Two views of Robert Gober, Untitled, 1997, leather, wood, forged iron, cast plastics, bronze, silk, satin, steel, beeswax, human hair, brick, fiberglass, urethane, paint, lead, motors, and water, overall: 10' 2 1/2“ x 8' 8” x 6' 3“; aboveground: 35 1/2 x 35 1/2 x 40”. Photo: Sven Kahns.

Two views of Robert Gober, Untitled, 1997, leather, wood, forged iron, cast plastics, bronze, silk, satin, steel, beeswax, human hair, brick, fiberglass, urethane, paint, lead, motors, and water, overall: 10' 2 1/2“ x 8' 8” x 6' 3“; aboveground: 35 1/2 x 35 1/2 x 40”. Photo: Sven Kahns.

“Part Object Part Sculpture”

WHAT IF THE CATCHPHRASE “the legacy of Duchamp” did not evoke Brillo boxes, factory fabrication, Conceptualism, or any variant of the word critique? What if “Duchampian” were instead to signify that which is hand-replicated, erotic, and (to use Eva Hesse’s favorite word) absurd? What if the wellspring of art since World War II were to be found not in the mass-made objects Duchamp bought and recontextualized in the teens, but in the crafty way he remade and repackaged them decades later?

This is the scenario posited by “Part Object Part Sculpture.” In a tour de force of selection and juxtaposition, curator Helen Molesworth uses the work of twenty artists to put forward a tightly focused alternative to received histories of sculpture since the midcentury. Her revisionist view starts not with the store-bought urinal or typewriter cover, but with their handmade mini-me’s, cunningly packaged in Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise, 1935–41; with the small, unequivocally genital “erotic objects” he produced in the ’50s; and with the full-scale artisan-produced copies of the readymades the artist authorized for museum display during the ’60s (a clever inclusion here is the technical drawing for one of these redo’s, approvingly inscribed OK MARCEL DUCHAMP). Accordingly, the show proceeds from Duchamp not to the image- and object-factories of Pop and Minimalism but into a realm of accumulation, encrustation, and bodily surrogates. In this history, Louise Bourgeois, Lee Bontecou, Yayoi Kusama, Eva Hesse, and Lynda Benglis are no longer quirky offshoots but the mainstays of a new Duchampian tradition, one that ends not with Hans Haacke and Andrea Fraser—that is, not with the interrogation of institutions that many believe to be the ultimate articulation of Duchamp’s radicalism—but with the less overtly political investigations of materials, memory, and forms developed by Gabriel Orozco and Robert Gober in their ludic, dreamy, sculptural versions of Conceptual and installation art.

On the way, there are shows within shows. As playful as her artists, Molesworth allows certain objects and processes to recur throughout the five galleries of the Wexner. For instance, the humble lightbulb emerges as a privileged object, at once pendulous and fragile, corporeal and angelic in incarnations by Jasper Johns, Gober, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Josiah McElheny (whose video tribute to the space-age glamour of the Metropolitan Opera chandeliers is somehow more intriguing than his sparkling sculptural version of the light fixture as model of the big bang). In another recurring theme, a whole dissertation on casting as metaphor and method emerges from juxtapositions of Marcel Broodthaers, Allan McCollum, and Rachel Whiteread. And a preoccupation with luggage (not language) suggests the instability of place, meaning, and memory in the twentieth century: The thematic strand runs from Duchamp’s wartime retrospective-to-go through a phallus-encrusted trunk by Kusama and a desultory container for text by Broodthaers, culminating with a kick in the psychic solar plexus by Gober, whose iconic valise opens to reveal an underground tide pool beneath the gallery floor.

Draw close enough to Gonzalez-Torres’s cascade of lightbulbs in Untitled (North), 1993, and the artwork literally warms you. Its 15-watt bulbs strung on ordinary white wiring emit a halo of bodylike heat, just palpable at the point of proximity museum guards allow you to attain. It even hums—mundane electrical current transformed into animal energy. I thought I already knew and loved this work, but here its evocation of bodies lost was knee-weakening, for, true to its thesis, the exhibition carefully cultivates an awareness of the erotic, touch-me charge of the sculptures it showcases. In highlighting this emotional, physical, and cognitive circuit of sculptural experience, without forgetting its likeness to the desire and longing that characterize our relationship with commodities, “Part Object Part Sculpture” is a brilliant success.

It is the exhibition’s stated ambition to reconfigure the history of sculpture since World War II (and its constant return to the example of Duchamp) that is more problematic. Leaving aside questions about what does not appear at the Wexner—the polemical exclusion of Pop and Minimalism, the limiting of the potentially far-reaching inquiry to only European and North American art—there remains the question of the historical model being implied here. Do we need more family-tree art histories, however ingeniously regrafted their branches, in which the ultimate referent of contemporary art is the work of a past master? A mental melding of Duchamp’s erotic objects and his handcrafted readymade duplicates would indeed seem to license the exciting range of part-body, part-commodity creations gathered here. Yet Molesworth’s emphasis on his patrimony risks implying that the condition for these objects’ invention and importance rests with previous art, rather than with the way they work through the dilemmas of a half century in which people, places, and resources have been used as parts rather than valued as wholes—the dilemmas of a commercialized world where desire is routed through objects in processes that are anything but organic.

Carrie Lambert-Beatty is assistant professor of art and architecture at Harvard University.