New York

“Architectural Analogues”

Whitney Museum of American Art

If you can imagine a head-on collision between Bernard Rudofsky (curator and author of Architecture Without Architects: The Prodigious Builders) and Ludwig Bemelmans (creator of Madeleine and Bemelmans’ Bar at the Carlyle Hotel) then you can imagine the spirit of the eclectic presentation at the Whitney Museum’s Downtown Branch entitled “Architectural Analogues.” This incongruous array of objects, models, drawings, photographic documentation and film, with a cast of characters ranging from Red Grooms to Joel Shapiro, exposed the pitfalls of exhibiting many specimens of recent art. These problems should be acknowledged before a pseudo art movement is born, or before some of the stronger works of the last ten years get homogenized or locked in with some rather questionable bedfellows.

The title and supplementary text for this exhibition innocently defined its focus as an area within two boundaries: the “ambiguous territory between sculpture and architecture.” Corralled within these generous, if vague, perimeters, was a smattering of evidence of the work of artists. Ironically, the two most influential and articulate “senior talents” of the group—Robert Morris and Robert Smithson—whose respective accomplishments probed this territory well before any of the others in the show—were represented in the most meager and unsatisfactory ways. Of Smithson we saw one lonely pencil drawing, Spiral Tower, 1971. Morris’ achievements were abbreviated with a couple of 8 by 10” photographs of his Observatory, rebuilt in Lelystad, The Netherlands, in 1977 after a temporary version of 1971.

Not much more was divulged about the other 17 artists either. Alice Adams, Jared Bark, Donna Dennis, Rafael Ferrer, Red Grooms, Ira Joel Haber, Michael Hurson . . . were all represented by a solitary work. For Alice Aycock, Jackie Ferrara and Mary Miss an additional drawing was also included. The primary question posed by “Architectural Analogues” applies to any theme exhibition: do the works selected have anything meaningful in common? Does it make sense to exhibit these works together?

What does Morris’ Observatory, an enterable earthwork 300 feet in diameter, bound to nature and aligned with the seasons by its three easterly visor points—what does this enormous, austere place share with Thomas Lanigan Schmidt’s bonbon wrapper Nativity Chapel? The comparison is something like relating a finely jeweled reliquary, modeled after the facade of Notre Dame, to the prehistoric stone circles of Southern England. The common denominator for this cacophony of spirits and ideas was a tenuous resemblance that all the works had to architectural forms, a likeness to anything “architectural”—from the Tower of Babel to an IRT station.

This formalist perspective backfired. By relying on the superficial “look” of the works surveyed, the significance and integrity of the separate ingredients were eclipsed or misrepresented. In fact, the examples that suffered most severely were those that basically dealt with space—the kind of space we experience in architecture. Works of Alice Aycock, Mary Miss, Robert Morris and George Trakas have a correspondence to architecture that is radically different from Katherine Sokolnikoff’s miniature Djenne Mali Mosque or Donna Dennis’ less shrunken subway station, or Rafael Ferrer’s tentlike structure that straddled a corner of the exhibition room. When exploring Miss’ Sunken Pool, built in a wooded Connecticut landscape in 1974, or Aycock’s Low Building with Dirt Roof (Pennsylvania farmlands, 1973) or Trakas’ recent indoor and outdoor site works in Toronto, their spaces, grounds, gravities are inextricably part of our own milieu. We come upon an abandoned mill, or a scaffold, or the entrance to a tunnel. As with Morris’ Observatory, they were included in the exhibition via photographic documentation—an expedient solution that seemed particularly remote, even residual, in this room crowded with things.

The other works in the show, objects of various dimensions, function in a space apart from our own. We experience them differently. They are portable and hermetic. The nature of our contact with them is more analogous to architectural models than it is to the sense of a place that we experience with architecture.

Caught in the middle of this incoherent collection were two works by Joel Shapiro: a cast iron floor piece and a bronze wall piece on its own shelf. These ponderous, condensed units appear to be self-contained, autonomous objects. Because of their modest size they are often lumped together with miniature or shrunken works (Haber, Simmonds . . . ). However, Shapiro’s sculptures impose themselves emphatically into the architectural space around them, and are meant to command an area far beyond their own edges. In this show his works were wedged between so much other material that this crucial aspect was smothered, lost.

The exhibition was fraught with confusing shifts in perceptual rules, and misleading juxtapositions of scales and realities. It was as if the viewer had been invited to draw superficial conclusions about a lot of interesting work. The site constructions were reduced to mere images. Many of the objects came off looking coy or precious. A more satisfying tactic would have been to limit the endeavor to three or four artists who formed a more harmonious group.

Nancy Rosen