New York/Water Mill, NY

Alice Aycock, Project Entitled “The City of the Walls: A Narrow City, a Thin City . . .”, 1978, pencil on vellum, 42 x 72 1/2".

Alice Aycock, Project Entitled “The City of the Walls: A Narrow City, a Thin City . . .”, 1978, pencil on vellum, 42 x 72 1/2".

Alice Aycock

Grey Art Gallery/Parrish Art Museum

Alice Aycock, Project Entitled “The City of the Walls: A Narrow City, a Thin City . . .”, 1978, pencil on vellum, 42 x 72 1/2".

Alice Aycock’s eleven drawings for Project Entitled “The Beginnings of a Complex . . .” (For Documenta), 1977, marked a subtle yet profound shift in her art. A series of architectural plans for her contribution to that year’s Documenta 6, in Kassel, the drawings portray five plywood structures composed of rudimentary walls, enclosures, apertures, and ladders—a more or less straightforward scheme. Yet when it came to translating these renderings into real space, there were differences: Two structures were built as planned, two were reimagined, a fifth was not built at all, and the complex lacked the eleven underground connecting tunnels in the original design. Only one structure was built when the project was realized a second time later that year, for Artpark in Lewiston, New York, reinforcing the drawings’ status as not a definitive plan but a jumping-off point. The title’s emphasis on “beginning,” then, pointed to a new focus for Aycock. She had begun to move away from the exacting production of fixed quasi-architectural spaces that could be expressed as actual buildings and finished works—Maze-Aerial View, 1972, or Simple Network of Underground Wells and Tunnels, 1975, for example—and inaugurated a phase of speculative, open, and soon wildly impossible designs.

This generative transition marked “Alice Aycock Drawings: Some Stories Are Worth Repeating,” a two-venue show curated by Jonathan Fineberg that featured the artist’s work from 1971 to 1984 at the Grey Art Gallery and continued at the Parrish Art Museum with a showing of work from 1984 to the present. Both exhibitions rightly emphasized the centrality of drawing throughout Aycock’s practice, as an ideational engine that has driven her to move from plans and their concrete realizations to sheer fantasy to actual architectural commissions.

At the Grey Art Gallery, Beginnings of a Complex was followed by a series of drawings depicting towns and cities. These plans were supplemented by explanatory, if equivocal and, over time, increasingly narrative, texts. The titles became longer and denser. In Project Entitled “A Shanty Town Whose Lunatic Charms . . .” (Project Entitled “A Shanty Town Inhabited by Two Lunatics . . .), 1978, we do not see the lunatics who presumably inhabit the many structures Aycock has drawn, some of which feature oblique notes, e.g., THERE IS NO DOOR, THIS FENCE MUST BE CLIMBED. The equally meticulous Project Entitled “The City of the Walls: A Narrow City, a Thin City . . .”, 1978, comprises pencil renderings of a walled site. The accompanying text outlines a cast of “characters” and also notes that “the city has been generated by five people who loved one another.” Soon, Aycock began drawing and constructing machines of inexplicable or supernatural purpose, as in Hoodo (Laura) from the Series “How to Catch and Manufacture Ghosts”—Vertical & Horizontal Cross-Section of the Ether Wind, (1981), 1990/2012. Inspired by the machinery used in early electricity experiments as well as Marcel Duchamp’s apparatuses in his Notes for The Large Glass, 1969, she surrounded a colossal, functioning rotary-turbine ventilator with panes of glass and looping steel rods, presumably to harness the “ether wind,” which nineteenth-century scientists believed was the medium that conducted light. Aycock’s machines’ literal existence forces industrial-age innovation, Dada obscurantism, and outright mysticism into heady combinations.

In Water Mill, the presentation of Aycock’s more recent drawings and maquettes continued along this general trajectory, as her layering of citations and impossible spaces became ever more intricate and complex. The New China Drawing Part II: The World Above, the World Below, 1984, features hundreds of precisely drawn doors side by side. No longer representing axonometric space, the work is intended as a diagram for the imagination of a 103-year-old woman, who has assigned a memory to each door only to gradually forget them all. Below these images, Aycock has drawn a map of the world in bright blue and yellow crayon, almost expressionist in its visible hatching. In the 1980s and ’90s, the artist began using games and constellations to organize her deluges of characters, forms, and signs, as in The Celestial City Game, 1988, and the series “Starry Night,” 1993, although the pointed rules and logics governing these drawings remain abstruse. Given her oeuvre’s stunning complexity, the biggest surprise may be the outdoor commissions of recent years, such as The Uncertainty of Ground State Fluctuations, 2007, in Clayton, Missouri. Here Aycock’s panoply of references serve the ameliorative aims of public art.

Daniel Quiles