at Klein Art Works

It was the design for the new Museum of Contemporary Art that drew me to the Charles Arnoldi show at Klein Art Works. At the unveiling of the plans for the MCA’s new Bauhaus/machine-age building last month, German architect Josef Paul Kleihues sidestepped several questions on the appearance of the facade. It would be made of cast aluminum, he said, the first such use of the metal in the world. What does cast aluminum look like on a building? he was asked. Kleihues could not say. Was it shiny, smooth? He would know only after foundry experiments were made.

For several days I thought of little but how this building might look. It could have a jewellike quality, reflecting and diffusing the hues of its lakefront site, or it could look like the world’s largest toaster oven. I struggled to suspend any nightmare visions. Modern art, I told myself, is as much about process and materials as it is about image, so a contemporary museum whose appearance depends on a rather uncertain process might be appropriate. Then again, the MCA’s site is the only open corridor of land between the lake and Michigan Avenue. It might not be wise to leave it to someone’s unformed ideas about materials.

The Arnoldi show could not have come at a better time. Arnoldi began working in 1967, the same year the MCA opened, and in many respects the artist and the museum have traveled parallel courses in the art world. And in a coincidence that seems ordained by some muse of contemporary art, the two roads now appear to be intersecting. Arnoldi’s latest series includes large, flat works of cast aluminum.

Since the mid-70s Arnoldi, who just turned 46, has been one of the top figures in American art. When critics speak of the art of the 1980s in particular, Arnoldi is certain to be on the short list. His most famous “paintings”–really wall-mounted constructions–replace painted lines with sticks and branches or with gouges Arnoldi has carved into plywood panels with a chain saw. Arnoldi experiments restlessly with materials, and his work combines both a formal sense of composition and an unbridled celebration of his media. The show at Klein brings together Arnoldi’s work from the last two years, much of it large-scale cast-aluminum wall panels.

Fallen Statue (1991), an eight-by-four-foot panel at the exhibit’s entrance, does not look like aluminum at all. Arnoldi has painted the piece in oils, in colors he calls “god-awful red and yellow.” This is the only piece in the show that’s even vaguely figurative. The central shape, a long indentation painted the color of hot red lipstick, appears to be in the form of a standing woman. Arnoldi said that during his visit to Chicago for the show’s opening, he marveled at Matisse’s Bathers by a River (1916) at the Art Institute. Fallen Statue shows why he might find in Matisse a kindred spirit. Arnoldi carved out the womanlike shape with a chain saw from the piece’s precast foam model–and it looks like the negative cast for a life-size fauvist mannequin. Like Arnoldi in his “paintings,” Matisse did not choose to employ his extremely capable and precise draftsmanship; he simplified the figures in his paintings, using them as a means to study line and color. Color and line concern Arnoldi, too; but unlike Matisse he works in three dimensions. In Fallen Statue the carved shapes are soaked in color; lines, reminiscent of Arnoldi’s sticks in other works, are dug straight through the aluminum. In a century that meditates over artists’ marks and gestures, Arnoldi cuts through his medium like a Benihana chef. Yet for all its force the piece remains delicate, the qualities of line still evident. Matisse would have been impressed.

Fallen Statue may resemble a traditional painting too much to inform one about cast-aluminum surfaces, however. For that, a look at Arnoldi’s unpainted panel, First Impressions (1990), is more instructive. Its surface resembles lead more than it does the aluminum of foil or kitchenware. Even in Klein’s well-lit gallery it offers little shine. The piece has a futuristic, post-nuclear-holocaust mien, as if a high-energy blast had made the metal molten. Here too are the carved stick forms, but they’re cut so deep and look so dark they’re like charred remains, their linearity also a remnant of destruction.

To create this and the other aluminum pieces, Arnoldi has modified the ancient and decidedly low-tech art of sand casting. He fabricated a foam form, which he then carved and painted with melted wax. The drips and flows in the final piece are in fact not “molten metal” but images of the wax–an effect he worked to achieve. The model is placed in a sand mold, which takes the piece’s form. Aluminum ingots are melted in the foundry and poured into the mold, where the molten metal liquefies the foam-and- wax form and replaces it. The metal rests in a stable state, no longer manipulable, until it cools. The sand in the mold dulls the shine of the metal but preserves every mark on the foam.

This bare aluminum panel captures the dark side of Arnoldi’s vision, a side that’s absent in his more famous multicolored work–though his pieces have always balanced creation with destruction. The most reproduced of Arnoldi’s stick paintings, a 1981 untitled combination of paint and sticks from what Arnoldi called the “Volcano-Logjam” series, was made after the artist witnessed the Mount Saint Helens eruption. Arnoldi placed an exuberantly painted panel of boldly colored marks exploding upward next to a construction of painted sticks jammed into a downward flow. The work is a pure celebration of natural forces, energy, and gravity. Glancing from one side of the panel to the other is like watching a Roman candle flare upward, explode, then drift down.

Arnoldi’s stick paintings originated from his observation of a lesser destruction. In the early 1970s, Arnoldi thought that he might be able to scrounge some fruit from a Malibu orchard that had been struck by fire. What he took away instead was a collection of scorched branches, which he pulled off the trees. “The fire had stripped them of their leaves and turned them into charcoal lines,” he said recently. “They looked like hand-drawn gestures–just like a great-looking hand-drawn line, but they were there in three-dimensional form.”

The stick forms in the molten- looking unpainted aluminum of First Impressions recall their somber fiery origins. The title suggests a sober pun–not only the impression the scorched branches made on the artist in the orchard but the sticks’ impression in the foundry. Arnoldi is completing the circle: from the first moment of creation to the final one.

Arnoldi’s impulse in creating the aluminum casts is like the MCA’s in building its new museum. Like the MCA, the artist developed his aesthetic in the late 1960s, when forward-thinking creators and collectors regarded painting as dead. At the Chouinard Art Institute (later Cal Arts), where Arnoldi studied, students were encouraged to perform, to build, to film, to do anything but put brush to canvas. At its outset the MCA was also committed to breaking with old forms. Its vibrancy would come from its temporary exhibits, not from a permanent collection. Nonpainters figured strongly in the museum’s early exhibition schedule.

But for all the stress on gestural activity and the hailing of the creative process, eventually creation begs for permanence. Speaking about the present show, Arnoldi said that his “art is not the production of work but the lifelong quest to invent and define oneself.” That is as strong a manifesto for process as one could produce. It’s also a delusion, as Arnoldi may partly realize. Recent events in Arnoldi’s life –the deaths of his brother, from AIDS, and his mother and what Arnoldi calls a mid-life crisis at turning 46–have caused him to reorder his work toward more durable materials, such as aluminum. Yet in describing the foundry work for the aluminum casts, Arnoldi recalled wistfully the foam models that were burnt. The sheets of foam came in a pale blue, which when painted with brown wax and a yellow adhesive struck Arnoldi as exciting works on their own. He rejected preserving the wax forms, he says, because they wouldn’t last. Instead, he replicated one in First Light (1992), an aluminum panel washed in light blue and mustard-colored oil paint. Backtracking to re-create in permanent form an earlier stage of the work defies the notion that only the creative process, not the product, can be deemed art.

The cast pieces are built to withstand time, and by referring to past greats, Arnoldi also sets his own future course. Not only does he draw heavily on Matisse, but also, in the show’s other works, on Guston, Miro, and a seminal Spanish sculptor, Julio Gonzalez, all giants of modernism. Arnoldi has inserted himself into the modernist continuum by adapting others’ idioms to his own exuberant way of sculpting shape and line.

One lasting home for the artist’s work will probably be the new MCA. Like Arnoldi, it has opted to preserve its own traditions in a conspicuously permanent form: a metal-clad citadel that conserves the aesthetic of the late 20th century in a design inspired in part by the architectural style of 1920s and ’30s early modernism.

Arnoldi reports that his most recent works, as yet unshown, are all oil paintings on canvas. Painting still holds powerful sway over the imagination of the art world, and Arnoldi–who before this year would not have touched traditional painting–has never wandered far from the aesthetic of the modern painters who preceded him. Too bad he’s left the aluminum-casting business, though. He would have made a great subcontractor.