New York

Loren Madsen

McKee Gallery

In Loren Madsen’s For Next, a piece he showed in this gallery back in 1986–87, 2,000 thin five-inch-square copper tiles hung from the ceiling by a thread tied at each corner to form a continuous carpet at, as I remember, a little under shoulder height. Below, where sculpture usually finds the floor, was empty air; above, where there’s usually empty air, was a transparent thicket of supporting threads, both present and bodiless, like steady rain. Near one end of the carpet the tiles swelled into a low mound, an effect achieved simply by strategic shortening of the threads. All at once, the piece defied gravity, explained the illusion, and startled—classic magic.

A number of sculptures in the recent show—a collection of smaller works dating from 1988 to 1995—showed the same desire to outwit gravity and the same self-explanatory clarity of method. Madsen may craft a surface by knotting metal plates together at their corners: make the plates square, and the surface can be flat; make the plates trapezoidal, and the surface will have to curve in toward the spherical to account for the rectangles’ shorter sides. Use trapezia and you’ll end up with something like Retort, 1990, a decentered copper bulb that Madsen hangs up near the roof, sealing both the imagistic idea of the distillery and the formal idea of the vanishing base by attaching to its neck a spindly oak coil, suggestive of chemistry-lab pipe, that twists toward but does not reach the floor.

Barc, 1990—there are versions in both copper and galvanized steel—is another airborne vessel, this time a long dome-ended cylinder like a torpedo, or a very big Tylenol capsule. The title’s hint of the marine is reinforced by a long open slot in the work’s top that turns it into a boat, which gets off the ground by the row of cables that suspend it from the ceiling. Gravity also seems the point of Knots, 1988–95, which, like For Next, is a midair cluster of matter supported by relatively insubstantial verticals. This time, though, the verticals, steel rods each topped by a ram’s-horn-like corkscrew of a wood called purpleheart, are below instead of above. There’s a lot of energy in the purpleheart’s tensile kinks, creating a thick optic buzz several feet above the ground, beneath which the thin rods do a visual fade.

It’s all intelligent and achieved, but there’s little here that would compete with, say, the inventive associativeness and skill with materials of Martin Puryear, whose work Madsen’s sometimes recalls. The artist’s main interest seems to be the struggle with weight; works addressed to something else risk losing force. And the lighter-than-air trick itself isn’t always enough: the atrium-scale installations documented in one of Madsen’s catalogues may literally fly, but it’s only their levitation that separates some of them from standard corporate decor.

The success of For Next lay in its weightlessness but also in the lyrical visual quality of its materials and form. Without that quality, the most interesting pieces in the recent show were Statistical Abstract: Humdef and Statistical Abstract: CPI, a pair of wall pieces from 1995. Inventing a system for a kind of three-dimensional chart showing several decades of the federal government’s human-resource and defense spending, and of the consumer price index for food and for fuel, with population size and housing costs respectively factored in, Madsen winds up with two ungainly basswood forms, like peculiarly tapering insect proboscises. Tongue-in-cheek representations of abstractions, they’re also perhaps a dig at artists like Peter Halley, who have loudly claimed social content to justify work of mainly formal concern.

David Frankel