New York

Robert Grosvenor

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

To my mind, Robert Grosvenor has not had his due; one of the great masters of the “negative sublime,” he has been overshadowed by more sensationalist Minimalists, working not only on grander scale but in flashier materials. Grosvenor’s pieces convey enormous concentration, as though the infinite were compacted into the finite, the impossible made actual. I prefer this kind of metaphor—of an infinitely dense material, like the mass of the cosmos at the moment of the “big bang”—to the theoretical scholasticism to which Minimalism has usually been subject, because the metaphor makes an experiential point (as much a basis for evaluation as a formalist one).

The experience Grosvenor offers is of space indivisibly dense, for all the apparent “fault lines” along which it might be divided. I am talking about what are for me the most important pieces, those “compounded” of wood and creosote, the creosote adding a sticky density to the “dry” density of the wood. Modularity and seriality are really not the issue for Grosvenor, nor is there a constructivist message lurking in the wings. Rather, the heart of the work is its aura of immovability—not simply immobility, but a defiance of the human ability to move and to move things. Grosvenor gives a new twist to the old Minimalist idea of the importance of the spectator’s movement around and temporal relationship with the work, and the way light falls on it—the temporal relationship it seems to “embody,” or at least “reflect.” His pieces thwart and block the spectator with their density, their compression. Their apparent absoluteness comes from their resistance to rather than incorporation of the human, if not their outright inhumanity, “negativity.”

Yet Grosvenor’s attention to surface generates a strange empathy—a no-no in Minimalist circles, because it violates (psychic) distance, and because it is supposed, erroneously, that everyday life is saturated with empathy, as with cheap perfume. The pieces emanate touch. The jagged, raw edges in some early placement pieces convey this, as does the sense of entering and traversing the space of the piece (its beginning and end “environmentally” unclear). In the later pieces, where context doesn’t matter so much (it’s really just an extension of Duchampian choice), for all the attention to “spacement,” texture draws one into the piece, seems even to permit one to merge with the wood. In certain pieces the surface seems almost as soft and inviting as a bed—but we know it will not take our impress. It will block us, and so force us into the furthest distance in ourselves. This permits us to recover it as fiction, a non-objective fiction with strange subjective connotations—with a “gravity” that seems more unconscious than physical. For all their physicality, Grosvenor’s pieces locate a center of psychic gravity in us, a nerve center of energy. They are Buddhist in their implacable selflessness, and yet they are far from impassive, for they suggest that the self begins in touch. This is the secret of their strange synergistic effect together.

Donald Kuspit