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Martin Creed, Work No. 1674, Anouchka, 2013, pencil and watercolor on paper, 11 1/8 x 8 1/8".

Martin Creed, Work No. 1674, Anouchka, 2013, pencil and watercolor on paper, 11 1/8 x 8 1/8".

Martin Creed

Gavin Brown's enterprise | 620 Greenwich Street

Martin Creed, Work No. 1674, Anouchka, 2013, pencil and watercolor on paper, 11 1/8 x 8 1/8".

What becomes of a Conceptual artist when he runs out of ideas? He becomes, with luck, an artist—without adjectives. Martin Creed has had some pretty great ideas in his day, enough to show that he knows implicitly what some artists never quite get around to learning: that a great art idea is one whose execution makes possible something that you’d never have imagined from its formulation. Case in point: his Work No. 202: Half the air in a given space, 1998, whose Robert Barry–esque ineffability (compare that artist’s designation as works, in 1969, of quantities of inert gases released into the atmosphere) is belied by the infantine delight of seeing it embodied by thousands of party balloons. Or else his Work No. 850, 2008, for which runners sprinted through the Duveen Galleries of the Tate Britain, in a kind of uncanny encapsulation of the stately “march of time” that museums traditionally articulate.

But ideas that good in that sense do not always come in quantity, and besides, as an artist grows older, he tends to want to find rich ideas that he can keep working with over the long run rather than clever ones that dazzle without demanding further development. It takes determination, and some luck, to get these. This show—spanning Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and Hauser & Wirth’s uptown space and comprising both new and older work—suggested not only that Creed is putting out feelers in all directions but also that he hasn’t quite found the right way to proceed. One of the things he seemed to be trying to do is preserve his old Minimal-Conceptual aesthetic while eliminating the possibility that the works’ actual embodiment will generate any significant surprise—tightening the screws of tautology, as it were. See, for example, his Work No. 1696, 2013, a ziggurat of rolls of toilet paper “erected . . . according to a pre-determined system,” we are assured. Well, it’s certainly not the kind of thing you’d want to leave to chance. The result is merely an academic rehash of a typical form of late-1960s sculpture (Robert Smithson’s 1966 “Alogons” or his Ziggurat Mirror of the same year, which is also when Sol LeWitt published his essay “Ziggurats” in Arts Magazine), and the archetypal structure is not particularly enlivened by the change of material.

More surprising, perhaps, is Creed’s turn toward figurative painting—more specifically, portraiture. These works are part of two series, and unlike his earlier abstract paintings, they have not been executed by assistants. Creed’s “Jumping Portraits,” 2013, are not like the famous celebrity photos by Philippe Halsman, who found that “[w]hen you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears.” Halsman wanted to distract his subjects; Creed seems to want to free up his art by distracting himself, so he’s the jumper. The idea appears to be to force a shift of attention within the artist rather than within the subject. The “Blind Portraits,” 2012–13, do something similar by requiring the artist to look not at his canvas but only at his subject. This is a familiar art-school drill—Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment is even the title of a book of such exercises published in 2012 by the journal Paper Monument. In works like these, Creed would seem to be doing something rather courageous—namely, sending himself back to art school, shaking up his habitual ways of doing things by taking on the role of student again rather than being the boring professor inculcating the same old lessons his teachers taught him, which is what I feel is happening in pieces like Work No. 1696. Precisely because the portraits are not that good, they feel like they have a future.

Barry Schwabsky