Olivier Mosset/Cady Noland

Museum für Gegenwartskunst, mit Emanuel Hoffmann-Stiftung

There has been little new to see in Europe from Cady Noland since her remarkable contribution to Documenta IX in 1992. For that event, she produced Towards a Metalanguage of Evil, a collage-based installation around the topic of psychopaths, in which she included the text of the eponymous essay she wrote in 1987 and work by colleagues from Sherrie Levine to Steven Parrino. In the essay, Noland elaborates at great length on the strategies of the psychopath. These include the “information hunt,” a tactic that allows the psychopath to better manipulate his prey; “the mirror device,” in which he “cynically fashions his tastes and judgments to accord with those of [the intended victim]”; and “reconfiguration,” a stage during which the psychopath, having realized that a particular setup is not going to work, must wait “until a shift occurs which makes the environment more adaptable to his plans.” Noland’s detailed discussion becomes a subtle yet precise critique of a variety of social behaviors, from the techniques of market researchers to the machinations of politicians. At the same time, one can infer from the text that these psychopathic strategies are also to be found in Noland’s own work. With this in mind, it is odd that she is now exhibiting with Swiss abstract artist Olivier Mosset. Clearly, the title of the show, “MoNo,” is made up of their names—but why the sudden harmony between his Minimalism and her hard edge?

The exhibition begins above the project space of the Migros Museum, with Noland’s ink-on-aluminum Towne Square, 1993–94, which resembles a red-brick wall, and two of Mosset’s early paintings, featuring his signature black As on a white ground. Nearby is a multiple edition by Noland of single aluminum poles protruding from the centers of car tires. Obviously, prefabricated industrial products of American daily life still dominate Noland’s formal repertoire—here she has recruited her materials from the street. The question is whether Noland’s objects, which normally engage with territory outside the white cube, and even blur the boundaries between them, now read, in juxtaposition with Mosset’s work, as autonomous sculpture. And do the formal parallels between the work of both artists also imply comparable contents?

A pair of untitled works from 1999 betray the fact that Noland has not lost her “psychopathic” edge. At the bottom of the stairs, white-plastic, three-dimensional, attenuated As block the way into the space: Mosset’s pure As are here transformed into street barricades. This insertion of Minimalist form into the everyday world becomes even more pointed when seen through the metal fence Noland has placed against the staircase. Turning the otherwise unused space under the stairs into a storeroom, the fence asserts itself as an authoritarian sign regulating routes and actions.

Mosset, too, attempts to approach this severity. Five freestanding, pyramid-like sculptures placed around the gallery are, according to the press release, modeled after armored tanks. In contrast, Noland’s swing set turns guilelessness into a form of aggression. Is Publyck Sculpture, 1993–94, a very unchildlike, brutal aluminum rack with three car tires suspended on thick metal chains, a cynical commentary on art in public space? Or an interplay between innocence (a child’s swing) and reality (the unforgiving materials)?

Noland’s Documenta text speaks of the “instability and relativity of people’s perceptions of reality,” and it is exactly that which she seems to play with in the exhibition. This instability emerges in the vacillation between the work’s status as apparently benign, formal sculpture (with possible origins in seemingly autonomous Minimalist forms) and its identity as an object with authoritarian connotations. But this play only opens up if the observer looks very carefully and/or brings sufficient knowledge to the work. Otherwise, Noland’s project is transformed through its juxtaposition with Mosset’s into a fetishization of formalism and materials. And even if this danger of being misunderstood, or underestimated, is an integral part of the psychopathic strategy, it raises the question as to what effect the strategy can possibly have—especially since the field of action is a small, but largely enlightened and critical art world.

Sabine Vogel

Translated from German by Elizabeth Felicella.