New York

Keith Sonnier, Ju-Ju, 1970, cheesecloth, black lights, glass, 7' 4“ × 12' 6” × 1' 4". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Keith Sonnier, Ju-Ju, 1970, cheesecloth, black lights, glass, 7' 4“ × 12' 6” × 1' 4". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Keith Sonnier

Castelli Gallery | Uptown

Keith Sonnier, Ju-Ju, 1970, cheesecloth, black lights, glass, 7' 4“ × 12' 6” × 1' 4". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

A bit of backstory is in order. Leo Castelli’s response to post-Minimalism (notably, to the work of Richard Serra) was to arrange for exhibitions of the new style in a former art shipper’s warehouse located in west Harlem. The raw, garage-like space of Hague Movers perfectly accommodated the vastly expanded scale and the light-infused and propulsively distributed forms of the new dispensation.

Robert Morris is particularly germane to the present exhibition of Keith Sonnier’s early work; Morris inaugurated the “alternative” Castelli Warehouse space in December 1968, as curator of the exhibition “9 at Leo Castelli,” a show that featured the work of Sonnier. This led to Sonnier’s first one-person exhibition, held in that same brutal space in 1970. As a theoretician of anti-form and one of Sonnier’s professorial mentors at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Morris certainly left an imprint on the work of his young graduate student from Louisiana, though influence is an often fraught concept; it is never clear in which direction inspiration moves, laterally or vertically.

All this distant experimentalism is elegantly revived in this presentation: The show includes two installations by Sonnier from 1970; a smallish latex and flocking piece hand-rolled, as it were, off the wall from 1967; and several period films and videos dating from 1969 to 1977. Sonnier’s conflations of blurred mutterings, simple subdivisions of field, facial close-ups, and scattered imagery shoplifted from the media generate, at times, fetching coincidences, such as when we catch glimpses of Jimmy Stewart and Rosalind Russell abutting the rectangles of these by now prehistoric-seeming videos.

Still, it is the two largish glass sheets and industrial elements of Sonnier’s Ju-Ju and Ba-O-Ba Fluorescent, both 1970, that carry the show. Both works comprise disparate elements that include cloak-like plastic-infused forms illuminated by ultraviolet neon. In Ju-Ju, for example, the “garments” include white-hooded, Casper-like pieces of cheesecloth suspended behind the glass to the left and two posed tuxedos to the right. Arguably, this two-part work references Sonnier’s flirtation with Haiti, spurred by a trip there. These oppositional attires, black and white (much modified in effect by black light), faintly invoke a narrative of ghostly souls given up by the weirdly illuminated tuxedos. Here, one can detect the lingering influence of Maya Deren, the avant-garde filmmaker of the 1940s. Deren’s ecstatic Haitian reportage also remains evident in the hectic aspect of Sonnier’s videos, work also cued, it could be argued, by the bayou clichés of swamp and moldering antebellum manse, a moonlit hanging-moss trope to which the artist could directly lay claim by virtue of Southern birth.

All this is thrilling—and not a little disconcerting. Why? Perhaps the answer lies in the very fact of the post-Minimalist dismantling of the throttlehold of unitary sculpture itself—think Cubism into Constructivism into Minimalism—that is, of all that was incontrovertibly, tangibly high modernist. But following their great achievements of the late 1960s, few post-Minimalists were able to put the Humpty Dumpty of sculpture back together again, and none were, in fact, under any obligation to do so. Still, what a delight to be challenged anew virtually a half century later by such evergreen impetuosity.

Robert Pincus-Witten