New York

George Herms

Tony Shafrazi Gallery

Although the critical reception of their work in the Whitney Museum’s recent exhibition on the Beat generation has been distinctly cool, the group of artists who began working with assemblage and collage in California in the ’50s constitutes an important parallel, and to some extent a predecessor (Clay Spohn’s pathbreaking Museum of Unknown and Little Known Objects in fact dates from 1949), to the better-known “neo-Dada” manifestations in New York (e.g., Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Allen Kaprow) and Paris (e.g., Yves Klein, Daniel Spoerri, Mimmo Rotella). These diverse artists both extended and contested the direction of postwar abstraction by questioning the autonomy of the esthetic object and exploring what Rauschenberg called “the space between” art and life.

This selection of George Herms’ work in collage, assemblage, and sculpture (actually there is no real difference in his work between the last two except, apparently, that one is wall-mounted and the other freestanding) from 1961 to the present clearly manifests his intention to erase the distinction between art and life. His installation of more than 40 finished pieces gradually merges, as one proceeds toward the back of the gallery, with what appears to be a simulation of part of an artist’s live/work space, complete with throw rugs. Televisions (with the sound turned down), chairs, and worktables were piled with odds and ends, presumably the raw materials for future assemblages: old Life magazines, bits of fabric, a broken record, junked car parts, and so on. The floor, too, was covered with unusual objects, clearly the findings of an inveterate thrift-shop scrounger. In this context, even the furniture and rugs that one would have assumed to be part of the background to Herms’ artmaking start to seem like assemblage fodder: you begin to realize that everything is potentially art material.

The seepage between artistic activity and everyday life implied by this installation is more than just symbolic, as it turns out. For the first and last two weeks of the exhibition Herms spent his days using this portion of the gallery as a studio, actually producing on site some of the objects displayed out of materials gathered from junk shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The artist’s predilection for weathered and distressed objects means that even the works produced in the course of the show exude an aura of age; they don’t look any newer than the pieces produced in 1961. There is also a striking consistency of style in these works, a surprising fact, given the three and a half decades separating the oldest and most recent pieces in the exhibition. In Herms’ assemblages, for example, there is always a balance between each incorporated object’s recollection of its previous circulation in the incongruous economy of the everyday and its present resting place—its enigmatic fulfillment in the artwork: that is, a balance between referentiality and metaphor, and perhaps between nostalgic attachment to the past and fatalist resignation to the ravages of time. Fundamentally, Herms’ art of semi-arrested decay disdains the entire concept of progress, whether in art or in history, preferring to taunt with the wisdom of the Shakespearean fool: “We ripe and ripe till we rot and rot.”

Barry Schwabsky