Sarah McKenzie, Sentinel (Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum), 2021, oil and acrylic on canvas, 54 × 72".

Sarah McKenzie, Sentinel (Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum), 2021, oil and acrylic on canvas, 54 × 72".

Sarah McKenzie

The entrance to the project room at David B. Smith Gallery framed Sarah McKenzie’s Sentinel (Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum), 2021, a large canvas that, as its title implies, acted as a kind of watchman for this intimate space. The work depicts a museum guard’s empty stool standing next to a scrim-covered window, its louvred blinds casting their shadow ladder behind. On a perpendicular wall is an austere white painting—by Agnes Martin? Kazimir Malevich?—that hangs near a passageway, inviting a step that cannot be taken. McKenzie’s oblique portrayal of this famous Madrid institution at first glance seems bluntly Photorealistic. Yet something wonderfully different unfolds when the viewer’s gaze relaxes and attention becomes not a guarded exertion to meaningfully see, but a passive diligence that trusts the eye’s curious wandering, gently pressing the mind to follow.

McKenzie gives us the museum in its candid moments, the transience between open hours and installations, empty of others and, perhaps most poignantly, of ourselves. Here is a paradox that nears impossibility, the very germ of the artist’s vision: What is this space minus us, when it’s allowed to be nothing more than its own vitality? Such a notion could be arid, but it’s not. The hyperrealist facture of McKenzie’s image subsides into subtle moments of pure abstraction: The polished floors reflect and elongate the patterns of windows, doorways, paintings; the nonobjective is at play in the off-hours of public architecture. Even the air itself becomes a presence.

The other two paintings that comprised “Interim,” the artist’s show here, maintained a similar position—the museum devoid of human presence, given back to itself. The exhibition’s namesake, Interim (Museum of Contemporary Art Denver), 2021, offers a glimpse inside the titular space. We see barren burnt-orange partitions and some track lighting. On a nearby wall, two yolky-yellow spotlights paint a Rothko where no Rothko exists. This isn’t, I don’t think, art-smart allusion. It’s simply a capacious noticing of hidden intimate forms of entanglement between art and the strange humility of the spaces that hold it. It’s a way of seeing that removes us from ourselves: a quiet difficult thing, as philosophic in nature as it is aesthetic in effect.

This gift was perhaps nowhere better experienced than in Cage (Whitney Museum with Brendan Fernandes), 2020, a sixty-by-sixty-inch square of interpenetrating geometries. The Fernandes sculpture depicted by McKenzie in this work, The Master and Form, 2019, is a Minimalist set of bars and ropes for ballet dancers to test their strength and endurance. It suggests issues of discipline, submission, mastery, and surrender—notions that undergird the painter’s concerns. But Fernandes’s interests around the body are transformed by McKenzie into a bodiless question—one of idea and ideal, vision and sight, thought and thoughtlessness. The foreground grid of the Fernandes structure frames, predicts, and echoes the rigid forms of the background cityscape, which is visible through a set of large windows. The trees on the Manhattan High Line flatten into Abstract Expressionist shapes—again, this isn’t allusion; it’s something better. That something is the question—revealed yet again in the slanting iron fire escapes we see behind The Master and Form, which parallel the sculpture’s diagonal lines. We are witness to some strange and intimate dance between world and work, artifice and art, that graces our vision should we wish to glimpse it—though it doesn’t need our recognition to exist.

Maybe revealed is too strong a word, as that something is akin to a rumor, a whispering you can choose to either hear or ignore. The movements that mark art history are abundantly available not only on the walls of museums, but more deeply in how such spaces teach us to see. We should enter their hallowed halls as something other than ourselves: We can become a thinking wall, for instance, or a sentient window—a part of the architecture. It is as if the Platonic ideal of form, of eidos, has, before our eyes, drifted into another philosophy. Spinoza’s perhaps, where attention is paid not to the art or institution per se, but to the intermingling configurations that affirm some larger mode of thought, perception, care—an order that we can come near in no other way.