New York

Robert Bittenbender, Gethsemane, 2018, mixed media on canvas board, 30 × 32 1⁄2 × 3".

Robert Bittenbender, Gethsemane, 2018, mixed media on canvas board, 30 × 32 1⁄2 × 3".

Robert Bittenbender

Looking at Robert Bittenbender’s assemblages and works on paper, you’d almost think that there is still some kind of bohemia in New York, that somewhere out there a few artists are trying to live their lives in the interstices of the market economy, breathing life into its detritus, taking Apollinaire’s famous advice to “paint with whatever material

you please, with pipes, postage stamps, postcards or playing cards, candelabra, pieces of oil cloth, collars, painted paper, newspapers.” Bittenbender’s exhibition “Cosmo Freak” included six pieces, all dated 2018: two wall-hung, three-dimensional accumulations (Alphabet Soup and Cracked Actress); a pair of more planar, low-relief constructions incorporating painting and drawing but nevertheless a little too volumetric to be thought of as collages (Gethsemane and Electric Thirties); and a duo of paintings—one on paper (Saturina), the other on canvas (Broadway Flesh)—whose found framing alone seemed to embed them within an idea of assemblage.

In each of these works, whatever the artist has done to alter or manipulate his materials, everything—paint and pencil marks, too— forms an ensemble that could come apart to be dispersed again; the assembled elements seem not to be permanently affixed, but rather tied or meshed together. Compared to the assemblage art of the 1950s and early 1960s—works by the likes of Wallace Berman or Bruce Conner, for instance—any figurative or narrative tendencies are down-played. Thus the references embodied in Bittenbender’s titles float somewhat detached from the constructions themselves: Broadway Flesh refers to an early Dan Flavin sculpture dedicated to “a young English homosexual who loved New York City,” a work that Robert Smithson praised for its “brainwashed mood,” while Cracked Actress switches the gender of a David Bowie song title. The overload of information creates a visual and mental blur that the titles—additional layers in the assemblages rather than keys to their significance—merely inflect. It can be hard to make out just what many of the incorporated objects really are, so that the fact that the work has been pieced together, and how, takes precedence. Alphabet Soup might have seemed a partial exception, in that the different sizes and styles of plastic and metal letters that give the piece its name are so prominently featured. But scattered across the surface of the piece, they reveal no legible significance. It’s that indecipherability, rather than the letters’ recognizability, that rhymes with the glut of cheap, mostly non-descript, and often glittery material cinched into a sort of floating cloud with colored cords and zip ties, whose bristling ends give the piece a sort of exosphere.

Bittenbender’s uncanny ability to create a nimbus around his works’ porous volumes, or atop their surfaces, infuses them with magic. The altarpiece-like Gethsemane includes passages in which pins with heads of various colors and sizes create the illusion of a gauzy layer, wrapping the work in a dreamy aura. Reading a recent interview with the artist, I was struck by how unromantic and unnostalgic he seems toward his own scavenger stylings, noting that “a funky East Village garbage aesthetic that makes urban squalor seem tolerable” has proven instrumental to gentrification. Bittenbender’s suspicion of, or disillusionment with, his visual language undoubtedly contributes to his art’s emotional complexity, but it also amounts to a new fulfillment of poet Robert Duncan’s stipulation that a bohemian art “be posed with no guarantee. . . . Something that nobody values, and you couldn’t explain why you’re doing it.”

Barry Schwabsky