New York

Win Knowlton

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

This exhibition revived the Museum of Modern Art’s “Projects” series, which ran from 1971 to 1982. Its point is to introduce the public to the work of relatively unknown, younger artists. With the exceptions of its video and “New Directors/New Films” programs, “Projects” is the museum’s only program that attempts to be responsive to emerging artists. Otherwise, it seems that the Museum is more interested in upholding a formalist view of Modern art, reinforced by its choice, on rare occasions, of which contemporary artists will be given retrospectives. (Richard Serra sí! Robert Arneson no!) The recent addition of Linda Shearer, formerly the director of Artists Space and now director of “Projects,” may be just the elixir this dinosaur needs.

Win Knowlton is a young New York artist who makes sculptures, draws, and paints; at least two examples of his endeavors in each of these media were included in this exhibition. Sculpture, for which Knowlton is primarily known, formed the strongest and largest group of work represented. Made of cast iron, concrete, or hydrocal, the sculptures transformed familiar shapes into witty, expressive presences. In his allusions to homey objects such as a pair of boots, a loaf of bread, or a birdlike bottle, the artist reveals a real affection for the ordinary things we all too often take for granted. It is an affection informed by the artist’s command of his materials, as well as his ability, like that of a cartoonist, to transform banal objects into humorous personae. In this regard, Knowlton has something in common with Philip Guston. Among other influences and affinities, I would point out Max Ernst, Jean Arp, and Alberto Giacometti.

The real problem with the show was the space. Knowlton’s floor pieces are meditative, and meant to be gazed at rather than glimpsed; they demand room around them, so that the viewer can examine them from different angles. However, installed in a small room with two doorways, the sculptures became obstacles, like in a large closet. Everywhere I stood or turned I was either in someone’s way or bumping into someone.

I’m glad the Museum has decided to reinstitute the “Projects” series, but I’m disappointed that they didn’t give more thought or care to this installation. By making it difficult to move easily among the freestanding pieces the Museum inadvertently misrepresented Knowlton’s work. Consequently, the smaller objects, which were lined up on a shelf, became the strongest, most resonant part of the exhibition. Knowlton is clearly a mature artist whose work should be better known, and the Museum could have done a far better job of introducing him and his work.

John Yau