New York

View of “Richard Nonas,” 2013.

View of “Richard Nonas,” 2013.

Richard Nonas

View of “Richard Nonas,” 2013.

It is disconcerting to hear Richard Nonas refer to James Fuentes gallery, the site of his most recent solo show in New York, as an “uneasy, unsteady space,” until it becomes clear that this is a compliment. What he means is that the place has character; rather than the neutral background of a white cube, it offers the idiosyncrasies and imperfections that make a space worth engaging. Explaining further, Nonas describes himself as “fascinated by architecture but also upset by it”—fascinated by its power to shape space and thereby establish place, a fundamental concern of his own work, but upset by its frequent failure to make the most of this capacity.

Given that he belongs to the generation that spanned both Minimalism and post-Minimalism, Nonas might have been expected to take matters into his own hands, confronting architecture on its own terms with building-scale works or physical interventions into exhibition venues, as did so many of his peers. But before he was an artist, Nonas was an anthropologist, and his years of fieldwork taught him that architecture is not the only means of shaping space. During time spent in Mexico observing the Papago people, he realized that tribe members saw the desert—to him a vast, undifferentiated field—as a richly and precisely variegated environment, almost like a series of familiar rooms. Though there were no physical structures literally subdividing the landscape, the Papago derived their experience from their relationship to the objects, both natural and man-made, dotting the terrain. As Nonas turned to sculpture in the late 1960s, this provided a pragmatic lesson about the ability of material things to affect spatial experience.

Unsurprisingly, then, his exhibition at James Fuentes was defined by the careful placement of objects. Eighteen modestly sized sculptures, simple assemblages of sawn lengths of steel bar or roughly split chunks of wood, most less than a foot or two across, were arranged throughout the gallery, either resting on the floor or sparsely spaced along the walls, aligned at roughly eye level. The peculiar thing about this arrangement was that it made it impossible to look at only one work at a time, enforcing a kind of simultaneous awareness of the entire gallery space as various objects flitted across the viewer’s peripheral vision. The placement was the result of a painstaking installation process, which Nonas prepared for by drawing (in CAD software) a plan of the space in which he located not only the works but sight lines between them. Thus, the very qualities of the room that made it “uneasy and unsteady” became primary sources of activation. The gallery’s single, awkwardly off-center column engaged in parallactic play with any number of the wall pieces, while the room’s L-shaped floor plan, which might have created a pocket of dead space, was transformed into an intriguing mystery, as carefully placed floor pieces peeked out from around the corner.

But it is Nonas’s works themselves that ultimately sustain our attention. They may echo the form and matter (if not the scale) of Minimalism, but they have an inscrutable structural logic all their own. Nonas’s materials are not simply abutted, stacked, or propped: In an untitled steel floor piece from 1985, for example, two hefty blocks have been mitered into what is almost a right-angled joint, but the portion protruding from the floor leans, oddly, just past ninety degrees. In several untitled wall pieces from 2012, two or three wood slabs are pressed together vertically or horizontally, the chance curves and lumps that resulted from being split along their natural grain nested with surprising precision, even elegance. In its efforts to shape space, Minimalism often borrowed not only the scale of architecture but its structural language—it was a tectonic simplicity that enabled its famous shift in emphasis from compositional relationships within the work of art itself to the interaction between viewer and artwork in real space. But Nonas suggests alternative possibilities for interventions in space that need not be so direct or literal—means of fashioning experience not so much on architecture’s terms.

Julian Rose