New York

Jonathan Borofsky

Paula Cooper Gallery | 529 West 21st Street

In Jonathan Borofsky’s Pieces of Infinity, 1991, numbers of various sizes, crafted from woods such as oak; maple, walnut, and mahogany, are arranged in straight lines or simply spilled across the walls of the gallery. This installation harks back to Borofsky’s counting project initiated in 1969, in which he recorded sequential numbers on sheets of graph paper for several hours each day. The hours turned into months, days to years, and by the time the work was last seen in 1988, as part of the Borofsky retrospective,at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, the piled pages made a four-foot pillar.

The process of counting marked Borofsky’s place at any given moment, and when he completed a work in another medium, his pieces were signed with the number he was on at the time. He has long seen counting as a path toward self-knowledge—a mantra, a tool of meditation. Whereas his previous work reflected the full diversity of lived experience in a complex integration of personal, political, and spiritual concerns—written by hand in black ink or paint, the digits bore an inescapable connection to concentration-camp tattoos and to society’s reduction of the individual to a number—on this occasion the figures lack the menacing associations of digits past. It is perhaps the comparatively large scale that dilutes their impact here, or possibly the materials used—wooden numbers are the preferred markers for suburban addresses. There is also something about their presentation that encourages us to read them as a series of individual digits rather than a single figure in the hundreds or millions. And notably, where such a rational act as counting is at issue, it is significant that the numbers are not sequential. This installation’s relatively pristine conceptual look is surprisingly different from the overstimulated plethora of material, information, and commentary that one has come to expect from Borofsky. One might argue that disorder here is demonstrated on a conceptual rather than a material level, but, for this viewer, the magic of Borofsky’s work has long depended on the ironic, humorous, emotionally charged depiction of spiritual, social, and political concerns at play in an environment in which these elements are displayed as a diverse series of tangible objects.

Where past Borofsky exhibitions suggested a visit with someone who quite consciously decided not to clean his room before company came, now, suddenly. he has begun hiding things under the bed, pulling the covers tight and tucking it all in. And yet, within this tidier display, there are elements that one recognizes as classic Borofsky. In the small rear gallery, suspended at about six feet, Walking Man, 1991, an aluminum and fiberglass figure, balanced precariously on a 22 1/2-foot pole like a high-wire walker, plays well against the chaos of numbers in the main room. It is another Borofsky trademark—a heartbeat, primal and unrelenting—however. that is the most seductive element of the show. On this occasion, it takes the form of polyester resin and red neon lights, shaped somewhat like large lava lamps, flashing in time with the artist’s heartbeat. On the one hand, the beat is quite clinical, reinforcing the sparseness and sterility of the gallery space. Yet, accompanied by the flashing lights, it permeates the gallery; the effect is intensely attractive, rhythmic, and inescapably human.

Throughout, Borofsky plays interior against exterior in a manner that is more subtle and less accessible than in his previous work, and the multiplicity of interpretations make themselves known only if one is familiar with Borofsky’s terminology, themes, and history the more you know, the more there is to know. It is difficult to tell whether this installation is representative of a new direction—a withdrawal and reconsideration of his work to date. One can only look forward to the next installment and hope that, in the future, the artist doesn’t feel compelled to clean before we come; we’re past the point where neatness counts.

A. M. Homes