I don’t know Robert Grosvenor, and I have never heard him give a talk, but years ago he made a huge impression on me. It happened one night, in the mid-1970s, shortly after I moved to New York. A friend and I were walking on Prince Street between Mulberry and Mott, across from the brick wall enclosing the Basilica of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral and its cemetery. As we approached the corner of Mott and Prince, my friend pointed to a man on the other side of the street and whispered: “That’s Robert Grosvenor.”
I don’t know how my friend knew it was Grosvenor and I never bothered to ask. Instead, we stopped and looked, hoping not to be noticed, which we weren’t. Grosvenor was standing in front of the brick wall, near the gate, pointing to it and talking intently to his companion. Something about the masonry of the wall, which was probably built the same time as the cathedral (1809–15), had caught his eye. As he talked, his hands seemed to be caressing the air between him and the mortared bricks. The glow of a nearby streetlamp illuminated the scene, which could have come straight out of a painting by Edward Hopper.
I was reminded once again of this encounter when I went to Grosvenor’s current exhibition at Paula Cooper (April 25–June 26, 2015), which consists of two large-scale sculptures, “Untitled” (1975) and “Quadrum” (2005-2006), each given its own room, along with a selection of masking tape drawings from the mid ’70s, and a group of photgraphs that were done over the past decade and a half. There is also a book of Grosvenor’s photographs, 32 Pictures (Karma, 2014) with an essay by Bob Nickas, on the the front desk, that I highly recommend looking at.
According to the gallery press release, “Untitled” is a “wood beam” which was “fractured using precise and repeated force from heavy machinery.” It reminded me of a railroad tie, whose ends have been splintered somehow. Grosvenor has patinated “Untitled” in creosote and grease so that it becomes a black, damaged object resting on the gallery floor. In contrast to the Minimalists, with whom he has often been associated, Grosvenor’s “Untitled” is not pristine, but marked by what was done to it, a scarred thing.
The splintered ends remind us that art cannot exist out of time, no matter how timeless its presence. Rupture and disintegration are inescapable. Instead of denying time’s constant pressure, Grosvenor utilizes a process that accelerates it. Moreover, I don’t think that Grosvenor ever intended to take his hand out of art, as did his Minimalist peers — Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and Carl Andre. In fact, I think this view of his work from the mid ’70s is a misreading. Rather, in “Untitled” and related pieces, Grosvenor wanted to evoke the anonymous worker, dating back to the ones who built the Pyramid at Giza and including the masons who built the brick wall on Prince Street. The evidence of their labor is simultaneously mute and eloquent, while telling us almost nothing of their vanished lives.
“Untitled” exists after something was done to it and before something else happens to it. Neither purity, nor art about art, have ever seemed to be a strong element in Grosvenor’s thinking, perhaps because he realized that it was a privileged position, and making art that comes out of that place was of little interest to him. It seems to me that Grosvenor’s consciousness of time, history, legacy and vulnerability is the seedbed for all the work he has subsequently made, including the photographs and “Quadrum.”
As a photographer, Grosvenor uses props as well as records what he sees – an empty house by the side of a rural highway, or the rusted body of a motor scooter standing upright on a dirt road that seems to lead nowhere. Disintegration has remained one of the artist’s concerns for more than forty years. Although “Untitled” rests on the floor of an immaculate white cube, it doesn’t accept its aesthetic seclusion as a boundary. The violence done to it reverberates across a host of associations, while the creosote and grease coating imbue the form with a light-drinking blackness that pulls the viewer closer, inviting scrutiny.
In a number of the photographs in 32 Photographs, but unlike the photos in the exhibition, Grosvenor sets up a scene in which one or more carved-ice sculptures of penguins are the subject. In another group of photographs in the book, he places a black rubber rat on a red inflatable life preserver rides the incoming waves. At a time when many artists are claiming to make political or ecological art, Grosvenor eschews didacticism in favor of a gentle humor suffused with tragedy. Global warming, oil spills and pollution threaten the penguins’ environment while lessening their chances for survival. By making an ice sculpture of a penguin, Grosvenor reminds us that art and nature are both vulnerable and inseparable. He seems determined to smile even as he sails toward oblivion.
One photograph in the exhibition is of two donuts with green frosting and brown granules, floating, like a pair of life preservers, on rapidly moving water. In this work the viewer gets a sense of Grosvenor’s ability to make connections, to recontextualize a familiar object so that it reveals its material state, the green frosting echoed by the pale green water. One of the disturbing things about Grosvenor’s photographs is that the absurdity of the situation stops striking us as fictional: there is no life preserver that can save us (I say “us” because there are two donuts); the four penguins in the boat cannot survive. And yet the artist is not a doomsayer, nor is he being apocalyptic. That is what is even more disturbing. He doesn’t give you a way to dismiss his work because he isn’t making any claims about its meaning. Maybe it is just two donuts floating on water and four ice penguins in a boat.
“Quadrum” occupies the gallery’s main room. A cobalt blue, cut-out sheet of metal stands in the center of an elliptical, dark brown metal platform. Two constructions, each made of four vertical bars rising from a stand, are situated on opposite sides, placed diagonally to the center piece. An lengthed, open-faced, semi-cylindrical metal section has been attached to the upper section of each vertical bar. What is this low altar from which this mysterious flat blue, cut-out plane rises? What purpose do the linear structures serve? Are they meant to be sentinels?
What is one to believe in during these troubled, troubling times, amidst deniers, crackpots and the willfully ignorant? The desire to believe doesn’t diminish just because one finds it hard to have faith in anything. Is “Quadrum” about art’s failings as a substitute for religion? I don’t think Grosvenor is being that simple.
Again, I am reminded of that moment from years ago. “Quadrum” seems as if it could have been made, like St. Patrick’s wall, by an anonymous worker are a reason we are no longer privy to. In 1950s, in a shed sitting in a field near Stapleton, Nebraska, Emery Blagdon began twisting wire and threading beads to make a “Healing Machine.” We know why Blagdon spent years working on this. However, I can imagine someone discovering “Quadrum” in a barn in upstate New York and wondering about its purpose, which could become the beginning of a lifelong search.
Grosvenor is that rare artist. He sees what is in front of our eyes, and gets us to look again. The work can be sweet, tender, vulnerable, condemned, funny and tragic all at once. It isn’t about what you see but about seeing. Rather than offering the viewer the latest entertaining or theatrical solution, he keeps finding ways to ask questions, which lead to other questions.
Robert Grosvenor continues at Paula Cooper Gallery (534 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 26.