New York

John Beech

On the evidence of his recent exhibition at Peter Blum, I suspect John Beech is trying to one-up Marcel Duchamp, Donald Judd, and just about every abstract painter who’s ever lived. He cleverly constructs what can look like (and what very occasionally incorporate) found objects (mostly Dumpster containers, but also car bumpers and roller-skate wheels) but ultimately constitute examples of his “concrete art.” Fabricating, coloring, and positioning them with great care in relation to the surrounding space, and juxtaposing them artfully with one another, he suggests that one can always tease an expressively empty sculpture out of an everyday functional object. Beech also paints over large original photographs of Dumpsters to create ghostly abstract presences in mundane realistic settings. These perversely beautiful works isolate, to paraphrase Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s line about the purpose of art, the “moment of [formal] transcendence” in the everyday without discarding its source.

Beech also makes elegantly curved, monochromatic “Glue Paintings”—one of which was included in this show—that project from the wall and “Rotating Paintings,” equally oddly shaped, that spin like pinwheels, as though in ironic acknowledgment of the idea that an abstract painting should look good from all sides. There’s something whimsically “experimental” about such works. They’re examples of what Duchamp called “lab art,” playfully aestheticized and thus meant to delight the eye as well as amuse the mind. But there was also a sense in this show that Beech is treading increasingly shallow avant-garde water, with whatever dexterity. Many of these works depend on an endgame fusion of signifiers drawn from tendencies ranging from Dadaism and Constructivism to Conceptualism and Minimalism. And while such eclecticism is certainly no mean feat, by restaging historical models, Beech unwittingly only replaces the originals’ resonance with the self-conscious “difference” of their descendents.

What Beech’s works perform is essentially assimilation, a synthesis of what once seemed revolutionary but has now been made consistent with a contemporary preference for mere entertainment. As philosopher and sociologist Max Horkheimer wrote, “Total abstraction . . . has become pure wall decoration and is accepted as such, at least by the wealthy who buy it.” Beech’s “reversible” abstractions often, as in the “Rolling Blankets” (literally blankets with wheels attached to them), allude to the packaging and transporting of precious art objects in an attempt, despite their own status and value, to avoid this fate worse than artistic death.

Unfortunately, irony no longer offers any escape from such an impasse, a fact that Beech seems unconsciously to realize. In putting, as he once did elsewhere, a painted bumper in a transparent container, Beech has cynically suggested that all art is simply a “transparent” matter of packaging and staging. Irony has become a mode of intellectual decoration, confirming that Beech is an expert in decorative cleverness. Horkheimer again: “Works of art . . . buy their future at the expense of their meaning.” Beech’s works show the high price that avant-garde art has paid for its future, that is, to become credible rather than remain incredible.

Donald Kuspit