Skew: The Unruly Grid

at Gallery 400, through November 30

Robert Smithson/Tony Tasset: Site/Nonsite

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through December 3

The forms of geometrical abstraction, from Mondrian’s grids and Malevich’s polygons to Barnett Newman’s stripes and Ad Reinhardt’s black squares, were seen by their creators not as metaphors for the visible world but as ways of approaching the essence of the ordinary stuff of matter. These artists were evidencing an optimistic faith–if not in traditional religion, then in the possibility of reaching, through art, some higher form of awareness.

When minimalists brought back the grid in the 1960s their aspirations were less cosmic and their art more provisional: Sol LeWitt made drawings, temporary by their very nature, on gallery walls; Donald Judd’s sculptures often hinged on perceptual contradictions. But their works’ abstraction, and their striving for formal perfection, betrayed their roots in the neoplatonism of earlier art.

Today the grid is alive and well, but it no longer stands for hidden structures or inner truths. In “Skew: The Unruly Grid,” a fine survey at Gallery 400 of 20 recent works by 20 artists, it serves as a convenient form to present content, as the sign of an obsessive organizer, as a narrative device, as a way of critiquing the grand, perhaps presumptuous goals of earlier generations. The quest for great truths has been abandoned for a more modest kind of art making, in which works focus on moods, emotions, ways of seeing, forms of humor.

Robin Winters’s Red and Green Guys presents us with 60 “guys,” nearly dopey faces drawn with a few broad, graffitilike lines in gouache, each on a separate card. The six-by-ten grid arrangement directs attention to the rough variations in line that come from sketching noses or heads quickly, but none of these differences seem to convey any special meaning. Here the joke seems to be on the grid itself, an art-world icon of seriousness, which is used to underline differences that don’t mean much.

Claudia Matzko’s grid tells a story in an untitled piece subtitled “He loves me, he loves me not,” a use of the grid that’s consistent with feminist critiques of abstraction. Twenty-five dried roses are mounted on silk in five rows. Scanning the rows as if reading a text, we see that each successive flower has fewer petals, until the last is only a stem. Here the grid guides the eye through a progression that refers to time’s decay–the fewer the petals, the more desiccated the flower–and to an individual’s gradual realization that an affair “isn’t working out.”

Michael Banicki’s obsessive paintings of his “ratings” of everything from baseball players to lakes to wildflowers and weeds are oddly personal as well. Falling somewhere between a scientific diagram and the nutty alternative worlds of much outsider art, Wildflower/Weed Rating has the names of 116 plants printed on both horizontal and vertical axes; tiny colored boxes where row meets column tell us how much he likes each compared with the others. Few of us are likely to care that he prefers locoweed to yucca, but the work is interesting as part of an eccentric autobiography. He seems to take his ratings seriously, even as he acknowledges their absurdity as records of the arbitrariness of his compulsively linear approach to evaluating things. Here the grid as a path to truth becomes ridiculously limited.

It’s hard not to chuckle at Matthew McCaslin’s sculpture of an electrical network, Electric Weave, in which 16 outlet boxes are connected by heavy metal tubes in a four-by-four array. Many of the connecting tubes are twisted, and the whole grid looks as if it’s been distorted in a fun-house mirror. McCaslin seems to be poking fun at the massive infrastructure of industrial society: only one of the 64 outlets is being used–a light plugged into it sits on the floor, helping illuminate the piece.

The idea of measurement, the basis of the grid, is confounded in David Szafranski’s Made in Taiwan, which weaves pieces of plastic tape measures together: a strip that goes from 6 to 26 inches is next to one that goes from 14 to 34; none of the strips start at 1. Rebecca Morris takes on the idea of a painting as a fixed image in Strange Fruit, in which brightly colored stickers are placed in lines on a small square white canvas. The canvas is stretched around an inch-thick block, and the stickers extend beyond the plane facing us and onto its sides–almost as if they’ve come to life and are escaping the confines of the traditional picture area.

Richard Rezac’s Pair looks decidedly dour amid such amusements, but it partly shares their ethos. Two cast bronze plates are mounted at right angles in a corner of the room; each is slightly convex and has football-shaped holes arrayed in a grid. These holes are alternately vertical and horizontal, which creates an odd perceptual disruption as one’s eyes range over them; rather than rhyming, this mixture of curves seems intentionally imperfect. I started focusing on its random, antigrid elements: the discolorations in the metal, the tiny irregularities in the holes’ edges.

The work I found richest and most haunting was Jody Lomberg’s Triade, in which gray and tan squares surrounded by yellow and tan borders cover a large piece of linen. Alone, this would be a rather conventional color-field painting, with a debt to Josef Albers perhaps. But in front of it hangs a loose mesh of knitted black yarn that obstructs our view of the squares’ clean colors. This seems to be a comment on the traditional associations of geometrical abstraction with men and “high” art, and knitting with women and “craft.” The hanging mesh is also the visual opposite of the painting. Its grid has holes and other imperfections, and it sags: pulled down by gravity, its curved lines form a dramatic contrast to the weightless squares of traditional abstraction. Like the best of these artists, Lomberg has rejected the grid’s idealism to focus on the matter and facts of our physical world.

Most of the artists in “Skew: The Unruly Grid” use the grid as a means of presenting content and as a metaphor for a kind of thinking–each work disrupts the ideal grid to express a particular set of ideas. Earlier, Robert Smithson used the grids then favored by his friends Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt, but did more than make the grids “unruly”: he used them in creating luminous and inclusive masterpieces. His best works–three of which are now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art along with three sketches, two videos, and a photograph by Chicago artist Tony Tasset–share this quality with the greatest art: whatever they superficially seem to be about, they avoid having a single, finite subject or identity. They shatter distinctions, cross boundaries, alchemize their formal contradictions into poetry. Smithson doesn’t merely transform the grid into something else; like every other element in his work, grids are there to point to their opposites. Twenty-two years after his death in a plane crash at age 35, his work still looks new; beside it, much other art pales.

Tasset seems to agree. Invited by curator Lucinda Barnes to collaborate on this show, he grew increasingly troubled by the likelihood that he’d be compared to Smithson. “How can you compare yourself to history?” he asked. So he decided to “just go over the top and become a kind of martyr to this dilemma.” Reading his thoughts in the catalog, I could sympathize, but the solution he settled on, a large photograph of himself dressed as and posing as Smithson in the Nevada desert, is idiotic. In an art world already overflowing with poseurs and phonies Tasset’s joke falls more than a little flat.

Tasset’s focus on Smithson as a person and as a body, and the related idea that artwork can be equated with the body of the artist or of the viewer, is precisely what Smithson’s sculptures so ecstatically, explosively deny. Mirror Stratum (1966) is a stack of 32 square mirrors in a corner of the gallery, each a bit smaller than the one under it. Two edges of each are flush with the walls, so the work has the appearance of an off-center ziggurat, as well as of the geological layers the title refers to; reflections from the mirrors form a Frank Stella-like pattern of dark and white bands on the walls. One’s sense that it’s a solid architectural sculpture is shattered as one draws closer. The wall reflection isn’t perfect and unchanging the way a Stella painting is; it’s a chimerical image, mixed with other light in the room and partly obliterated by the viewers’ shadows as we lean over to look in the mirrors. And when we do lean over, the mirrors open up limitless depths that are the opposite of the piece’s hard-edged, geometrical shape; walls, ceiling, and viewer all shift about in the glass.

Years before making the earthworks for which he’s best known, Smithson was bringing the earth into the gallery. The large mirror in Slant Piece (1969) leans against the wall; in front is a pile of rock salt, the pieces ranging from minuscule crystals to lumps more than a foot long. From afar the mirror shows only the ceiling, but as one approaches, the reflection of the floor appears, creating an almost violent contradiction between the illusionistic gallery space in the mirror, with its echoes of traditional perspective, and the assertive physicality of the heaps of salt, an intrusive presence in a white-walled museum. This work opens the gallery up to the physical world that its antiseptic design works so hard to obliterate; the mirror and salt also introduce disorder, even chaos, since the reflection in the mirror constantly changes, and the extremely varied sizes of the pieces of salt seem to defy any attempt to put them in some order.

Smithson was first influenced by abstract expressionists, particularly Barnett Newman. He eventually learned, he recalled a year before his death, to “overcome” their “lurking pagan religious anthropomorphism” and “get into crystalline structures.” While most of the artists in “Skew” seek to bring the grid closer to everyday personal concerns, Smithson rejected even the more vaporous but arguably anthropocentric strivings of artists like Newman. Taking as his models structures from nature and concepts like entropy, he sought to locate the viewer less in the psychological self and more firmly in the physical aspects of our planet.

All this is clearest in the 1968 A Nonsite (Franklin, New Jersey), whose six trapezoidal boxes filled with rocks sit on the floor in front of an aerial photograph of the place where the rocks were found that’s been cut into matching trapezoidal shapes. Smithson said that his interest in the area in the photo “was really a return to the origin of materials…like if you took a tube of paint and followed that back to its original sources.” The rough heaps of rocks clash visually with the painted wood and precise, straight edges of the boxes. Boxes and rocks point to their opposites: the boxes recall rocks cut into rectangles; the rocks recall rough tree bark.

The work is a series of contradictions whose ultimate effect is to question distinctions and destroy categories. By bringing raw rock inside Smithson is arguing with the traditional “closed” design of a museum or gallery, but he’s also suggesting that random, not-yet-tamed sites in our landscape, “regions of dispersal,” can also be viewed as if they were artworks. The photo fragments recall all the arbitrary divisions of maps: each offers a view of one area, yet the landscape is continuous across the cuts. The boxes become lower as they get smaller, suggesting an unseen vanishing point, and the photo’s trapezoidal sections point upward, suggesting a hidden destination at the apex, which Smithson noted lay “at the end of a deadend street.” Every element of the work points to its opposite, as well as to what isn’t included, and to hidden secrets, and to the visible world.