New York

View of “Gianni Colombo,” 2013.

View of “Gianni Colombo,” 2013.

Gianni Colombo

View of “Gianni Colombo,” 2013.

A furtive press on one of the metal levers at the bottom of Gianni Colombo’s Superficie in Variazione (Surface in Variation), 1959, would have rewarded you with an uncanny displacement of your touch: a dimple appearing on a shaggy white surface in tandem with the pressure of your finger. In a contemporary culture awash with exhortations to participate, such a simple interactive device could easily be regarded as a technocratic instrumentalization of the viewer. But leavened by Colombo’s characteristic playfulness, the work’s strange dissociation of the visual and tactile is also acutely visceral. This important exhibition, the artist’s first solo show in the United States, revealed the prescience of Colombo’s work, as well as its power to disrupt one’s perceptual habits. It also exposed the internal resistance of many of his works to being shown as historical art objects. For if you were to experience Superficie in Variazione as the artist intended, you might have had to separate its aesthetic effect from the frisson of transgressing a posted sign asking you not to touch the works.

A cofounder in 1959 of the Milanese Gruppo T, Colombo (1937–1993) was at the forefront of experiments with kinetic, interactive objects and immersive environmental structures. Among a generation that shunned the notion of the artist as expressive authorial subject and that aimed to turn the spectator into a coauthor, Colombo stands out for the sensuality and humor of his work, qualities evident even in his early ceramics that were on display here. He is best known for Spazio Elastico (Elastic Space), 1967–68, recently shown at the New Museum in New York, in which viewers enter a darkened cubical room internally divided by a three-dimensional grid of elastic cords fluorescing under black light. As the eyes adjust, one’s whole body seems to ooze around while the cords are slowly stretched in different directions, rhythmically pulled by four motors attached to the ceiling. Other works from the “Spazio Elastico” series, 1967–86, were included in this show. Among these was Spazio Elastico. Quadrati che si muovono (Elastic Space: Moving Squares), 1967, which comprises two hanging steel cubes rigged to collapse and expand before one’s eyes, producing a similar kinesthetic churn, as well as a handful of gridded white panels from 1974. These pieces had been overlaid with second grids made of elastic bands, and viewers could theoretically forge their own relationship to the horizontal and vertical lines by varying the position of the bands along the edge of the frame.

Colombo’s larger environmental works were represented by a number of his scale models and Bariestesia, 1974–75, three wonky black staircases that formed the centerpiece of the main gallery and upon which visitors were invited to clamber. The stairs’ unpredictable rise and skewed angles made one mindful of each step. Like the “Spazio Elastico” pieces, Bariestesia enacts a ludic confrontation with the ostensibly normative orthogonal line. The element of participation was intended to liberate spectators from their everyday kinesthetic and social conventions, and the hint of silliness is part of the game.

With the show’s placement of Plexiglas boxes around many of the sculptures and the prohibition against touch (except by the gracious gallery staff), the works’ emancipatory promise certainly felt manicured. This is hardly surprising, given the art-historical and commercial realities that turn interactive constructions such as Colombo’s into objects requiring vigilant conservation, a situation that seems both necessary and counter to their guiding creative impulse. One was reminded of the Gelitin exhibition in this very same gallery this past fall. At that opening, the notion of spectator participation edged close to destructive free-for-all as the artists wryly tested the audience’s capacity for restraint once given the opportunity to literally knock sculpture off its pedestal. It might be argued that it’s just as well we don’t touch Colombo’s interactive works. Regardless, they afford us only the image of emancipation, and the truly liberated spectator was a utopian aspiration, after all. But if you did surreptitiously push that lever, you probably didn’t regret it.

Tyler Cann