New York

Ernest Trova and Robert Graham

Pace Gallery and Sonnabend Gallery

One recognizes, however, the changes Denny is making in wishing to disentangle himself from his past image, and it could well turn out that these are transitional works and better things are to come. At least we see here an unashamed attempt to deal directly with formal concerns. The same cannot be said of either Ernest Trova at Pace or Robert Graham at Sonnabend, who while seeming at first sight to be about very different things are usefully illuminated by being seen together. For a start, they both derive ultimately from Giacometti, both are basically toy-makers and both are purveyors of kitsch. And while claims are made for both to be thought of as creators of high art the question is are we ever really pushed to think of them as such or do their “extra levels” simply obscure the whole issue.

Some idea of the claims made on Trova’s behalf can be had from looking at the bibliography in the Pace catalog: “Art in the Modern Manner,” “Idols for the Computer Age,” “Elegy for Mechanical Man,” and the fantastic “Plight of Modern Man in Terms of Art Symbol.” But as the very suitable Art Déco titling in the catalog suggests, Trova, when it comes down to it, stands in relation to serious art just as did modernism to the moderne in the inter-wars period. For all that one might feasibly be intrigued by the glitter of the nickel plating, the ingenuity of the hinged anatomies and the witticism of the aluminum shadows that stream like iced-up ectoplasm from the feet of some of these glossy gentlemen, they obviously, in the end, stand as representatives of that genre so well characterized by that devastating title, “Novelty Art.” What makes it worse, however, is that these shiny bourgeois toys should pretend to be containers of significant moral dilemmas, like the relationship of man and machine and the depersonalization of 20th-century life. They simply act as reminders of how technological society is so adept at incorporating genuine and serious dissent into its structure, and capitalizing on it. Whatever he might think, Trova is just making comfortable placebos. In this respect, the worst piece in the show was a hybrid gun-man image—one of Trova’s boring figures fashioned into a weird hand weapon. I’ve always felt that an art which attempts to be concerned with exposing social evils (though I’m not sure this is really Trova’s genuinely felt concern) simply weakens itself insofar as it is art, and that people like Huelsenbeck had the right idea in simply abolishing the artistic pretense. For emotional impact, the salon gun image just doesn’t hold up when compared to the really grizzly things you can see in gun museums.

Like Trova, Graham insists he can make art through the medium of social imagery. His argument, of course (as quoted in the New York Times), is that his sexy female mannikins “work on a lot of levels—I suppose because they’re recognizable images, they have more levels than most.” While I’ve always wished to believe that to prescribe any kind of limit to what should be considered a proper field for art is merely to prohibit the possible creation of the good where only the indifferent might previously have existed, the problem with Graham (and with Trova) is that their cherished extra levels can never compensate for the visual banality of what they are doing. Graham claims his interest is in light and space more than in sexy fetishism, but this is so hard to believe, for the “more levels than most” at best obfuscate the latent pictorialism. The figuration itself is a too-easy prop and if the eroticism is a side issue, why is it cluttering everything up? But it isn’t really, and Graham obviously wants to win on both counts. This kind of vapid, mini-Playboy business doesn’t contribute much beyond making us wonder whether we would in fact bother looking at all if it wasn’t there. The pictorial presentation is really rather slack: some interesting spacings and balancings, but nothing to hold one very long. Neither am I suggesting that figuration itself is an improper concern (though I do believe it to be very difficult to make significant art through figuration nowadays), nor that realistic sculpture doesn’t similarly have its place. Rather, that when three-dimensional figuration operates at a scale of less than six inches in height, it becomes so obviously more relevant to transmission media than to art ones. They happen to be good subjects for photography and look a lot better in magazines than in the flesh (or, rather, the wax). Perhaps this is what they are really about.

John Elderfield