View of “Ugo Rondinone,” 2015.

View of “Ugo Rondinone,” 2015.

Ugo Rondinone

Galerie Eva Presenhuber

View of “Ugo Rondinone,” 2015.

When Ugo Rondinone reluctantly gave his first public lecture in New York at the New School in 2013, it consisted of an extraordinarily literal walk-through of a retrospective exhibition that had been held at the Aargauer Kunsthaus in Switzerland three years before: “I pass the ten bistro tables of the cafeteria and go to the ticket counter that is on the far left of the lobby. To the right of the ticket counter is the entrance to the first of seven rooms of the ground floor. . . . The first room has three sculptures. A tree, an oversize lightbulb, and a low relief of my right hand. In the middle of the room stands a white olive tree.” And so on. Rondinone meticulously listed every single work, the series it was part of, its name, and the materials from which it was made. This is the language of a catalogue raisonné, the degree zero of art history.

The cumulative effect of this painfully precise enumeration was monumentally boring, but in an interesting way. It demonstrated Rondinone’s fundamental mistrust of language as a tool for interpretation. As he said to Jarrett Earnest in the Brooklyn Rail the same year, “Language is tricky. We explain concepts with other concepts. It’s a losing game.” If we were to follow Rondinone’s directive, the description of his latest show in Zurich would run like this: “From June 13 to July 24, Ugo Rondinone presented eight paintings of brick walls in the Galerie Eva Presenhuber in Zurich. The walls were orange, yellow, black, purple, white, green, pink, and blue. They were coated in oil paint on burlap. Each one was named after a specific date, written as one word, for instance zweiundzwanzigsterjunizweitausendundvierzehn (twentysecondofjunetwothousandandfourteen), 2015. The paintings were erected across the gallery space on wooden supports. A visitor walking along the path defined by the walls saw, at various turns, six sculptures of opaque windows. In the final room was a large door of crude timber, painted dark gray: lax low lullaby, 2010. The door was bolted by a crossbar and had barred windows. On reaching the door, the visitor was obliged to turn back. Viewed from behind, the paintings revealed their wooden supports and brown burlap canvas, relieved by small embroidered drawings of clowns. As visitors left the gallery, the last work they would have seen was Big Mind Sky, 2007, a bronze, six-inch-high, keyhole-shaped lock hanging on a white wall. Within the keyhole-shaped lock was another keyhole.”

According to Rondinone’s rules of engagement, talking more means seeing less. This fits the blank, even resistant nature of his work, redolent as it is with well-orchestrated ambiguity. The brightly colored bricks are painted larger than life—like a stage set seen too close for an illusion of realism to take effect. They’re primitive, even though nothing is more modern than a freestanding feature wall. The paintings hung heavily on their supports, their fibers saturated with oil paint. The room smelled of jute and linseed oil. The windows were opaque, the door conspicuously bolted. The door, which recalled equally a castle gate and those of a freight elevator, was shut with a large crossbar and had iron bars on its windows. But were we standing inside or outside the door? That Rondinone’s work is difficult to read is the result of the artist’s attempt to make it embody ambiguity.

About art, one must sometimes speak prosaically. But about life, you can risk poetry. On October 21, Rondinone’s “I ♥ John Giorno” opened at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. The exhibition is a retrospective dedicated to Rondinone’s longtime partner, the man Andy Warhol filmed sleeping in 1963.

Adam Jasper