New York

Robert Whitman

Bykert Gallery Downtown

Robert Whitman has been around for a long time and used to be connected with Happenings, at the time when Happenings happened. His recent show consisted of four—or maybe three—pieces of work. A set of two-sided pastel drawings, hung from the ceiling, and in which recto and verso are made to correspond. An example of this is a picture of a traffic light, with, on the other side of the paper, a red dot at the same place as the traffic light’s red. A pile of old furniture piled into a corner of the gallery, while a ridge of clothes that might have been rented from the Goodwill people stands free toward the center of the room. Which is why I say that what at first looks like four pieces of work may be only three: the clothes suggest an anthropomorphism supported by the furniture, which in turn connects the wall with the floor—an identification with the inanimate and the architectural that’s responsive to the freestanding verticality of the clothes.

The last piece of work seemed to me to be the most direct articulation of Whitman’s Magritte-derived version of the equation of art objects—pictures—with the objecthood of the everyday. Turned into an object, a picture becomes a theatrical prop—and as such achieves the status of a common object made significant by contextualization. As we know, when Surrealism came to America it became almost entirely preoccupied with direct Freudian metaphor of a sort often called heroic, and Happenings—Oldenburg’s come to mind—parodied or banalized this without transforming the content. Sex remains central to Oldenburg, who substitutes humor for guilt—some difference—as does Whitman. This last work, a bed with a pile of dirt on it—pointed straight up—seems a complete expression to the limits of the banal conventions within which Whitman chooses to remain.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe