: David Allison.

Literally and figuratively, her objects are “suspended”—the pedestals hold themselves up, after all—so that multiple identities and definitions (and attending histories) are present. At once, they invite and disavow any and every single association. Perhaps Overton’s most elegant sculptural paradox in this regard is found in her untitled 2012 public work on the High Line in New York, for which she parked a Toyota truck in a functioning parking lot, the bed loaded with mortared bricks. On the one hand, as the artist herself said, the work rhymed with the bricked-up orifices that intermittently flank the former elevated rail, where trains would once pass into and out of different buildings. On the other, while Overton’s sculpture was indeed a sculpture, it also consisted of a truck doing just what trucks do, carrying a load of bricks in its bed. When the installation’s run came to an end, she simply drove it away.

Virginia Overton, Untitled, 2012, Toyota pickup truck, bricks, mortar, vinyl window decal. Installation view, Edison ParkFast, West 20th Street, New York. Photo: Austin Kennedy.

The use value of her work remains firmly intact, with respect not only to the palpable and persistent stuff of past lives, but also—her works quietly imply—to future potential.

TO GRASP OVERTON'S WORDS about her objects’ continuity across contexts, however, it’s most informative to consider a recent episode in which Stroun’s hypothetical became a reality. A few years ago, the artist was driving her truck through a rural stretch of her native Tennessee and came upon a pile of abandoned signage by the side of the road—which she salvaged and used as material for a 2020 exhibition of sculptures at White Cube Hong Kong titled “Alone in the Wilderness.” Such an artistic process is familiar enough: Pick it up, put it in the truck, take it to the studio, make a work. Displayed in the gallery context, the pieces conjured a strong sense of their pasts—and, more broadly (and as may be familiar thematically), of the outmoded in culture. But, given Overton’s assertion, one cannot help but consider anew the significance of such a feeling likely already being present in the objects when the artist discovered them alongside the road, abandoned in the grass and gravel. Anyone driving America’s rural routes today is familiar with how such objects evoke nostalgia or loss, possessing a sensibility akin to the emptiness attending Atget’s disappearing streets, figures of an age’s eroding economies. One imagines as well how affecting the scene would have been to behold, with the pile informing, and giving order to, the surrounding landscape as opposed to being wholly determined by those surroundings. Think of Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar,” in which the object—in a folksy turn on Keats’s highfalutin Grecian urn—was placed on a hill in Tennessee so that the “wilderness rose up to it.” 

 Virginia Overton, Untitled (double curve), 2019, painted aluminum, 60 1⁄2 × 52 1⁄2 × 6".

All of which is to say that whatever qualities Overton’s objects possess when encountered within the gallery walls would already have been discernible when those objects were found outside them. Their histories—and their valences of past and potential, with respect to use—remain palpable, held in suspension, as they rest along the road. The object is never fixed or resolved, with meanings foreclosed; it is always inherently ambiguous. The property of the material that is conjunctive, that is always being something and something else, takes over; there is no transformative moment moving into the gallery but instead a sedimentary accrual that is bound to continue indefinitely. Again, perhaps the artistic attitude here is less that of doing something to an object than that of doing something with it.

Virginia Overton, Untitled (Gem), 2018, steel trusses, angle iron, hardware. Installation view, Socrates Sculpture Park, Queens, NY. Photo: Kristian Laudrup.

It is this ambiguity that her objects share and sustain, and that stands in dialogue with models diverging from that of the historical readymade. Speaking about contemporary art in 2007, for example, Édouard Glissant would advocate for artworks’ movement away from any identity vouchsafed from others—articulating instead a relational, differential position predictive of still other such relations that would yet emerge.1 Perhaps more succinct here would be terms borrowed from scholar Homi K. Bhabha’s theorization of subjectivity decades ago: These are hybrid objects from the start, containing different histories and uses and perspectives. When Overton asserts that her found objects are the same regardless of context, she articulates the terms of a nonessentialist sculpture that does away with binaries—including those of being in or outside the gallery or within or without the institution of art more broadly. Indeed, if Bhabha once argued that the “subject’s individuation emerges as an effect of the intersubjective,” affording it a kind of agency, here such multiplicity—seeing those aspects in relation—defines the object, if only momentarily.2 “I never see anything as divorced from its other lives,” Overton says. “One just becomes more present. You know that saying, ‘He’s Mr. Right Now?’ ”

Virginia Overton, Untitled (Suspended Beam), 2018, steel gantry, wooden beam, hardware. Installation view, Socrates Sculpture Park, Queens, NY. Photo: Nicholas Knight.

ANY NUMBER OF OVERTON'S individual artworks model such logic. An untitled large-scale sculpture for Art Basel’s Parcours in 2016, for example, consists of the sections from a disassembled pickup truck piled into the vehicle’s own bed. Placed high on a pedestal, the piece gestures toward John Chamberlain, given its cornucopia of car parts, but only to the extent that it recalls the clutter of a scrap heap or an overloaded toolbox: It is a sculpture displaying its readiness to fall apart, or to be variously reassembled and redeployed, instead of having been compacted into a formally resolved unity.

Virginia Overton, Untitled (HILUX), 2016, Toyota Hilux 1996, metal strapping. Installation view, Bau-und Verkehrsdepartement, Basel. Photo: Robert Glowacki.

At times, Overton renders this state of irresolution literal. A given piece created in one setting may be dismantled by the artist (if it remains with her long enough), its materials used to make another work. Her practice is one of provisionality; in fact, such operations might even compete with her objects as reservoirs of meaning. To cite another poet, one recalls Valéry’s famous declaration that a poem is never finished, only abandoned: So it is with Overton’s sculptures, their constituent parts, and play.

One recalls Valéry’s famous declaration that a poem is never finished, only abandoned.

Such accrued temporalities occasionally open as well onto “found” matters of history and legacy. When invited to create exhibitions, Overton frequently uses materials found on-site at the institution—including, intentionally or not, those that belong, or have belonged, to other artists. For her 2018 exhibition “Built” at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, Overton’s Untitled (Suspended Beam), 2018, consisted of a wooden beam hanging as a heavy swing from one of Mark di Suvero’s old gantries, located on this site of his former studio; there, audiences could congregate or, as Overton says, “sit a spell.” The piece nods to one of Overton’s artistic influences even as it misuses that artist’s tool. (Notably in this regard, whereas artworks are often said to show the signs of their own making, here those signs become literal: The gantry—like the recurring figure of the pickup truck in Overton’s work—denotes something still being made, splitting Overton’s sculpture between the gerund’s past and present tenses. The work is finished and unfinished at once.) More humorously, when Overton recently made sculptures for an exhibition at Westfälischer Kunstverein in Münster, Germany, she employed materials from the institution’s storage; after dismantling the works, she was prevented from leaving with certain sections of two-way mirror—because they were actually spare parts for a Dan Graham sculpture that had been left in a storage closet.

Virginia Overton work in progress for “Virginia Overton: Animal Magnetism” at Goldsmith Centre for Contemporary Art, London, utilizing Anthony Caro’s steel fragments, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, UK, March 2022. Photo: Virginia Overton.

It was this element of her work that prompted Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the United Kingdom to contact Overton with a remarkable tailor-made invitation to visit its facilities this spring. The institution had recently discovered two shipping containers full of materials that had been gathered by the artist Anthony Caro to make works for the park. Here, in piles, are ambiguous items, the excess or unused, lying in limbo, with, say, a leftover steel wheel no longer set within any functioning machine but not yet located in the mechanics of an artistic practice. Intriguingly, some shards of metal had been cut or joined together like Caro works in gestation, but they hadn’t yet attained any such differentiation.3 They remained pieces looked at, overlooked, and looked past.

Virginia Overton work in progress for “Virginia Overton: Animal Magnetism” at Goldsmith Centre for Contemporary Art, London, utilizing Anthony Caro’s steel fragments, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, UK, March 2022. Photo: Virginia Overton.

From this material, Overton was given the opportunity to make sculptures of her own, which go on view this month at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art in London. When her works are placed on display, they may seem like historical remixes, not bespeaking any corrective anxiety of influence, rereading, or homage so much as reflecting a layering and relayering of material encounters from generation to generation. Perhaps most telling with respect to Overton’s attitude toward materials generally is her recounting of the surprisingly visceral sense that Caro had, in fact, handled this material. He had touched these shards of steel, starting down the road of giving them different form. Which is not to suggest that Overton advocates a privileged return of the artist’s hand, nor does she fetishize an artwork’s aura; rather, she recognizes that to give attention to the use of objects or their history is, fundamentally, to consider their place in the hands of people. The dimension of presence in history—of people’s bodily presence in it, and of history’s presence in bodies, or of, put another way, the intrusion of reality—cannot be set aside.

View of “Virginia Overton,” 2013–14, Westfälischer Kunstverein, Münster, Germany. Photo: Thorsten Arendt.

OVERTON HAS SAID that she first became interested in public sculpture partly because she noticed how frequently it is misused. Or, more accurately, how frequently—and regardless of any pretense to autonomy—it is used at all. Whatever an object’s aesthetic value when set in a grand plaza or in the great outdoors, we are apt to find people employing its base as a backrest, or gathering on its horizontal planes for lunchtime conversation, or curling up in its nooks with a book in the sun. The art may well have a symbolic function in a public setting, in other words, but it is always something other, or something more (or less), than that.

So it is that many of Overton’s public sculptures still strongly evoke the touchstone efforts by artists of previous generations, but only while acknowledging whatever resides beyond a purely aesthetic encounter, that exists, as it were, in real space. People may well have been cleared off the cantilevered or angled steel beams of di Suvero’s sculptures during the 1960s and ’70s, but they are implicitly invited to congregate on Overton’s Suspended Beam. And when Overton’s major outdoor works approach more clearly the abstract geometries of di Suvero, they still find strange bedfellows in an anti-aesthetic. If these pieces aren’t pointing back to previous histories and remaining stubbornly themselves—imagine Duchamp picking up his shovel to do yard work after he’d finished exhibiting it—they are calling to mind commonplace figures in culture. Consider Untitled (Gem), 2018, whose easily identified wooden roof beams are conjoined to create a gigantic precious stone akin to Claes Oldenburg’s monumental clothespin or baseball bat. An upcoming commission for LaGuardia Airport in New York similarly takes up a familiar feature of the urban landscape: skylights, which at the terminal will hang from the ceiling by a chain, each one pendant-like in its crystalline geometry. Though here, again, one can imagine taking a piece down and popping it into a ceiling someplace.

Virginia Overton’s Skylight Gems in process for LaGuardia Airport/Delta Commission, New Project fabrication shop, Brooklyn, 2022. Photo: Virginia Overton.

Overton’s project for the current Venice Biennale similarly reflects this hybrid character. Here, the artist sought out massive precast concrete wall sections designed for use in building road or railway tunnels through the Alps, arranging a number of them back-to-back (to create what she calls a “tulip”) or on their sides—each section’s arc offering audiences a place to climb or rest. Overton requested that her sculptures be located at the very end of the Biennale’s long Arsenale, where the enormous hall opens onto an interstitial space between an industrial inlet (where old gantries still stand on different jetties) and nearby gardens: a spot where audiences, nearing the end of the exhibition, are frequently desperate for a place to rest; and where visitors and water-taxi drivers alike are known to find themselves confused as to which areas they are permitted to enter and which passages and waterways are dead ends. Set into the concrete forms are small holes covered with pink glass matching the color of the city’s streetlight lenses, through which light will pass over the course of the day. (When the streetlights of Venice were made, decades ago, the city selected inexpensive glass; being economical, that glass was originally clear but changed color over time, giving outmodedness itself a particular hue.) And these are echoed by a number of pink glass buoys Overton will set at various places in the water. 

Virginia Overton, Untitled (4×8 view), 2018, steel trusses, brass, aluminum, copper pipe, steel pipe. Installation view, Socrates Sculpture Park, Queens, NY. Photo: Sara Morgan.

Overton recognizes that to give attention to the use of objects or their history is, fundamentally, to consider their place in the hands of people.

The large structures immediately summon Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, 1973–76, right down to the holes in their surfaces—but with obvious distinctions. For one thing, Overton’s sculptures are seen inside out and set back-to-back. This arrangement (unlike Holt’s work) deprives the viewer of any kind of directed view, just as the light passing through the small windows fails to form any specific pattern (à la Holt’s constellations) but simply moves across the otherwise solid form over the duration of a day. In fact, the question of the viewer’s orientation is prompted by this and other works by Overton, which, the artist says, seek to prompt audience members to move around them without settling into (or being satisfied by) any particular view. This point is made almost comically at Socrates Sculpture Park by Overton’s Untitled (4x8 View), 2018, which leads visitors to look at the surrounding urban landscape through dozens of cut pipes—but again, without directing them toward any particular landmark or orientation on the compass. People can look through any number of “tunnels” and think as well of the proportions of others for whom a different tunnel would be more appropriate. So many different views are available on the same plane.

Virginia Overton, Untitled (tulip), 2022, reinforced concrete, brass, glass. Installation view, Venice. From the 59th Venice Biennale. Photo: Francesco Allegretto.

As Overton’s pieces move away from resolved autonomous objects bound to their uses, a question arises regarding their valences in public space. The question is an important one in our singularly fraught times: Around just what ideation of the “public” does Overton’s sculpture revolve? How is this ideation altered in and by her work? For that matter, considering that pile of signage by the road, what is the distinction between being “public” and being “in public”? People engaging with Overton’s work are not made fixed subjects of their context, but are instead as ambiguous as the sculptures themselves: organized not as a people but, to borrow another philosophical term, as a multitude.

Virginia Overton, Untitled (slant), 2013, wooden boards. Installation view, Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland. Photo: Gunnar Meier.

IN THIS VEIN, it is especially important to consider how Overton engages institutions when she is invited to show inside their walls. Frequently, a substantial portion of the work that will be exhibited does not even exist when she arrives on-site, and while Overton brings some materials from her studio, she also (even primarily) works with items she gathers from what is already inside the building. These materials bear the marks of their past uses. But Overton does not necessarily uncover or wield those histories—or literal architectures—in the mode of institutional critique, understood in its broadest terms.

Looking again at the pedestals suspended in a gallery, one may observe that they are not, say, taking literal measure or architectural stock of the space, as artists such as Mel Bochner or Lawrence Weiner at the beginning of their careers might have done.4 Nor is her work operating in the manner of pieces such as Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube, 1963–65, whose concentrating water underscored the never-neutral reality of the gallery as a physical space. Instead, Overton brings the provisional to the fore to make it more apparent (if not an outright starting point).5 To cite a comparable work: In Untitled (Slant), 2013—which, aptly enough, was installed at Kunsthalle Bern, the famous site of Harald Szeemann’s watershed 1969 show “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form”—Overton wedged long planks of wood into a gallery at roughly a forty-five-degree angle. Of greatest interest to her was how they would expand and contract, warp or straighten, over time. One becomes more cognizant of how the space is subject to contingencies, and subject to change, however solid the walls might seem. The piece is located in a register of contingencies, found throughout Overton’s work, where one might also consider her various signs of labor—and especially of industrial labor—to offer a feminist critique of how work has changed over the decades, becoming, per Donna Haraway, feminized in its precariousness, with its contours shifting, as the scholar says, from full-time to part-time to flextime or no time. Or, to use a different parlance, shifting in dialogue with Overton’s trucks: from the assembly lines of Fordism to the project teams of Toyota-ism.6

Around just what ideation of the “public” does Overton’s sculpture revolve?

A continuing series of sculptures by Overton makes the point seriocomically: For many of her shows at arts institutions, the artist will fabricate backlit signage with hand-affixed lettering that spells out the hosting venue’s name, whether THE KITCHEN, KUNSTHALLE BERN, or the WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART. The object’s very redundancy contributes to its humor: Installed inside the exhibition, where, after all, any viewer should know exactly where she is, the sign functions as a sign, both practically and semiotically. Yet it’s in the latter sense that a subtle seriousness infiltrates. It’s as if Magritte’s famous phrase “This is not a pipe” were inverted—making the gap between word and object, idea and reality, all the greater, such that the connection between the terms can no longer be presumed as established or, for that matter, everlasting. Or, with respect to any institution (and in the register of her public sculptures), as something that could possibly exist apart from our individual actions. The outmoded technology of the sign itself suggests that the assumption of such stability may be a thing of the past.

Virginia Overton, Untitled (Kunsthalle Bern Sign), 2013, light box. Installation view, Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland. Photo: Gunnar Meier.

Or, alternatively, of the future, if only by virtue of the sign’s analog nature. After all, for such signage, someone must physically attach the lettering to the light box. In this way, it becomes clear that Overton’s work within institutions—and with their histories—does not revolve around any kind of “subversion for hire,” to use a decades-old phrase. Instead, and at a moment of great institutional uncertainty in the arts and in society more broadly, she comes to organizations with a different mind, attending to how people, histories, and use are necessarily entwined. What’s there, what’s being used, what’s not being used, how could it be used differently? How do we make such valences visible? (In her Kitchen exhibition, she used theatrical lights to illuminate areas behind freestanding gallery walls—not to critique the space, but to allow the something else that was there to be seen.) The questions extend, infectiously, to institutional staff: Who is there, who is and isn’t being de- or employed, who could be employed differently?

Virginia Overton, Untitled (Whitney Sign), 2016, light box. Installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo: Ron Amstutz.

The answers sometimes come organically, as when a team working with Overton during the installation of her exhibition at the Whitney Museum gifted her a wheel chock—about which she’d expressed great enthusiasm—that eventually ended up becoming part of her exhibition. On other occasions, the answers arise through necessity, as people in the institutional spaces begin to do things—out of enthusiasm wedded with need—that fall outside the established parameters of their positions. As with the landscape surrounding the jar on the hill, the institution—the people—begins to mobilize around the project, assuming different roles to make it possible. Like a bridge of pedestals held in suspension between gallery walls. 

Virginia Overton, Untitled (Kitchen Sign), 2012, light box. Installation view, the Kitchen, New York. Photo: Virgina Overton.

Tim Griffin is a contributing editor of Artforum. 


1. This passage paraphrases a portion of a 2007 lecture by Glissant at Vassar College, and is especially relevant when considering how Overton often uses components of her various sculptures in subsequent projects, disassembling one piece in order to make another composition possible. While Glissant’s words correspond with how Overton’s materials find different iterations over time, such an iterative proposition also calls to mind Johanna Burton’s citation of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick with regard to the artist’s work. Specifically, Burton, considering valences of Overton’s sculpture (and its upending of “masculine” procedures in art and labor), cites Sedgwick’s consideration of how one may “occupy liminal—even multiple—gender identities” with “decibels of how ‘gender-y’ . . . any individual might be.” Johanna Burton, “Class Act,” Built, exh. cat. (New York: Socrates Sculpture Park, 2018), 19. Among peers in contemporary sculpture, Overton’s approach in this regard might also be comparable to that of Carol Bove. Many thanks to art historian Molly Nesbit for directing me to Glissant’s discussion.

2. Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), 265.

3. To extend the Deleuzian terms that would inspire Glissant, one might also compare this liminal state to the yolk of an egg. In fact, curator Jess Wilcox, who organized Overton’s exhibition at Socrates, suggests that the artist’s practice is deeply inflected by her youth working in farmland, planting rhizomes. See Jess Wilcox, “Public Works,” Built, exh. cat. (New York: Socrates Sculpture Park, 2018), 11.

4. This work appeared as part of an exhibition curated by Matthew Lyons at the Kitchen in New York, where I was executive director and chief curator at the time.

5. One is tempted to mention here Hal Foster’s observation that contemporary artists from Isa Genzken to Rachel Harrison have deployed the readymade—a model from an earlier industrial era—in a manner that is “not merely . . . outmoded but almost . . . pathetic, either hypertrophied or ruined or both.” For an even broader swath of contemporary artists, the use of found materials underlines how there is “scant public sphere outside this ‘capitalist garbage bucket’ and scarce object relations beyond its junkspace.” Overton generates another conversation around potential. Hal Foster, Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency (New York: Verso, 2015), 95.

6. See Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” (New York: Routledge, 1991).