New York

View of “Robert Mallary,” 2019. Foreground: title unknown, 1962. Background from left: title unknown, 1962; Descent, 1955.

View of “Robert Mallary,” 2019. Foreground: title unknown, 1962. Background from left: title unknown, 1962; Descent, 1955.

Robert Mallary

Renown arrived swiftly to Robert Mallary, then bolted. The Museum of Modern Art in New York featured him in 1961’s “The Art of Assemblage,” then went on to show his junk works in two more group exhibitions that decade. In 1962, the New York World’s Fair commissioned The Cliffhangers, 1963–64, one of his breakthrough tuxedo sculptures: doomy, vaudevillian tableaux featuring suits gleaned from trash heaps, then infused with toxic polyester resin and, before stiffening, torqued into precariously baroque sideshows. Yet by the late ’60s he had pivoted—in part due to the resin’s deleterious health effects—to cybernetic art, a field he advanced as a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, until 1996, when he retired, just a year before his death. While prescient and intriguing procedurally, his computer-generated pieces have none of the political gravity of his earlier output, and his aesthetic swerve drove him off the map. “The Human Condition (Works from 1936–1965),” a concise ensemble of drawings, paintings, prints, assemblages, and sculptures at Mitchell Algus Gallery—a champion of the unremembered—was an uncommon survey of the artist and his beguiling attempts to make a virtue of anxiety.

Born in Ohio in 1917, Mallary displayed a precocious curiosity toward art, especially in regard to the Mexican muralists. In his early twenties, he traveled to Mexico City and visited its famous printmaking collective, Taller de Gráfica Popular, eventually spending World War II propagandizing alongside José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, two of the group’s “big three,” which also included Diego Rivera. (Mallary would absorb his passion for new media from Siqueiros.) In the Mitchell Algus show, anti-fascist ink drawings and prints from this period, mostly of bloated or emaciated military grotesques, introduced the repulsive, repulsed humanism that scaffolds most of Mallary’s art—a sensibility that became more urgent and less moralizing in three dimensions, where existential dread could be transposed into assemblages cobbled from castoff rags, metal, and cardboard.

By the time he moved from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to New York in 1959, Mallary was a fledgling neo-Dadaist who embraced plastic and abandoned explicit figuration. Even so, everything in “The Human Condition” felt alive—if that’s the right word—to the frenzied vulnerability of the body: from Earth Fire, 1954, a gory relief, to a pair of untitled tuxedo sculptures, dated 1962, that seemed to reimagine Franz Kline’s jerked brushstrokes as ruined human silhouettes. In one, a pants leg jutted upward in a developpé, the worn material sheathed over a sharp metal frame. (The balletic pose was echoed in an adjacent abstraction from 1955, done in acrylic car paint.) For the other tux work, the show’s centerpiece, the artist laid the garments over an amorphous iron armature, distorting them into a charred-looking carcass, which was made even more unsettling by the appearance of a lone button. Nearby hung another brittle relic of the Atomic Age: the sparely evocative Leander, 1961, a fetal wad of tattered black fabric whose Ovidian title—in myth, the priestess Hero jumps from a tower after her lover Leander drowns while swimming to her—may allude to Mallary’s method of submerging his formal wear in vats of poisonous resin.

Mallary, like the Renaissance masters whose lush renderings of drapery tapped into a kind of spiritual drama, used textiles to simultaneously conceal and reveal—or, in his case, to fashion—haunted extensions of an absent body. The mushroom cloud was his greatest muse. “I would like to develop an iconography of absurdity and anxiety just as, in earlier times, there was an iconography of Christian belief,” he wrote of his tuxedo sculptures. He developed this iconography in league with contemporaries such as Lee Bontecou and Peter Grippe, borrowing from Pop and Minimalism to forge a starker vocabulary for the terrors of the twentieth century. Mallary weighed the uncertainty of tomorrow as fervidly as he did the implications of the past. His fears—tyranny, nuclear holocaust—still smolder. Given the sculptor’s present obscurity, it is tempting to also see his acrid metaphors for global chaos as analogies for the threadbare promises of artmaking itself—the perishability of an imagination’s afterlife. Yet Mallary and his work will always belong to the future, whether it decides to include him or not.