New York

Henry Flynt, Esthetics of Eerieness (selected) (detail), 1992, twelve ink-jet prints on painted MDF, each 14 1/2 × 28".

Henry Flynt, Esthetics of Eerieness (selected) (detail), 1992, twelve ink-jet prints on painted MDF, each 14 1/2 × 28".

Henry Flynt

Audio Visual Arts (AVA)

Henry Flynt, Esthetics of Eerieness (selected) (detail), 1992, twelve ink-jet prints on painted MDF, each 14 1/2 × 28".

The philosopher, artist, musician, and one-time hard leftist Henry Flynt has engaged questions of bourgeois culture, formalism, and modernist aesthetics since at least 1961, when he coined the term “Concept Art” (not to be confused with Conceptual art) in a text published in the George Maciunas–designed An Anthology (1963). He is still hard at work undermining the ideology of dominant cultural forms today—long after abandoning his rigorously anti-art stance and confrontational protest tactics. Liz Kotz named him, in the pages of this magazine, the most elusive avant-gardist, and he is perhaps best known for his influential collaborations with various prominent figures, from Maciunas to La Monte Young, Jack Smith, and Walter De Maria. That Flynt has resisted the patriarch’s mantle within any movement—a particularity that also points to his uncompromising intellect—has certainly had implications for his art-historical absorption. Although he resumed making object-based artworks in the mid-1980s, until earlier this autumn, Flynt had not had a solo exhibition in New York since 1993. The truly unromantic consequence risked by those who adhere to such committed critique (via utopian refusal), then, is obscurity.

After rare retrospective exhibitions staged in Europe in 2013, Flynt returned to New York with a show at the East Village gallery Audio Visual Arts, a circumstance resulting from his ties to the avant-garde music scene. The artist presented an excerpt from the work Esthetics of Eeriness, 1992, which consists of MDF plaques, each printed with an ambiguous phrase. Flynt hallucinated the bulk of these nonnarrative statements, or “visual apparitions,” while in a drowsy state some time around 1987. He later whittled the collection down to sixty-eight concise, surrealistic slogans that date the completed version to 1992. (The plaques themselves were fabricated in 2014.) The dozen panels on view here were mounted at eye level along the storefront gallery’s consecutive walls and displayed as a rotating set of nine, providing an intimate if incomplete view of the piece that also shifted slowly over time.

Flynt’s weird eeriness has a folk vernacular quality—his nonsensical constructions either collapse into the mundane or slowly resonate through gaps of logic (THE BODIES OF EVERYDAY LIFE.; CLOCKING AT THE PLACE OF SURPRISE.), all the while maintaining a kind of unsettling humor that occasionally verges on the abject (THE FEWER TEENAGERS IN YOUR BASEMENT THE BETTER.; RAPE A STEAK.; A WHOLE GRANDMOTHER IN THE HALL . . . SUICIDE). The effect of these texts on the viewer is at once deeply personal and metaphysical (A FULLY OPEN MIND COULD SHATTER THE SKULL IN BOTH DIRECTIONS), unburdened by heavy hermeneutics or affect. Conceived in the bleary grayness of semiconsciousness, these fragments and full sentences do not pretend to Joseph Kosuth’s authority, Jenny Holzer’s public affirmations, or Ed Ruscha’s cheeky cliché. In keeping with his appreciation for the “low” yet complex musical genres of free jazz, hillbilly music, and Delta blues, Flynt’s (nonpictorial) visual art often arises from general principles that can be observed without resorting to specialist formulas or interpretive regimes that reinforce art’s tightly guarded elitism. His words unsettle via an unhurried, economical invocation of otherworldliness that unfolds in what he calls “derailed headspace”—an experiential trip available to any viewer willing to indulge.

The last-minute addition of Hanger, 2014, to the AVA show—an anamorphic work consisting of three black stripes painted along intersecting planes of a ceiling corner—provided the sole manifestation of Concept Art. Seen from the proper angle, this piece invites one to plunge into the illusoriness of what Flynt takes to be the Necker cube’s “logically impossible space,” an effect no less transcendent than that of any James Turrell. With material simplicity, and artistic crankiness, Flynt introduces broad philosophical concepts into the unremarkable symbols of everyday communication and thought. In a technological era that valorizes calculated strategy and algorithmic efficiency, his eeriest postulate might be a world in which individuals simply think their way, irrationally and ecstatically, out of cool cynicism.

Kari Rittenbach