Daniel Turner, (Holdenweid) Burnish 2, 2022,  gesso, canvas, steel burnish, 9 × 12'.

Daniel Turner, (Holdenweid) Burnish 2, 2022, gesso, canvas, steel burnish, 9 × 12'.

Daniel Turner

Daniel Turner’s work is animated by the faith that materials are meaningful—and that they carry provenance down to their atoms. Every immortal, indestructible, indivisible atom in Turner’s cosmology carries its whole history and contains its own psyche, and he calls upon these atoms to bear witness. In 2016, for instance, the New York–based artist took all of a cafeteria’s furniture, including steel folding chairs and collapsible tables, and ground them down to powder. He then dissolved them into an emulsion to be sprayed onto a gallery floor, reducing the institution to its material essence.

Three nearly indistinguishable metal bars lie in the first room of the Kunsthalle Basel in his show “Three Sites.” One is named after Basel’s BASF chemical concern, the second for the Novartis headquarters across the Rhine River, and the third for a psychiatric hospital in Holdenweid, Switzerland. The bars, each about three yards in length and more than half a ton in weight, are presented with a degree of blankness that suggest they might be self-evident or, given a sensitive enough viewer, even self-explanatory. For those who need more help, the checklist says they are made from the melted-down radiators from condemned buildings at the three institutions for which they are named. You don’t have to go far in the city of Basel to find traces of the pharmaceutical industry, as Novartis and Roche compete for the status of the city’s chief industrial motor. This is also the city where Dr. Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD, took his famous bicycle ride. These buildings saw the invention of both the tools for the paranoid-critical investigations of the postwar era and the psychopharmaceuticals designed to shackle and regulate mental health. Radiators don’t do science, but they do keep buildings alive, and in this case they probably all shared a common heat source, as Basel makes extensive use of Fernwärme, or district heating, although the literal translation is “distant warmth.”

The appearance of Turner’s artworks sometimes recalls Minimalism, and he often arranges found material in the manner of Arte Povera; he treats historical movements as stores of visual forms to be drawn upon. Other rooms contain artifacts scavenged from the three buildings, displayed in vitrines or stacked on the floor, as well as photographic documentation strung together in a film. Stylistic markers of contemporary art supply the final form, which is secondary to the stuff itself. The act of moving radiators around the gallery also has a history, but Turner is not performing institutional critique in the manner of Michael Asher, or even of his contemporary Sam Lewitt, although he clearly references their work. And we see another historical link: All three artists have had major Conceptual shows in Swiss kunsthallen: Asher in Bern in 1992, Sam Lewitt in Basel in 2016, and now Turner. But Turner is not a Conceptualist—he’s a magician. This is revealed by the four large-format abstract paintings (Holdenweid) Burnish 1–4, 2022, in the final room. These offer pleasures as deep as anything to be found in contemporary painting. The “pigment,” if you can call it that, was made from the steel oil tank in the basement of the Holdenweid psychiatric hospital; Turner ground the object into fine steel wool. He then rubbed the metal fibers into the enormous canvases over the course of seven months. The result resembles dark mirrors that transform in volume and tone as one walks around them. Figures seem to emerge, or to be caught within them, like people disappearing into pouring rain, or rain clouds suddenly becoming as substantial as people. At the opening, loud as usual, this room was silent, as if among these paintings even the most voluble suddenly lost the desire to talk.

Turner’s theory of material is a strange one, as strange as Leibniz’s monadology, to which it bears a resemblance. But it is, come to think of it, no stranger than the opposite, conventional belief that materials are in a basic way completely meaningless, contingent, and interchangeable. In the end, where should we go looking for the psyche, if not in the material of the world?