New York

Max Estenger

Steffany Martz

Max Estenger’s recent exhibition was heavy on the one-liners: a framed announcement for Dan Flavin’s installation at the Calvin Klein store, equipped with a fluorescent “painting light”; an inflatable ottoman stuffed with a shredded Bible; aluminum panels imprinted with photos of Ted Kazcynski’s cabin and Harry Helmsley’s crypt. In Great Looking Hair (GLH Formula) (all works 1997), a line of clear plastic, wall-mounted domes conjured the space-age Minimalism of Donald Judd or Larry Bell, but the monochromatic earth colors (black, light brown, auburn, silver, and so on) coating the insides of the shells were actually “hair thickeners”—spray paint for bald spots, to put it bluntly—purchased from a company that hawks its wares in late-night infomercials. Ironically, when applied to the inside of a dome, the paint’s velvety texture looked sublime rather than ridiculous.

In spite of the show’s sophomoric humor and almost nerdy obsession with art history (e.g., a vintage copy of Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” cut into squares and stacked in a plastic cube), it represented a real, old-fashioned breakthrough for Estenger, whose previous paintings juxtaposing monochrome panels and exposed canvas stretchers constituted more a dead end than the “new endgame” one critic claimed them to be. In his writings of the early ’90s, Estenger seemed obsessed with keeping painting viable in the aftermath of Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, the Minimalist era, and what he called the “problematizing critiques” of the ’80s; here, by playing with scale and caring little whether a work constitutes a “painting” or not, he has opened up his project considerably.

Perfect Day, for example—part painting, part architecture, part sculptural vitrine—related to the earlier, easel-based work but aggressively tested the boundaries between social and contemplative space. This floor-to-ceiling grid of two-by-fours, covered with a sheet of clear polyvinyl and outfitted with a small, hinged, bright orange door, resembled the stretcher bars of a see-through painting grown so large that it actually sealed off a portion of the gallery; the studs and crossbraces, positioned per the norms of the construction trade, recalled the Mondrian-esque balancing of horizontals and verticals that typified Estenger’s previous work. Most intriguing was the space behind the wall, a long, narrow section of the gallery that could be seen but not entered (unless the viewer ripped the plastic or tried to crawl through the “doggie door”). Although your eyes told you there was nothing special in the room—just empty gallery space—it had the allure of a secret compartment. By playing hard to get (into), the piece exerted a stronger pull than the typical Modernist “public” space, which everyone from Dan Graham to Rirkrit Tiravanija has tried to entice people to enter.

Barnett Newman once described European Modernism as an “empty world” that denied Renaissance figuration, and it was this void “behind” abstraction on which Perfect Day punned—as did an untitled work on the opposite side of the gallery, consisting of a two-inch hole in the wall with a black plastic rim and a small, recessed square push-button. If you were foolish enough to think that this was an interactive/voyeuristic sort of piece and pressed the button, you were greeted with an unseemly roar from a hidden vacuum cleaner and a rush of air blowing past your face. In contrast to the “empty world” of Perfect Day, which teased with its inaccessibility, this one literally sucked you in.

Tom Moody