New York

Spaces

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

The “Spaces” exhibition isn’t a very interesting show. Nothing really comes off, perhaps because the show’s premises are so wildly overstated. The “spaces” involved are simply rooms, one room per artist (Michael Asher, Larry Bell, Robert Morris, Dan Flavin, Franz Erhard Walter) except for the Pulsa group, which chose the space of the Museum’s sculpture garden. Each artist did something in his room, and what each artist did, even Mr. Walther’s wrapping people up in canvas, is taken by Mrs. Jennifer Licht, the shows organizer, to constitute “examples of contemporary investigations of actual, areal space as a nonplastic, yet malleable agent in art.” The work just doesn’t seem to bear it out.

It seems impossible, for example, to imagine that within the confines of the cubicle assigned to him, Dan Flavin is about to commence a contemporary investigation of actual, areal, etc., etc.” Instead, the piece comes off as testy and ill-tempered. The size of the units are huge for the space they occupy; they appear cramped and ungainly. The light they create is an unpleasant glare, painful to the eyes and bodies of the people in the room. If the work creates an illusion of altering, or at least rendering indeterminate, the shape, size and color of the room, this can’t be anything but child’s play for Flavin; the content of the piece is its harshness, even its bitterness.

Why Michael Asher should have been honored with an invitation to create a work at the Museum of Modern Art is a mystery. His disastrous dematerialization piece at the Whitney’s “Anti-Illusion” show last year should have suggested a waiting period. “One’s expectation,” writes Mrs. Licht of Asher’s room, “is for something to look at, but Asher reduces visual evidence to such a degree that the room can be characterized as a void; and he calls on senses that are less accustomed than sight to apprehend space.” But what Mrs. Licht describes simply does not happen. The room, with its two wide open doorways is in no sense a void and never even gives the illusion of being one. The room, its space and shape, are apprehended plainly by sight. Its sounds are apprehended by ear. Its texture is apprehended by touch. The sound-proofing and sound control simply don’t provide enough to make the game worth the candlepower. Whatever Michael Asher is about, he is showing it too soon—and too elaborately; the room was out of order by the second week of the show.

One of the most persistent interests of West Coast artists has been the illusion of disembodied color, achieved through experiments with transparency and translucency in various materials. In some of Larry Bell’s most beautiful glass cubes the sensation of color hanging freely in some indeterminate space within the box is achieved for brief periods, but the illusion is difficult to sustain. It is logical that Bell should have moved into an exploration of the possibilities of light (along with several other West Coast artists) and his room thus pursues the same interests that have absorbed him for most of his career. One enters a completely dark room—all the walls, floor and ceiling have been painted black. Since the exhibition’s basic orientation is toward the apprehension of space in unusual ways, most viewers simply stumble about in the darkness, satisfied that when they have felt their way along the wall and gained some sense of the room’s shape they have gotten the point. If one is getting the piece properly, however, one perceives a dim line of light that appears to hang in space about eight feet above the floor and an uncertain distance into the rear of the room. One can then proceed to find out where the line of light actually is, what the light source actually is, and what is reflecting the light source, but not after one has run through an interesting period of perceptual uncertainty and imbalance. The uncertainty of distances, the uncertainty of the source of light, the disembodied quality of the line that appears to hang in air seem to be what the work is about. It is intended, evidently, as a kind of perceptual conditioner for the effects Bell hopes to achieve with the large, free-standing glass panels which are to be installed in the room during the second month of the exhibition.

Robert Morris, here as in the Finch College show discussed below, takes the show’s purpose literally and tailors a work precisely to its specifications. His room really does deal with spaces, but in a completely metaphorical manner. Methodically adjusting scale relationships—its almost as if the medium of the piece is scale—Morris brings the wide open spaces into a room about 25 feet square. Human beings, feeling gigantic, sight down distant, receding vistas of evergreen trees. Indoors are converted into outdoors, right down to the climate. The work, with its real trees, real earth and real climate control, refers to Hans Haacke and his “real time” investigations, as well as to Michael Heizer. But the extreme distortions of scale relations within a closed room and the Surrealism which creeps into the work inevitably suggest Magritte. In a way, Morris’s room is more a three-dimensional realization of Magritte than were any of the actual Magritte sculptures shown in town last month.

It’s hard to see what good can come of thinking of the Pulsa group in terms of space or of sculpture. They are more like a kind of theater group. It’s always very pleasant to watch their lights flashing and their speakers murmuring. They just go on and on.

Lastly, one can’t help wondering, if there is going to be an exhibition like this, why Robert Smithson, whose “Non-Sites” practically sired the exhibition, is not in it. Surely even Mrs. Licht must see that he has more to do with it than someone who wraps people up in canvas and quotes his press notices in the catalog.

Philip Leider