Los Angeles

George Herms

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Shortly after moving to Los Angeles, almost exactly a decade ago, I encountered the work of George Herms. At first, the rusted and dusted aggregation of bric-a-brac by this local Beat legend scared the shit out of me. Not because it was ugly—it was and still is—but rather because I was entirely unprepared for its existence. If Pop and Minimalism had become emblematic of modernism’s trajectory through the 1960s, the contemporaneous Assemblage movement had long since been dismissed from the list of worthy topics for discussion. Too messy for art-historical streamlining, too unattached to the teleological yearnings of “serious” art, too doggedly West Coast for the assumed universality of more glamorous ’60s work, the movement had been neglected, if not taken out with the trash, following its spotlight moment in MoMA’s 1961 “Art of Assemblage” exhibition. Now, decades later, we might think of the tendency as the illegitimate child of Picasso and Duchamp finally come home to roost. This recent survey, curated by the late Beat booster Walter Hopps—who, not coincidentally, organized Duchamp’s first retrospective in Pasadena in 1963—suggests that Herms has fallen so far out of favor that he might now have come full circle and landed back in fashion. As densely displayed as a flea market, this selection of forty-four works dating from 1959 to the present opened a rusty can of worms, suggesting that Herms might have spawned his own delinquent progeny.

Even in Los Angeles, Herms has been largely ignored as a potential influence on Mike Kelley’s saliva-stained stuffed toys, Jason Meadows’s animalistic abstractions, or Jedediah Caesar’s geodes of studio debris embalmed in resin. And beyond city limits, Herms offers an unexpected missing link between the tidy poetic assemblages of Joseph Cornell and the post-abject sculpture of Rachel Harrison, particularly in the way all three utilize found photographs as a sculptural material. Take the advertising image of Isabella Rossellini pasted to the back of Drugstore for Artie, 1991–92. Drugstore is a wooden hutch packed with newspaper clippings, corroded silverware, wads of cotton, a fox skull, dice, a copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette, a mannequin elbow, a 7UP crate, and a jumble of scrap metal. Pulled away from the wall, the accumulation is transformed from cluttered furniture into a sculpture in the round, and the back of the poor man’s wünderkammer suddenly becomes its face as Isabella masks the terrifying accumulation of stuff lurking immediately behind.

Herms reveals something similarly horrific in the semiautobiographical Alcove of Beginnings, 1979, a sculpture composed of three hinged vertical sheets of plywood covered with, among other things, an earlier stab at AbEx painting, a photo of a cat run over by a steamroller suspended in a wooden contraption (a readymade photo of a readymade), and old documentary photos of mental patients arranging a variety of everyday objects. The sculpture and its title neatly encapsulate Herms’s project as a complex meditation on time and economy of means. Resisting progress in favor of regurgitation and recuperation—a work from 1968 might be confused with a work from 1986, for example—Herms short-circuits easy archaeological reconstruction of his corpus by reintroducing entropy and deploying materials that are less readymade than just plain used.

For better or worse, Herms is really good at one thing: putting several things together. In Sphere, 1989–90, a round buoy is held aloft by the prongs of a metal tripod; both objects are thoroughly rusted, one seemingly necessitating the other: a perfect fit. That such a seemingly offhand gesture—combining two objects to construct a sculptural unity—took two years to complete implies that Herms’s work (meaning both object and labor) might not be as easy as it looks. Duration itself becomes a potent material as Herms emerges from the lost-and-found none the worse for wear.

Michael Ned Holte