Simultaneously confounding and illuminating, The Intuitionists at the Drawing Center is a puzzle within a puzzle, a conceptual stunt that raises sticky questions about curatorial responsibility and the structuring of aesthetic experience.
If you approach the exhibition knowing nothing of its premise, you might be persuaded that the curators are focusing on artists who make their decisions based not on observation, formal precepts or theoretical propositions, but on an instinctive grasp of materials and image, and there is abundant visual evidence that this is the case.
But it’s not. The show is derived from The Intuitionist, a 1999 novel by Colson Whitehead. Called a work of “speculative fiction,” the book is about a city of skyscrapers at the cusp of the Civil Rights era, where elevator inspectors are lionized by the population but whose professional guild faces a schism between the traditionally minded Empiricists and the breakaway Intuitionists, who, as described in Gary Krist’s New York Times review, “do their job by sensing an elevator’s psychic vibrations rather than examining the actual machinery.“
The question of how the plot relates to the exhibition is left unanswered by the Drawing Center’s press release, which describes the show as “a collaborative project organized by artists Heather Hart, Steffani Jemison, and Jina Valentine, and curated by Lisa Sigal, Open Sessions Curator […] that explores the relationship between progress, technology, and difference […]”
That doesn’t offer much to chew on. The statement goes on to say that “the exhibition considers how the collection, the database, and the aggregate serve as complementary models for the organization of information and objects in flux.”
Despite the murky language, this is where the concept begins to get interesting, thanks to the curators’ automated approach. As explained in a short introduction on the exhibition’s checklist, the artwork was selected via the search engine for the Drawing Center’s online Viewing Program. (The Viewing Program, which is no longer accepting applications, is described on its website as providing “emerging artists [with] the opportunity to include their work in a curated Artist Registry that is consulted by a wide variety of arts professionals from across the globe […].”)
According to the checklist intro, the artist, after being accepted into the registry, selects tags (or “Portfolio Keywords,” as they are called on the site) “from a preexisting list of keywords to describe her or his work (‘spiritual, ‘conceptual,’ ‘fantasy,’ etc.). The work shown in The Intuitionists was generated by selecting a paragraph from the novel and breaking it down into individual words or very short phrases. These terms were then assigned three to five Viewing Program keywords, which were fed into the search engine.
Whitehead’s paragraph begins, “To believe in silence. As we did when we lived in bubbles. Sentient insofar as we knew it was warm: Silence provided that warmth. The womb.” For the purposes of the exhibition, it is broken up into eight sections, each represented by the work of a single artist, who may contribute more than one piece in response to the phrase. The remainder of the paragraph is further divided into dozens of words and phrases. The artworks aligned with them cover the walls salon-style, hang from the ceiling or sit in vitrines or on pedestals.
(It should be noted that Whitehead’s paragraph, which is found on page 86 of the novel, does not venture into the elevator-based plot line, alluding instead to trains and station platforms.)
To get a better sense of what the organizers were doing, I experimented with the search engine and found that it processed multiple terms with a Boolean OR rather than an AND, which meant that all that was needed for a hit was a single corresponding keyword, not a combination of several. This resulted in hundreds of artists turning up with each search, and unless the curators were working with a more sophisticated tool, the selection process must have been daunting.
Once the artists were chosen, they were invited to submit an existing piece or to create a new one that would address the phrase that the curators used to find them in the database; either way, the artists were handed the sole responsibility for the look and feel of the exhibition. This isn’t such a big deal, but the curators have also placed themselves at a double remove by pinning the sequence of the artwork to the verbal sequence of Whitehead’s paragraph.
With such factors in play, it’s astonishing that the show is coherent at all, let alone as lively, well installed and handsome as it is. The end result raises the question of how much control the curators exercised over the multiple offerings each search term provided. For example, did they deliberately choose to follow Kang Joo Lee’s untitled abstraction from 2014 with Douglas Florian’s equally abstract “Was Once” (also 2014) — which together represent the words “the train is warming towards departure” — because their painterly approaches seemed especially congruent? Or was it a happy accident? The exhibition’s overall intelligibility favors the impression that some kind of subterranean curatorial direction was afoot.
Whitehead’s paragraph is an excerpt from a book-with-the-book, a treatise called Theoretical Elevators by the fictitious founder of Intuitionism, James Fulton. With the passage functioning as the exhibition’s point of departure, it is odd that the press release doesn’t divulge why it was singled out by the organizers. But the Times review offers a clue, telling us that “the plot hinges on a search for the so-called black box, a theoretical elevator (‘the one that will deliver us from the cities we suffer now, these stunted shacks’) conceived by James Fulton, a giant of elevator studies, now deceased.”
If the selected paragraph, which reads more like prose poetry than a snip from a conventional narrative (thereby capable of harnessing an independent set of meanings), is indeed the novel’s catalyst, then it makes perfect sense that it was chosen as the core of the exhibition — but for the viewer unaware of the book, its role is entirely devoid of context.
But even for the viewer acquainted with Whitehead’s novel, within the confines of the exhibition, the literary context is swapped out for an entirely visual one created through a quasi-aleatory process. The web of literary meanings surrounding these words is totally transformed, with no returning to the source. Each image that arises from the words becomes a portal to an endless series of Borgesian universes.
But there are pitfalls, mainly in the too-literal wedding of word and image. One example is a work related to the brief excerpt I quoted above: “To believe in silence. As we did when we lived in bubbles.” The prepositional phrase “in bubbles” is represented by eight drawings from a series of ten titled “10 Possible Locations for Secret Talks” (2014) by Chiaki Kamikawa. Taken alone, the drawings are mysterious and funny, but when applied to the quote, their inclusion becomes immediately overdependent on the comics-style speech balloon, or bubble, featured in each one. There is no illumination of the text, simply a one-to-one correspondence. Discard the phrase, and the artwork is infinitely richer.
There are other works (interestingly, many of which spring from the word “train”) that retain their ambiguity through abstraction, such as the intensely blue, self-explanatory “AS THE CROW FLIES (the distance between my studio and the Drawing Center (3666 miles) drawn on scale 1/1, 5900000 lines of 39.37 inch” (2014) by Kris Van Dessel; the colorful, hard-edge monoprint silkscreen from the artist known as HENSE, “Shape” (2014); and Carl Fudge’s black-and-white woodcut “Bricklayer 1” (2014).
And then there are those whose images set up a multi-leveled dialogue with Whitehead’s text, such as Nicholas Fraser’s hair-raising “The Inexhaustible Clarity of His Screaming” (2014), made from a sheet of black Tyvek, in which cutout letters form a statement that compares the shrieks of a torture victim with a prophetic language too unintelligible for “those he was meant to save.” This work, remarkable in the power of its simplicity, is based on the phrase, “As we did when we lived.” The pairing of Fraser’s piece with the novel’s elemental, elusive words delivers a shock of association that can only be described as intuitionist.
The same can be said for the four small drawings by Maria Bussmann, whose work I’ve written about on two other occasions, which are based on the phrase, “the train is always leaving” and are aptly titled “The train is always leaving, 1 – 4” (2014).
Drawn in pencil on vintage postal stickers featuring a thick black border that evokes elaborately printed train tickets or travel labels, the four images depict a fanciful map of Tibet overlaid by a contemporary train engine; two naked lovers seated in a carriage at the nexus of converging railroad tracks; a herd of wild horses barely outrunning a train whose cars stretch to the horizon; and a panoramic seascape with a steel-girded railroad bridge in the far distance. The unfettered imagination at work in the drawings never quite lands where you expect it to, with inexplicable details sprinkled about the image, fracturing the unity of the surface.
Bussmann’s drawings are among the many artworks in the exhibition that crack open Whitehead’s paragraph through a fusion of related and unrelated imagery, sending the mind in any number of directions. At first the exhibition’s fragmented nature disturbed me, as if the show were at war with itself, with each drawing, painting, sculpture or hybrid serving as a distraction from the effort to grasp the import of the excerpted paragraph. But a day after seeing the show, its endlessly recombining sets of visual signifiers seemed less like hindrances and more like stand-ins for the eruptions of inquiry that can flare from each word we read — the mad scramble of intuition across sooty empiricist stones.
The Intuitionists continues at the Drawing Center (35 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan) through August 24.