New York

Gary Kuehn

Stefanotty Gallery

Gary Kuehn’s show was a ten-year retrospective; he’s had perhaps less than his fair share of attention so the opportunity to readily obtain some kind of an overview of his career was timely and welcome. Over the last decade Kuehn has developed consistently toward a reliance on the modified readymade. He’s tended to use things like cardboard boxes—covered with tar that will soften and melt in the sun—in order to depict and exploit physical force within terms that reduce the evocation of gesture attendant on such a depiction. Kuehn’s progress has inclined toward elimination of the personally expressive in favor of the impersonal bias toward entropy that’s found in materials. Selection, rather than manipulation, is the keynote of his art. But, in the more recent work, selection has been concentrated on materials that are to some extent neutral. This, I think, is because Keuhn is interested in materiality as such rather than materials themselves. Kuehn is involved in the separation of medium and articulation. The medium is anything physical that’s malleable; Kuehn tries to set the independent inclination of a material like tar in juxtaposition to his own involvement with it. For that reason, he will make his own part as mindless as possible: he’ll make sculpture that consists of pieces of sculpture accumulated while driving around—a collection of pieces of similar size—and paintings that are made by arranging several of the continuous bands that are used in various sorts of machinery on a flat surface and then filling them with paint. The result is a space filled by dissimilar, distorted ellipses, each of whose perimeters is exactly equal.

Kuehn worked in the construction industry and tells a story that recalls Tony Smith’s anecdote about driving on the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. From the rooftop of a telephone exchange building in the Jersey marshes he was working to construct, Kuehn watched a continuous line of trucks pour wet concrete into a giant mold, the cast for a foundation wall of another extension of the building. After an enormous volume of concrete had been poured in, the cast broke, letting loose a sea of wet concrete that immediately began to harden. Kuehn has done a number of pieces that consist of two volumes of an originally molten substance, one of which is rigidly cast, while the other has been allowed to flow freely—the cast’s been removed after the liquid’s been poured.

But Kuehn had worked with the given implications of materials for quite awhile before the poured concrete revelation of his hard-hat experience. The earliest work I know is comprised of a bundle of sticks beneath a sky blue cube. Here, givenness is a function of an abstract conventionality as well as of actual things. From the first, Kuehn has consciously identified with that literalization of the abstract which—for him and many other artists—finds its seminal influence in Jasper Johns.

More recently—over the last couple of years or so—Kuehn has made sculpture out of metal springs, bent to a point of extreme tension and then held in place with clamps. As I’ve said, I think Kuehn’s work is about selection rather than manipulation, and the spring pieces illustrate this. A spring is linear to begin with, and holds itself in the position fixed by the clamps through its own internal volition. Linear tension isn’t a property attributed to the work by the artist, since it’s a perceptible feature of the material itself, independent of its manipulation.

I had thought, as I’ve also thought about the work of Jackie Winsor (Artforum, January, 1974), that Kuehn’s concern to get a result that “looks good” could be a questionable aspect of his work. It seemed that to start something in motion—like poured plaster or tar left to melt in the sun—and then to stop it at some arbitrary point was inconsistent with the notion of material autonomy otherwise suggested by the piece. I no longer regard this as an acceptable interpretation. Rather, I think the arbitrariness of the final state is necessary. It’s inconsistent with the material process whose termination or interruption it represents, but this is because it refers to the other arbitrary choice involved with the material, the idea or intuition that initiated the work.

Together, a seemingly intuitive pair of decisions—both of which involve the physical propensities of a particular substance, however—bracket a material process that’s impersonal and autonomous. In that sense Kuehn separates medium and articulation and juxtaposes them.

What Kuehn seems to be after is a neutral, physical explicitness that can convey an opposition between (his) personal decision and the impersonality of the material. An opposition that can acknowledge the range of communicability available within the morphology of sculptural procedure, without turning art into psychological metaphor. Kuehn’s materials recur frequently in extraartistic experience. Often he’ll try to neutralize them further by painting the sculpture or—in the case of the tar or poured plaster pieces—covering it with fiberglass. He’s said that his attitude to color is that one’s as good as another. Kuehn’s art concentrates on things that are available for manipulation, and turns them into art by comparing their materiality with the procedural oppositions—for example, “rigid:fluid”—it makes available. Kuehn’s work avoids psychological metaphor through its identification of a general materialism with the employment of specific materials, which reduces the need to identify the source of the decision-making with an individual—to treat the work as a surrogate “person.” I’m reluctant to call work poetic, but that’s what Kuehn’s is; it’s reminiscent of that poetry which would let language speak for itself.

––Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe