The lobby gallery at the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed midtown office tower at 1285 Avenue of the Americas, with its partitioned walls flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows on the north and south sides of the building, is unusually well-suited for both casual and concentrated encounters with art.
Still, finding the balance of content and scale that will make those encounters click is a tricky prospect, one that Jason Andrew, the co-founder of Norte Maar and the curator of the current Ways and Means: a new look at process and materials in art, has tackled with striking success twice before, with To Be a Lady: forty-five women in the arts in 2012 and last year’s between a place and candy, which explored pattern and repetition.
Ways and Means is no exception, a thoughtfully organized exhibition that shoots for the wow factor time and again without skirting the more meditative aspects of process art. Three works open the show with a splash: Amanda Browder’s “Magic Chromacity” (2014) and Jenny Hankwitz’s “C’mon, C’mon” (2008) on the north side of the lobby and Frank Owen’s “Krater” (2012-13) on the south (a quirky aspect of the space is that it offers equal access to the viewing areas from both the right and left of the entrance, adding an aleatory challenge to the curatorial narrative).
These works, along with Ben Godward’s “Alter Piece for CERN (chaos basically)” (2016) are the extroverts at the party, offering a heady mix of size, intent, and formal invention. Browder’s “Magic Chromacity” is a site-specific installation of draped and rolled multicolored fabric, which was first assembled and installed as a community project in Birmingham, Alabama; Hankwitz’s “C’mon, C’mon,” according to the wall text, is an abstract oil painting based on tracings the artist made from “flung slip markings in the clay studio”; Owen’s “Krater” is an extravagantly layered composition incorporating abstract and representational elements; and Godward’s “Alter Piece for CERN (chaos basically)” lives up to its subtitle with a 12-foot-high aluminum frame bursting with beachball-size spheres made from massive pours of urethane foam in bright, kaleidoscopic colors.
The exhibition enjoys an easy flow despite the bifurcated layout and a diverse range of approaches and materials, with underlying affinities animated by muted antagonisms. In the pairing of Browder and Hankwitz in the first room on the right, the two pieces connect over the intensity of their color and the grandness of their gestures. Still, there is friction between them: billowing across the floor, the materials of Browder’s enormous installation cannot be anything other than themselves, while Hankwitz’s abstraction in splats of red, blue, black, and pink on a snow-white ground, via its condition as a painting, enters the free-floating realm of metaphor.
The struggle enlivens the space and sets the tone for what follows — individual pieces engaging in dialogue with adjacent works as well as calling out to others that may be around the corner or across the lobby. I couldn’t help but draw a link between Godward’s “Alter Piece” on the north side of the building and a large work by Charles Goldman on the south, “RE>CRETE>FACTORY>SHOWROOM” (2016).
Goldman’s installation consists of two stacks of identical geometric forms made from three intersecting planes (two vertical and one horizontal) that create open, four-chambered building blocks. According to the wall text, “RE>CRETE> is a custom designed, green building material” the artist has developed over the past six years, “made from pulped newspaper and junk mail, shredded CDs, DVDs, and credit cards, cut home electronics wires, ground-up packing Styrofoam, salvaged acrylic house paint, and Portland cement (among other ingredients).” To the naked eye it looks like concrete, and its recycled, earthbound industrial sensibility feels like the natural counterbalance to the swelling shapes and high-key colors rising like a radioactive cloud in Godward’s sculpture.
Another parallel stretching from one side of the building to the other is a pair of etchings from Richard Serra’s “Paths and Edges” series (2007), featuring cropped sections of densely packed concentric circles, and Chakaia Booker’s “Mutual Concerns” (2004), an automobile tire cut and twisted into bristling, quasi-organic-looking forms. Serra’s black circles, surrounded by scrapes, splatters, and smears, are printed in ink so heavy that it looks like tar, giving the impression of tire tracks through soft asphalt.
I don’t mean to veer into literalism, but rather to set up a correspondence in which the perception of Serra’s resolute abstraction is informed by Booker’s source material, which in turn has been morphed into spiky, sweeping forms that render the initial shape all but unrecognizable.
In this light, Serra’s etchings reflect a quotidian reality rather than a platonic one; that is to say, while his art, to his way of thinking, may operate on a purely geometric plane, it’s nonetheless connected to life as it is lived now, including the hassles of road work. Intentionally or not, it accepts reality as a touchstone, which arguably accounts for much of its strength. Conversely, but just as compellingly, Booker’s sculpture is reality transformed: the sharp contrasts of its mysterious black shapes are so captivating that their original guise as a tire comes as an afterthought.
There are 25 artists in this exhibition and each one pursues a unique set of variables, including Maud Bryt’s Cubistically arrayed plaster casts of her own body; Bruce Dorfman’s wall-mounted assemblage of canvas, wood, metal, paper, and fabric; Bruce Dow’s conjoined Eames chairs; Robert Raphael’s stoneware facsimiles of thick, knotted lengths of rope; Daniel Wiener’s fantastical grotesqueries in green Apoxie-Sculpt; Norman Jabaut’s long-necked abstract construction made from found wood and metal; Max Estenger’s sheetrock-and-Plexiglas box; Ali Della Bitta’s visceral, rocklike collision of earthenware and steel; Jill Levine’s abstracted evocations of Pre-Columbian art in styrofoam and plaster; and Steve Keister’s glazed ceramics drawn from Mayan and Aztec sculpture.
Some of the two-dimensional works, like Hankwitz’s “C’mon, C’mon,” emphasize the flatness of their medium — Hildur Ásgeirsdóttir Jónsson’s handwoven silk painting, Susan Wanklyn’s playful abstractions in casein on wood panel, and Robert Moskowitz’s equally buoyant pastel silhouettes of a baseball bat and a beer bottle on nearly empty sheets of paper. Elsewhere, Dorothea Rockburne’s dappled, acrylic-on-paper abstractions and Naomi Safran-Hon’s cement-encrusted painting of the interior of a bombed-out house are anchored in palpable textures. Donald Traver’s whimsical biomorphic abstraction, Bryn Jayes’s twilit landscape, and Letha Wilson’s combination of concrete and an abstract C-Print feel almost like outliers in their engagement with conventional illusions of space.
If it’s fitting that an exhibition like this, with its recurrent use of ordinary materials, is installed in such a bustling, workaday environment, with employees rushing for elevators and wheeler-dealers retreating with their cellphones into the gallery’s quieter corners, it is also worth mentioning, as Jason Andrew writes in the exhibition brochure, that these artists are more concerned “with the ways and means than the why and how, […] where product is not the principal focus, where process is not the means but an end.” There’s lot of energy coursing through that disconnect.
Ways and Means: a new look at process and materials in art continues at 1285 Avenue of the Americas Art Gallery (Midtown, Manhattan) through October 7.