New York

Horst Antes

Horst Antes’ “Votives” are the most innovative, important sculpture I have seen for a while. Flat little figures, generally in gold, are grouped together pristinely in Plexiglas cases mounted on white pedestals. The pieces have an air of extraordinary purity. Diminished in size, they become all the more potent; constituting a residual microcosm of Weltinnenraum, they seem bewitched. They are not unrelated to Jonathan Borofsky’s equally flat, if more mechanical, giant figures. Both offer, in a world that doesn’t want it, an elementary, survivor’s sense of selfhood. The figure is a trope for troubled inwardness, even when it is comically objective, as in Borofsky’s case, or precious, as in Antes’.

Antes is well-known for his paintings of Kopffüssler (“headfooter”) figures, but the new sculptures, an incomplete series begun in 1983, are a departure in that the figures generally have complete bodies, even if the head is as outsize as in many of the paintings. The biggest departure comes from Antes’ sense of the sculptural medium. There is none of the blustery, imperialist sense of space assumed by a Richard Serra sculpture; Antes’ works don’t aggressively compete with their surroundings. Instead, they are more like Alberto Giacometti’s figural sculpture, if radically different in material and ultimate effect. Jean-Paul Sartre notes that “Giacometti became a sculptor because of his obsession with emptiness,” an emptiness perhaps neither sublime nor containable, but simply omnipresent; to experience space as emptiness is to find it insufferable, dreadful. In a world that easily moves through space at speeds that no longer alarm or surprise, but that we expect to be greater, Giacometti returns us to the concrete nothingness of space, the most intimate way it exists. We want to master space, to take it for granted, but when we experience it as unendurably empty, it becomes almost impossible to inhabit. We become excruciatingly self-conscious about it. We are isolated in it, even when we are with others.

Antes starts from this state of lapsed mastery of space. It is no accident that he creates votive figures—static, inherently iconic, not really needing space since they already belong to another world. Antes’ sliver of a figure seems to exist much less in space than Giacometti’s figure, which seems fulsome by comparison. This is not only because of the difference in size and scale, but because of the material—gold, which dissolves the form into an emanation of light. While individual figures may not be dramatically isolated in space, their configuration as a whole is drastically isolated. They cannot be identified with as Giacometti’s figures can, for they offer neither spatial nor pictorial reciprocity. Also, they have a flatness unimaginable to Giacometti, suggesting not only their complete neutralization by space and their distance from our dimension, but also how “spiritual” they are. They start as numinous spiritual presences, making Giacometti’s figures seem phenomenal.

Antes’ figures are archaic yet not raw, and the economy of handling precludes possible staginess. Each figure in a sculptural whole is like a note in an Anton von Webern composition: the silences or emptinesses become as mythopoetic as the figures. Not since the emergence of Joel Shapiro has an artist created such a poetics of space in sculpture. The power of Antes’ work, however, is the result not of formal ambiguity—strong minimal form suggestive of weak figural form—but of the inherent spirituality of empty space and of the emptying of space from the figure, so that it is no longer a cosmic measure.

Donald Kuspit