Victor Grippo

An atmosphere of hushed stillness permeated this exhibition of nearly colorless sculptural work by the late Argentinean artist Victor Grippo. The silence was gradually broken as one became aware of a faint hum, like the noise of a smoothly functioning laboratory. In Analogía I, segunda versión, o Energía (Analogy I, Second Version, or Energy), 1977, dozens of potatoes—a recurring object in Grippo’s art—are scattered over a table and chair and attached to electrodes of copper and zinc, generating an electric current that is registered on a meter. In Vida, Muerte, Resurrección (Life, Death, Resurrection), 1980, a glass case holds four hollow geometric forms made of lead and filled with black beans. The beans are slowly germinating, expanding, and breaking free of their containers, spilling onto the plinth. Behind these overflowing forms are identical, empty versions that seem to await the same animation. Vertical, 1993, and Peso verdadero (True Weight), 1985, were among the many glass-fronted white boxes hung on the walls of the gallery; inside each, long plumb lines of thread are delicately suspended from the top of the box, hanging among an assortment of objects and shapes in relief that protrude from the back panel.

Potatoes silently transmit electricity; beans softly swell; weights sway imperceptibly. Grippo’s work captures even the slightest trace of energy as evidence of supremely significant miracles. Robert Smithson, who belonged to Grippo’s generation, said, “You know, one pebble moving one foot in two million years is enough action to keep me really excited.” Grippo was absorbed by the same infinitesimal yet unmistakable movements, which bring the earth around us to life. The artist’s lifelong themes—the parallel rituals of art and science (Grippo had worked as a chemist), the transformation of poetry into material form, and the alchemical processes that change matter into energy—reflect a belief in the revolutionary and generative power of art, and a subtle sense of humor. Although Grippo’s poetics sometimes borders on the nostalgic (take, for example, the old-fashioned blacksmith’s and other craftsmen’s tools displayed in Algunos oficios [Some Trades], 1976), the clarity of purpose in his art is a testament to the long-gone utopian spirit of the Land art and arte povera generation and to their radical politics, respect for materials, and love of experimentation.

Mesas de trabajo y reflexión (Tables of Work and Reflection), 1994 is a dark, room-size installation of old wooden desks covered in handwritten texts in Spanish: snatches of poetry, fragments of scientific literature, half-finished notes by the artist. In this darkened space dramatically illuminated by bare bulbs, one was reminded of Christian Boltanski’s theatrical shadow plays. The work suggested some gothic tale in which an incomplete, enigmatic text might surface mysteriously, then vanish too quickly to be completely understood.

Coincidentally, the Camden Arts Centre exhibition of Grippo’s work overlapped with a show on the other side of town, at the Serpentine Gallery, of Damien Hirst’s personal art collection. Hirst’s selections included a giant wax and foam replica of a potato, sitting on a pedestal—a 2005 work by John Isaacs, What is it that there is something and nothing. The contrast between generations could not have been more apparent: Here was a freakish, comic, and inert potato sculpture, while Grippo presented a harvest of many quietly pulsating tubers. Grippo’s silent community, rooted in the utopian ’60s, has been seemingly replaced by an inedible, oversize, mediagenic collectible—not grown but manufactured in the twenty-first century.

Gilda Williams