New York

Alice Aycock

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

Alice Aycock’s recent exhibition consisted of drawings and photographs that give an overview of her major pieces, and one new one built of plywood. This elliptical, truncated cylinder incorporates many of her previous themes, and works to explain, compactly and simply, what Aycock is up to.

The difficulty some viewers have had with this artist’s work stems, in part, from its straddling media. While on one hand we would tend to call her constructions sculpture, one cannot enclose and encompass an Aycock piece in one’s field of vision, package it mentally and take it home. One may of course stand at some distance from it, and remember it that way, but then one misses most of its intricate nuancing, which is to be explored by looking up or down into the work. Aycock’s constructions operate by enclosing the viewer, as even the biggest and grandest abstract paintings cannot do, and in this sense they are more like buildings than sculpture. (Perhaps this is why most photographs and, for that matter, schematic drawings of her work are ineffective: her work plays with scale distortions that vanish when rendered two-dimensionally.)

Yet at the same time, we think of architecture as inherently functional and Aycock’s pieces are blatantly functionless (her railing less, precarious stairways, for instance, would satisfy no known building code.) There is no real paradox here; Aycock’s constructions are sculptures as paradigms for buildings. The current piece, Project Entitled “Studies for a Town,” must be partly modeled after the cylindrical entryways at Taos pueblo; it also contains a small amphitheatre and makes use, I am sure, of numerous other references. It is a sort of cubistic piece, for the cylinder is sliced at an angle so that one can begin to see into it from a distance, but must lean over its edge to glimpse the amphitheatre, and a number of Aycock’s standard ladders, stairways and windows. Thus it demands that one attempt to enter it, but at the same time prevents entry. Marvelously, it almost fills the small gallery, allowing the viewer a narrow passage around its back which becomes a pun on the rest of the piece by turning into a cul-de-sac when one is three-quarters of the way around. Studies for a Town is a happier work than many of Aycock’s others seem to be, though: it plays and tempts, but does not seriously threaten to entrap the viewer. By so arrogantly filling the room, this model, explanatory piece proclaims the absurdity and complexity of Aycock’s work. These qualities are actually one quality: her windows, ladders, doors, etc., are all fundamentally functional images, and their profusion in her work invests it with a sense of being frantically used, though we can see that it is quite obviously useless. This play between function and nonfunction seems to me to be a key to the major idea behind Aycock’s work, which is that artmaking should, in fact, be a superfluous activity even in a time when artists have been extremely concerned with art’s being true, as opposed to fictional, and in that sense useful. And that Aycock should imagine buildings submerged in powerful emotional associations and plays with style, after fifty years of useful architecture, makes her work an argument for the rebirth of the richest, most baroque kind of art.

The current show’s disappointment is its sequence of photographs and drawings. While I suppose it is inevitable that Aycock’s pieces will be preserved by these means, they are generally a dull substitute for the labryinthine quality of her executed works.

Leo Rubinfien