New York

Simon Starling

Simon Starling’s recent installation looked back at the modernist attempt to dissolve the barriers between art and the environment while recasting modernism itself as a cage. A well-orchestrated hybrid of disciplines and references, the work fell into the categories of painting, sculpture, industrial design, architecture, and music without fitting into any of these.

The show, titled “Inverted Retrograde Theme, USA,” was arranged in two parts. Hanging at eye level near the entrance were three lamps with stacked red, white, blue, and green metal shades, based on Paul Henningsen’s ’50s pendant lighting designs. Beyond the lowered lamps, in the main gallery, two large plywood architectural models of modernist homes with metal grates covering the windows were pressed to the ceiling by bare tree branches braced against the floor. The models appeared slightly flattened from being pushed upward. Each housed a live bird. (One hoped they were starlings, but evidently they were a pair of conspicuously quiet parakeets.) While the lowered lamps made you feel taller within a domestic environment, the “birdhouses” and trees made you feel much smaller, almost removed, as if you were looking up at the birds through the “worm’s eye” of an Auguste Choisy drawing. From this vantage the most visible aspect of the birdhouses were the undersides, which are made of joining panels and look like washed-out Theo van Doesburg paintings. The reference to De Stijl, which attempted to destroy the pictorial frame and blur distinctions between painting and architecture, is apt. At the same time Starling subverts the De Stijl spatial paradigm by adding a pronounced wooden molding around each model’s base, framing the houses like paintings.

Starling is explicitly referencing two modernist projects of different disciplines: the housing projects of architect Simon Schmiderer and composer Arnold Schönberg’s serial dodecaphonic system of composition. Under the slogan “One House in One Hour,” Schmiderer designed a system of prefabricated concrete paneling that was used in simple, airy public housing projects in Puerto Rico during the ’60s. His utopian social agenda of extreme openness failed, however, as residents were obliged to cover the large windows with steel grilles against intruders, resulting in a certain birdcage effect. Starling’s models reproduce two Schmiderer structures from 1964. They are nearly mirror images of each other, and Starling has turned them upside down. Thus they are “inverted-retrograde”—a term that, as it happens, also refers to a technique used in Schönberg’s twelve-tone system, a structure that can be manipulated (inverted, reversed, or both) to enable a variety of sounds. For Schönberg, as for Schmiderer, it is the serial structure that provides freedom, while for Starling its legacy is a cage.

Essayist Lewis Hyde once described irony as the song of a bird that enjoys being in its cage. Starling, a bird’s namesake, seems to sing the praises of modernism while lamenting its failures, but like many artists today, he works with a retro modernism: His ironic play with exile and inclusion at times feels more like the product of self-conscious, nostalgic longing for an unattainable past than the claiming of a critical position.

Michael Meredith