Spuren, Skulpturen und Monumente ihrer präzisen Reise

Museum exhibitions have traditionally been based on some concept of sameness: works are gathered together either because they were made by the same artist or by artists from the same school, period, or country, or because they manifest the same theme, style, politics, or some other selective slice of sameness from the world of differences roundabout. The more venturesome shows often arouse a suspicion that the criterion of choice has created an impression of orderly sameness where another might have pointed as emphatically to difference. Yet curators, who are generally more involved in promoting a world view than in deconstructing one, rarely concentrate directly on difference, a task that faces the museum of the future.

For the exhibition “Spuren, Shulpturen und Monumente ihrer präzisen Reise” (Traces, sculpture and monuments of their precise voyage) curator Harald Szeemann brought together 54 works by 16 artists, two of them women, born within the century from 1858 (Medardo Rosso) to 1957 (Thomas Vimich). In this show, where balance and harmony were achieved it was through unexpected differentiation. Five huge Ulrich Rückriem pieces seemed not to say more—indeed, perhaps said less—than one would have by itself; but these works are in part about mass and weight, and the accumulation of them restated this relentlessly. The single diminutive clay head by Marisa Merz seemed to offset them all, just as James Lee Byars’ tiny golden sphere balanced by difference the two large grease-covered cones by Royden Rabinowitch.

Special emphasis was placed on the earliest work in the exhibition: Constantin Brancusi’s Muse endormie II (Sleeping muse II, 1926), which stood like an emblem in the gallery entranceway. The sculptor’s muse was asleep, we were to understand, and the often awkward and nonassociative shapes within the galleries were her unaccustomed new dreams. Wolfgang Laib’s little mounds of yellow pollen, Vimich’s inarticulate suggestions of architecture, Joel Fisher’s small, enigmatic objects, Tony Cragg’s landscape/model city, and many other works seemed to have been in part selected not only because they are difficult to relate to individually but because in combination they are puzzling and challenging at once.

Rabinowitch’s metal Manifolds, 1985, lie on the floor like large, irregularly folded papers, seeking neither to occupy our vision in the manner of freestanding sculpture nor, like so many works that hug the floor, to give an impression of massive weight. Michael Rutkowsky’s wood constructions look at times like mechanical devices from a preindustrial age, at others like odd sculpture pedestals that have nothing placed on them yet. Franz West’s polyester resin and papier-mâché pieces reject familiar sculptural modes in favor of a look like molten remnants of books or trays or shelves. Richard Tuttle’s collages of found materials were perhaps the most traditionally esthetic of the works exhibited, but they also involve rejections of conventional sculptural modes, as they are only nominally three-dimensional and hang on the wall like paintings. Like Merz’s sculpted head, Louise Bourgeois’ two small marble works—one like a windowless building, the other like wax penises melting—exerted a presence far beyond their size. Alberto Giacometti and Cy Twombly completed the group of artists in the exhibition.

In much of this work, traditional esthetic modes are shunned, and the question of new ones is raised in a loose and disorganized way that befits the muteness and invisibility of the future. One is impressed by how different most of this work is not only from classical but also from Modern sculpture.

Thomas McEvilley