A few blocks east of the New Museum’s skyward stack, a small gallery recently closed a provocative show focused on the final years of Joseph Beuys, the forefather of social sculpture. Though Beuys’ legacy in the social practice(s) of art is as manifold as it is contested, few have assumed his mantle as directly as the Polish sculptor Paweł Althamer.
Althamer, born in 1967, is in a productive midcareer swing, and his first-ever United States museum exhibition, now up at the New Museum, reveals at once how much and how little has changed since Beuys began exploring the element of social engagement in sculptural practice, an ethos that flowed from his well-known pronouncement: Jeder Mensch ein Kunstler. (Every man is an artist.)
This theme finds its most literal manifestation on the show’s top floor (the museum’s fourth), in which Althamer has installed his room-filling “Draftmen’s Congress,” which he first initiated at the Berlin Biennale in 2012. Though it sounds ambitious, this is the show’s least interesting dimension, with the strident title pointing to some lost democratic message. The piece was freely accessible from the street in Berlin, but the New Museum is making up for that by inviting various community groups into the space to draw on the papered walls and in so congregating constitute a “congress.” This is a nice space for local kids and communities, but it’s unclear how or why it is a “congress” — surely Althamer, who came of age in the Poland of the bibuła, a thriving underground political press and circuit of illicit cultural materials, knows that discursive fora, or even representative bodies, are not defined by a mere occupation of physical space.
But the intellectual fog recedes on the third floor, where Althamer’s status as an artist of merit is made clear. Populated by a swath of sculptural works covering the chronological and stylistic breadth of the artist’s practice, Althamer’s preoccupation with the human gaze manifests itself in a dynamic number of figures and representations, from the unsettling pairing of stick-wielding “Weronika” (2001) and “Self Portrait” (1993), to the ornate but lonely worlds recreated in the diorama-like “Mezalia” (2010). In one corner, the arresting “Self Portrait as the Billy Goat” (2011) is the scene’s existential surveyor, mammalian head resting in the seated figure’s hand — a brut Rodin. Music is piped in from the Museum’s lobby level, where Althamer has arranged for some 50 buskers to perform over the course of the exhibition.
The show’s bottom floor (the museum’s second) also recycles one of Althamer’s recent continental efforts, this time from Venice. The “Venetians” was the artist’s contribution to the 55th Venice Biennale, in which he “cast the faces of various individuals he encountered on the streets of Venice.” Four screens — one in each corner — show “So-Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind” (2003–04). Produced with artist Artur Żmijewski, the videos depict Althamer as he ingests psychotropic drugs, an interest in the primordial that carries through from the sculptures on the floor above. It’s a suitably dislocating bookend to Althamer’s body of work on view here — prolific in range, at times cryptic in output, but evincing a genuine concern with the subjective and intersubjective elements of the human experience.
Paweł Althamer: The Neighbors continues at the New Museum (345 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 13.