New York

Joseph Beuys, Gary Burnley

Ronald Feldman Fine Arts/Artists Space

Drawing the line between sculpture and painting is not as easy as it was 20 years ago when the operative definition was, “Sculpture is what you back into when you’re trying to get a different perspective on a painting.” Likewise, the distinction between object and anti-object art, abstract and representational categories today are so slippery that at one moment everything’s everything, at the next, nothing is anything.

So How Does JOSEPH BEUYS fit into all of this? Asideshow to his Guggenheim Retrospective, “Aus Berlin: Neues vom Kojoten” (“From Berlin: News of the Coyote”), at Feldman’s consisted of remains of the Rene Block Gallery in Berlin—several tons worth. Carpets, crumbled walls and fixtures, anointed with the honey, twigs and lanterns of Beuys’ ultimate act there, were crated and shipped to Manhattan. This sentimental journey comprising the shards of Rene Block’s Berlin walls celebrated both the fifteenth anniversary and the closing of the gallery.

Beuys is infinitely more interesting to read about than to look at, words make his visually thin material resonate with all kinds of possibilities. What’s most redundant (and galling) about Beuys is that much of his work asks the audience to relive a grisly moment in his personal history, when, as a Luftwaffe pilot, he was gunned down by Russians, given up for dead by the Nazi military and rescued by Tartars who salved his burnt body with fat, swathed him in felt and regenerated this cadaver. What does this have to do with painting vs. sculpture? you might ask (as well you should). Beuys’ visual autobiography spills over into both domains, as flat surfaces intermingle with volumes—unstretched felt co-stars with twigs and branches. Actual objects intermingle with metaphorical ones. There’s neither a consistent point of view, nor a constant center of attention. The limited impact of a Beuys comes from his resistance to structure, his will to disperse attention and objects across the widest possible range.

Although antistructure or antiauthority art, by which I mean work that defies classification and insists on its own order, was certainly à la mode when there were strict categories, when painting and sculpture purists abounded, what does this mean when the territory is no longer so clearly demarcated? I think it means risks aren’t being taken, although gestures are certainly being made. What troubles me about Beuys’ work is that it’s sentimental rather than contentious (T.S. Eliot: “Sentiment is unearned emotion”), that is to say, he means to be feisty, but, for me, the result is facile. The indulgence that informs his work on a psychological level—that his viewers are treated to an endless recycling of the turning point in his life—crops up in his materials: the indulgence that the gallery which nurtured his work should be disassembled and sent to America so we here could appreciate its aura. Nothing’s transformed here; it just gets sent to cart’n’crate. When he blurs the distinction between painting and sculpture, it’s not a polemic act, just the result of a blurry thinker for whom anything goes.

I’d like to think that GARY BURNLEY’s paintings-that-would-be-sculptures (or is it vice-versa’?) are the product of a polemic mind. These “paintings” (his term—it was on the announcement) are on the surfaces of freestanding hydrostone spheres—enameled and polyurethaned—that are a constellation of Constructivist planets. These are paintings that have the painstaking square peg on rounded surface attitude. Truly mutant work, like the offspring of a horse and a donkey, this is the hybrid of painting and sculpture. Unlike a mule, Burnley’s work is not sterile.

They’ve got everything: the familiar look of small sculpture, the opulence of primary color, the luster of a gem, and the shape of a world. This seems simplistic to write, but to look at they’re remarkably sophisticated. Unlike practically everything else around, these are not so small they’re precious, not so opulent as to be Decorative—they’re decorative—not so lustrous as to be totally obsessed with surface, and not so symbolic as to be wincingly obvious. Burnley can refer to galactic order without resorting to the special effects squad.

Sometimes these paintings make me think of oversize croquet balls, and other times they have the feel of cloisonné orbs. There’s a second hybrid quality that has nothing to with the marriage of painting and sculpture but everything to do with the union of recreation with decoration. They have the same heraldic confidence of a Robert Indiana (who also did the design for the basketball court of the Pacers).

I guess I’m so enthusiastic about this work because it has that winning combination of the right proportions (right meaning it works for me) of the familiar and the strange. The familiarities I’ve cited; the oddball qualities are harder to identify. I would like to pretend I’ve never seen sculpture that was painting, but then I’d have to forget a lot of Constructivist and Cubist work, not to speak of Frank Stella’s and Ellsworth Kelly’s recent output (or of Kenny Price, Roger Brown, Judy Pfaff and a scizillion other practitioners). It’s not the materials that are foreign—all three are commonplace. I guess what’s quirky or idiosyncratic (read: special) about Burnley is that most paintings are about the depiction of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional plane, while his are about the depiction of a two-dimensional space on a three-dimensional surface. It’s that simple. But wonderful.

Carrie Rickey