New York

Alex Hay, Cash Register Slip, 1966, spray lacquer and stencil on linen, 80 5⁄8 × 37 7⁄8".

Alex Hay, Cash Register Slip, 1966, spray lacquer and stencil on linen, 80 5⁄8 × 37 7⁄8".

Alex Hay

In 1959, Alex Hay came to New York. He hung out at Max’s Kansas City, sipped whiskey at Robert Rauschenberg’s dining table, married dancer Deborah Hay (née Goldensohn), and appeared in “9 Evenings,” 1966. Then, roughly a decade later, he left and has remained largely absent from received accounts of New York’s storied 1960s art world. (He barely comes up in this magazine’s archives.) Since 2002, Peter Freeman, Inc. has been on a mission to correct that oversight, and this past spring the gallery put up its fifth exhibition of the ninety-one-year-old artist’s work: a retrospective of more than forty sculptures, paintings, drawings (many of them studies), and furniture pieces spanning his production from 1963 through 2020. Immaculately installed, the show featured several of Hay’s large-scale, exquisitely crafted replicas of everyday objects, including a nearly eight-foot-tall lined sheet from a yellow legal pad, a seven-foot-tall restaurant guest check, an oversize adhesive label, a huge cargo tag, and a trio of giant brown paper bags made from fiberglass and epoxy.

As Hay has explained, his enlarging of objects originated in a desire to approximate the perceptual experience of close proximity, of, say, picking up the check at the end of the meal and peering at it before paying the bill. But if Hay intended to evoke feelings of physical intimacy, of the close and the familiar, he was doing so in a peculiar way—via an emphatic act of defamiliarization. The Brobdingnagian scale alienates, but it also may speak, in turn, to a uniquely postwar American context—a situation in which new information technologies, mass media, and consumer culture were unsettling the intimate and the known, warping perception, bringing the faraway up close, and rendering that which was familiar more distant and strange.

Among the many riches in this extraordinary show—which included loans from several private and public collections—was Untitled, 1965/2014, a gray monochrome. To create this piece, Hay photographed a one-inch-square piece of bare unprimed canvas and then, using a projector, enlarged the image to create a painting more than six feet square, such that the ground’s warp and weft became a dappled allover patterning (“process-based abstraction” avant la lettre.) Nearby, visitors found a group of monochrome “drawings,” including Sun Print, 1968, which Hay made by covering a sheet with silk-screen ink and then setting it outside until the sun bleached the pigment (a precursor to the likes of Liz Deschenes). The painting Cash Register Slip, 1966, is an enlarged paper receipt from H. Behlen & Bro. Inc., a Greenwich Village paint store. Enumerating four unnamed purchases totaling $5.05, the artwork raises an intriguing possibility: that it records the buying of the very paint and brush Hay used to create it (a painting of the receipt of its own making). “Process art” here expands to encompass even the profane act of financial transaction: cold hard cash changing hands in a downtown storefront.

Hay is sometimes associated with Pop, and his Toaster, 1963/2018—a trompe l’oeil relief of the kitchen appliance, complete with a wire and a wall socket—appeared in the epochal 1969 “Pop Art” exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery. But as Hay’s art and this show make abundantly clear, our categories of Conceptualism, Minimalism, and Pop are as porous as they are inadequate. In 1966, Hay made a group of trompe l’oeil cast-resin replicas of floorboards from his Howard Street studio, painting them colors such as green, silver, yellow, and red, and placing them on the ground à la Carl Andre. Resting on the scuffed ex-industrial floors of Peter Freeman, just a block away from where they were originally fabricated, these objects appeared as if in situ—like copies reunited with their lost originals. In these works and others, Hay’s subject is a sense of place.