Worshipping at the Altar of Minimalism
Maria Elena González at Knoedler & Co., Henry Rothman’s collages at Lori Bookstein Fine Art.
INSTALLATION ART DID NOT BEGIN WITH DUCHAMP. It began in early medieval churches with the cult of the saints. The finger bone of one saint or the cloak of another are among our earliest readymades. Altars were installation sites for reliquaries and images of favorite saints. Devotional fads came and went; exhibitions changed as new saints were venerated and exhausted ones retired. As anyone knows who has seen the line that still forms around the tomb of St. Anthony of Padua, the sites are interactive. Supplicants kiss or caress them, kneel, light candles, or lay tokens of gratitude. And high performing saints are kind to their clients.
|Maria Elena González, Internal DupliCity
Nothing but static good taste is invoked in Maria Elena González’s spiritless installation at Knoedler. Prompted by pilgrimage sites in Rome, “Internal DupliCity” is a group of nine simple sculptures spaced within a grid. The orderly grid is intended—incongruously—to evoke the urban landscape of the Eternal City. Or maybe Any City. Each white pedestal holds one reduced form, a suggested barn or house, painted red and encased in a shaped Plexiglas box.
Red is for blood and the sealing wax on relic boxes. It’s also the color of every restored barn from Litchfield County to the Berkshires. Since barns have nada to do with relics, viewers are free to see what they like through the haze of Ms. Gonález’s frosted plexi. (A nice touch, that, given the uncertain contents of many reliquaries; plexi, though, is a letdown after carved Roman rock crystal.) The overall effect of these semi-see-through containers is similar to those globular tchotchkes kids collect: Shake them and see the Empire State Building through a snowfall.
The installation is off-key, barren of plausible similarity to relics and the zest of their milieu. Individual pieces are antiseptic, impersonal and contentless. In contemporary art, religion is used strictly as a pawn in identity politics, and then, only if it is aestheticized past the point of recognizability. Less is here than meets the eye. Meaning is FOR RENT; hence, the aid of an accompanying catalog tutorial on relics.
Ms. González approaches reliquaries as museum curios, oblivious to the exuberance of the devotional imagination. She misses the urgency and intimacy of it, a familial trust in accessibility that pierces the long silence of death. (A popular prayer to St. Anthony, patron of things lost, goes: “Tony, Tony, turn around. Something’s lost and must be found.”) The keystone of relics—radical openness to transcendence—shrinks here to something mundane and easy to dust.
The misfire occurs not because Ms. González was born in Cuba where Castro closed the churches when she was five. It is because she is a contemporary American artist in the minimalist/conceptual pew, one with its own pieties and devotional practices. Mimicking religious paraphernalia is easy; evoking the tenor of religious sensibility comes harder. There is nothing prosaic—absolutely nothing minimal—in reliquaries themselves nor in the religious culture that informs them. In default of the sacred, we are left with the vacant solemnities of minimal art.
IF YOU WANT SOMETHING EVOCATIVE OF ROME, something that smolders with defiance of decay and doomed materiality, you want Henry Rothman’s collages. He breathed into them a living quality, a sensuousness that is heartbreakingly beautiful.
|Untitled (Explosion) c. 1969-70, 8 x 8 inches
Rothman (1910-1990) was among collage’s most gifted practioners. He was also a modest man who worked in relative obscurity, known only to a small circle of other artists. Trained in painting, he was an army photographer in World War II and an early member of the Photo League. In 1947, he opened his own frame shop on West 28th Street which became a casual salon—a place to eat, drink and argue— for local artists. His weekly poker game drew writers and entertainers as well. Among visitors were Anthony Quinn, Zero Mostel (who claimed he only acted to support his painting), Joseph Heller, Mel Brooks, Paul Resika, sculptors Jacques Lipschitz and Louise Nevelson.
Summers in Italy and Provincetown were spent collecting old papers, torn bill boards and posters—street relics. Although he exhibited with (and framed for) Robert Motherwell and collagist Leo Manso in group shows at the Provincetown Art Association, Rothman had only one solo show in his lifetime. History is about to correct itself. The 22 collages on view are small (one no more than 3 inches high) but their impact is intense. Fragile images build through accretion, their material presence emphasized by a textural density that strengthens delicate relations of color and composition. Some, like “Untitled (V)” (1974) or “Composition” (1949), maintain a shingled, grid-like disposition, with latticed forms woven across an intuited framework. Others, such as “Untitled (Ouest)” (1976) hover in space, revealing a sure sense of figure and ground.
|Untitled (Homage to “Big O”) c. 1970s, 9 3⁄4 x 6 1⁄2
Rothman made sweet use of collage’s affinity for popular culture but his fragments are used for formal, not demotic, purposes. A scrap of Italian newsprint placed sideways in “Rattini” (1978) serves as a striated surface; placed upside down, it provides a dappling not meant to be read. Letters and numbers appear less as cultural codes than celebrations of the architecture of type. This tribute is clear in the title of his glorious “Homage to ‘Big O’” (c. 1970s), which floats a broad blue O on a white ground braced by bars of bright color and seemingly hinged from a series of slim circles.
I prefer Rothman’s collages to Motherwell’s. In each one, overlapping forms create an illusion of depth that surpasses even painting. Reticulations are magical and cry to be stroked. Rothman achieved Braque’s ambition to “make of touch a form of material.”
“Maria Elena González: Internal Duplicity” at Knoedler & Company (19 East 70th Street, 212-794-0550).
“Henry Rothman [1910 - 1990]: Collages” at Lori Bookstein Fine Art (37 West 57th Street, 212-750-0949).
These reviews first appeared in The New York Sun, January 19, 2006.
Copyright 2006 Maureen Mullarkey