New York

Matthew Higgs

Art Always Changes. The first work in Matthew Higgs’s third solo exhibition at Murray Guy takes its content and title from a truism of creative endeavor. But with a self-deprecating wit characteristic of the British-born, New York–based artist, the phrase also appears knowingly self-contradictory. If Higgs considers art to be inherently mercurial, one might ask, why does he so doggedly pursue the same, apparently confining, line of inquiry even as his critical and curatorial interests broaden ever outward? Art Always Changes, 2005, is a framed book page (all the works in the show, bar one, are either pages or covers), a frontispiece to a work penned by some long-forgotten martyr to the truth of its titular pronouncement. The self-consciously “designed” typography and pointed italicization (ART ALWAYS CHANGES) suggest that it might have been a populist broadside as opposed to an academic treatise, but the clues end there. The framing is neat and neutral, the presentation (pale gray-painted gallery walls aside) uninflected.

The work is typical of Higgs’s practice of the past dozen or so years, in that it’s based on sourcing and recontextualization rather than on making (the press release calls it “found conceptual art,” and the label isn’t a bad one). But what initially risks appearing slight or gimmicky ultimately signals, in Higgs’s hands, a productive restraint: The longer he persists with the project, the greater its resonance. The closer the work comes to absolute detachment, the more compelling are its residual nuances, and the more affecting it somehow becomes—even, or perhaps especially, when it is saturated with silliness. Art Aint All Paint, 1999, evokes the forced jollity of a local newspaper headline: The fact that someone could have burdened a book with such a title seems to open onto an entire universe of poor judgment and generally dumbed-down thought. Yet, as with Art Always Changes, it pays to remember that the tome from which this page was excised might have been, say, a novel, and its moniker entirely appropriate, even (just conceivably) stylish.

The grubby, dog-eared covers that constitute New York Now, British Art Today, and Young Mexicans (all 2006), on the other hand, could only have come from art catalogues or compendiums. All that now remains of these commentaries on local aesthetic trends is the faded potential of their packaging, the authoritative contemporaneity promised by their titles ossified, then lost. Romantic Art and Fantastic Art (both 2006) seem to allude to more timeless themes, but the paper of both is similarly yellowing, and certain design choices—the stately classical pretension of the former and the dated futurism of the latter—anchor them in time just as surely as their neighbors’ attempts at pre-postmodernist cool. To Be Looked At, 2005, may or may not have belonged to an art book but nonetheless recalls John Baldessari’s cheeky interdiction This Is Not to Be Looked At, 1968.

Dispersed through the gallery were a handful of works devoid of text: Another Chance for Cities, 1970, Space/Time, 1975/1976, and Untitled (1967) (all 2006) all feature covers distinguished by starkly geometric abstract modernist graphics in flat, strong (albeit sometimes slightly faded) colors. These now function as heraldic relics of an earlier idealism (the titles, while not visible in the works themselves, are, of course, all-important). In their coolly archived state, these particular covers were perhaps the show’s starkest reminders that art, and the world of ideas it implies, survives only by continually rendering itself obsolete—whatever one might read to the contrary.

Michael Wilson