Washington, DC

Wolfgang Laib

Wolfgang Laib, whose largest US retrospective to date began its tour at the Hirshhorn in October, is an artist of particular import for a historical moment when “sensation” and “brilliance” have become merely hyperbolic synonyms for “the new.” What Laib’s work offers is sensation in the purely perceptual sense of the word, a kind of ecological ethic that aspires to supplant what the artist sees as the rational, mediated mind-set of Western culture. It is brilliant, but its brilliance is of a decidedly organic, Zen cast.

Laib was trained in medicine in his native Germany but turned to art in the early ’70s after several trips to India. His first endeavor consisted of a series of carved and polished egg-shaped stones he called “Brahmandas,” after the Hindu symbol of creation. Soon thereafter he created a series of “milkstones,” which put him on the art-world map, at least in Europe. The milkstone piece in the retrospective, a later edition dating from 1983-87, is typical: A nearly square, shallow marble basin that is filled with three quarts of milk, it uses surface tension to redouble as a signifier for the apparent incompatibility of its materials. Milk is soft, liquid, perishable; marble, durable, solid, eternal. But in looking at a milkstone, the viewer is hard put to distinguish one from the other.

Laib’s most widely exhibited pieces, made of pollen collected and sifted by the artist, take the form of “fields” thinly laid down on the floor in rough square shapes; “mounds,” or cones, also placed on the floor; and jars, which are often displayed on shelves. The pollen, gathered from dandelions, buttercups, and other plants, comes in a variety of yellow-orange shades that seem to glow. Laib also sculpts rudimentary house forms in stone and wax that serve as containers for rice (“Rice Houses”) and large-scale beeswax constructions in the shape of steps, ziggurats, boats, and walk-in rooms. The selection of works assembled at the Hirshhorn, organized by the American Federation of Arts, shows the artist’s career to be all of a piece; there is little sense of aesthetic development over time, since each of the works seems perfectly at ease with its neighbors.

Both Klaus Ottmann, the exhibition’s guest curator, and Margit Rowell, an essayist in the catalogue, suggest that Laib is in the same league as his countryman Joseph Beuys. The similarities are easy to see: the deployment of natural materials as metaphors for the human condition, a fondness for elemental forms and gestures, the foregrounding of the artist’s performative role. Where Beuys used iron, felt, and fat, Laib employs stone, beeswax, rice, and milk. Both artists, it seems fair to say, have helped validate Romanticism as an aesthetic position in contemporary German art.

But where Beuys’s art was tied to the tumult of German history and his own upbringing, Laib’s work is apolitical, ahistotical, and impersonal—unless one wants to argue, as many have, that the very idea of formalist abstraction is culture-bound. Laib wants us to receive his work as spiritual and timeless, and all its simplicity, refinement, and reflexivity combine to provoke us into a state of contemplation and stillness. Laib aims straight for the viewer’s sensorium, invoking not only sight but also smell, touch, and taste (even though the last two are prohibited by the museum).

Sound is present in the form of silence. Floor pieces like Pollen from Hazelnut (an almost twelve-foot near-square &st created in 1992) and The Five Mountains Not to Climb On (five mounds of hazelnut pollen, dating from 1984) tend to suck idle conversation out of the room, in part because they are so dramatically beautiful but also because they are simultaneouslv physically fragile and metaphorically ’ obdurate. Laib has a knack for shaping the space of a room with the smallest of interventions, although the Hirshhorn’s curved galleries did his work no favors. (The museum also conspired to break the intrinsic silence, installing alarms that buzzed rudely when visitors came too dose to the “Rice Houses.”)

The pieces that succeeded most at the Hirshhorn were those that permitted close approach, such as the grouping of sealing-wax houses and the elevated wax ships of You Will Go Somewhere Else, 1995. The most visceral experience was offered by Somewhere Else—La Chambre des certitudes, 1997, a narrow room entered by one visitor at a time. With its beeswax lining and bare overhead light, the room proved at once claustrophobic and captivating, a monastic cell in which one might imagine the life of a bee.

Obviously Laib borrows from Hindu and Buddhist practices in both his forms and materials. (In India, for example, villagers use rice to fashion elaborate designs on the ground outside their front doors.) But he disputes that there are equally obvious references to American Minimalist and post-Minimalist art, from Carl Andre’s floor pieces to Joel Shapiro’s houses, or any connection between his pollen squares and, say, Mark Rothko’s paintings. This attempt to position the work outside modernist tradition is understandable but shortsighted. After all, earlier modernists like Kandinsky were just as invested in restoring a spiritual dimension to art; indeed, the gradual disappearance of this ideal is an important story in twentieth-century art. Wouldn’t it be better, and much more amusing besides, to see Laib’s organic, elemental pieces as witty postmodern variations on the austere, metallic chic of Minimalism? And wouldn’t it be nice for Laib to acknowledge that the history of Western art is full of kindred spirits?

Andy Grundberg is a writer and critic living in Washington, DC.