Los Angeles

Robert Grosvenor

Margo Leavin Gallery

Like most Minimalist sculptors, Robert Grosvenor explores the dialectic between object and surrounding environment in order to disclose a semantic space in which work, artist, and viewer can coexist in mutual contingency. While this strategy has remained consistent since his first gravity-defying geometries of the ’60s, the artist’s concerns have evolved considerably. The early indoor works, with their often enigmatic relationship to the surrounding architecture, tended to expand formal issues into more fluid areas of supplementarity and reception: Does the work supplement the space? Does the viewer supplement the work? Or vice versa? In contrast, Grosvenor’s indoor and outdoor “sites” of the 10s and ’80s introduced more overtly anthropological and political elements.

Although Grosvenor’s stacks of creosoted beams and blocks may evoke Carl Andre’s sculptural readymades, his use of heavy machinery to generate deliberate, controlled fracture and abrasion moves the work beyond purely esthetic questions. Many critics have pointed out the sculptures’ resemblance to catafalques and sarcophagi, as if Grosvenor were creating a material paradigm for temporality, decay, and death, literally returning his scarred and pitted materials to the “sanctity” of the earth. Grosvenor’s recent work marks a return of the earlier architectural metaphors, in this case makeshift shelters, as if the fractures in the old Minimalist volumes had opened up more fully to allow the possibility of interior sites or residences. Two large-scale sculptures in this exhibition, both untitled, 1989–90, suggest that Grosvenor is now attempting to expand his anthropological critique by recycling it within the spatial and political economy of the art institution itself.

The largest and most ambitious work consists of two four-foot-high parallel walls of silver-painted concrete blocks joined by a black-painted corrugated “roof’ complete with skylight. The domesticity of the structure is reinforced by the addition of two jutting rows of floor-level blocks at each end, forming rudimentary entryways. At one end this extension is further built up to roof level with silver blocks, as if to suggest a later add-on for ”extra privacy." This seems pathetically cosmetic, considering that the structure is wide open at both ends and is insufferably uncomfortable, for one must crouch or crawl on all fours to duck under the low-slung corrugated steel. The work’s allusion to fallout or skid-row shelters as well as to shanty-town huts is obvious, yet the skylight is ironically anachronistic, offering a comical bourgeois excess that mirrored the skylight of the gallery roof itself, located directly above the sculpture. Both shelter and gallery ceiling were thus not only architectural enclosures but also semitransparent planes extending beyond the confines of either room to the broader social and political reality that contained them. Both structures—shanty town and art gallery—are born of the same economic conditions.

The second sculpture consists of a T-shape of concrete blocks resting under a canopy of clear Plexiglas. With its wavelike central curve, the Plexi, while it too referred to the gallery skylight, conjures up aircraft hangers or the protective cloches one finds in nursery greenhouses. And though the blocks may have alluded to the structure of the gallery’s own building, their overall T-shape is also distinctly phallic, as if a miniaturized Manhattan skyscraper has “died” and been turned on its side for a ceremonial lying in state. Grosvenor seems to suggest that the political connotations of shelters and structures of domesticity and display are not only contingent on environmental and economic context but are also innate to mankind’s manifestation of self through exterior signs and symbols. That such semiology is also tainted with rituals of inexorable death suggests that the true resonance of Grosvenor’s art lies in its provocative combination of social critique, optimistic survivalism, and fatalism, in which the ultimate semantic and political choice is up to the ideologically self-conscious viewer.

Colin Gardner