New York

Wolfgang Laib

Lit with bare bulbs hanging from its ceiling, Wolfgang Laib’s The Passageway, 1988, inspired a certain amount of awe. One was engulfed by the yellow building blocks made of beeswax—a substance that recurs again and again in Laib’s works, ultimately a sacred, primordial material. (Pollen has been described by Swedish scientist, Leo C. Antes, as a “wonderful biological stimulant with high therapeutic value,” indeed, “the most potent and perfect food on earth.”) Laib’s “house,” as he calls it, has a Minimalist, back-to-basics look, but the basics it returns us to are spiritual as well as geometrical—a geometry literally revitalized and reoriginated by the use of an elemental organic substance.

Laib’s use of beeswax here, and pollen elsewhere, has been understood to connect him to Joseph Beuys, who made a number of works involving honey. But, whereas the latter premised his sculpture on the “sculptural processes of bees and their secretions, honey and wax”—a life-giving, healing substance in usable liquid form, or conserved, until needed, in crystalline form—Laib’s sculpture has the same healing intention, but is less egocentric. He also has a more “mystically” refined sense of material than Beuys. The latter anointed himself with honey, but Laib’s beeswax house must be entered: we are to be saved, not the artist. The sense of space in this work is more “fundamentalist” than in Beuys’; as Laib says, “a decisive encounter” for him was with the spaces of “the plain mosques in Persia, Afghanistan and Pakistan . . . empty rooms . . . which radiated a fullness.” It is the “sensibility of [this] space” that Laib transposes into this piece, which has a similar sacred character and redemptive power.

Though Beuys remained the Western warrior, Laib sees himself as a kind of compassionate Buddhist monk. His yellow is in fact the color of the Buddhist monk’s robe, and a work such as The Rice Meals, 1987, immortalizes the monk’s begging plate. Laib’s beeswax house represents the enlightenment, transcendence, and selflessness the monk pursues through meditation—the inner solitude necessary for higher consciousness. In it we are all monks—no longer spectators looking from the outside in, but participating observers in search of our own sacred significance. The house itself restores the sacred, that is, Suprematist, sense to the geometry that constitutes it. The Passageway reminds us that there is still art being made in defiance of the profane world we inhabit anintimate art that makes a spiritual point, indeed, that actually affords spiritual sustenance.

Donald Kuspit