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Maria Nordman’s show is not the first thing you’ll see when you step off the elevator and into Marian Goodman’s midtown space. The main gallery is dedicated to a mostly-male summer show of the gallery’s better-known, minimalist blockbuster artists, like Lawrence Weiner and Gerhard Richter’s very wavy and very straight works, respectively. I would say “don’t miss” Sol LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing #459,” but there is no way you could miss it — it lusciously fills up a central gallery wall en route to Norman’s exhibit.
As your perspective narrows towards the end of a long white hallway, a printed sign on a black metal pedestal awaits your reading. It looks like the kind of sign that is placed there to inform you of your responsibilities, restrictions, and limitations. It reads:
FILMROOM EAT 1967–PRESENT
YOU ARE INVITED TO ENTER —
TWO PERSONS AT A TIME.
It is no coincidence that these instructions are the viewer’s first encounter with Nordman’s work. The 71-year-old California-based, German-born artist makes objects, drawings, environments, films, and language-based works that are meant to be intimately experienced and require a highly structured mode of participation in order to be fully appreciated. They are also very often, physically speaking, hidden from view. So with Maria Nordman’s work, before you can see it, you must be told how to see it.
The show’s centerpiece is the aforementioned “FILMROOM EAT,” a two-channel film installation, now transferred into digital video. The work was first shown in 1967, and like all of Nordman’s work, is dated from the year it first screened up to the present moment. This dating practice belies a central tenant of Nordman’s ethos: there is no such thing as a loop, that changeless repetition. Rather, every iteration of a work is different because each encounter of every viewer with a work is unique.
As stated, “FILMROOM EAT” is for two viewers at a time, though one is also allowed. You enter the installation through a swinging door. Once inside, a partition divides the far wall, framing two identically sized, floor-to-ceiling projections. In both of them, at various angles, is a young couple eating dinner from a silverware-laden table. The young diners rip apart a giant carcass of some animal with their hands and knives. The girl has a glossy, pointy-nailed manicure, wears a pearl ring, and her eyes are made up with mascara and eyeliner in a quintessential ‘60s style. The boy sports a mess of a hairdo, shaggy sideburns, a soul patch, and crinkly leather apparel. The diners do not appear to be acting. They are eating. And smoking.
The backstory goes as follows: the young couple had just been introduced to each other and given this meal by the artist and were encouraged to self-direct their actions as they ate the meal together. The film was originally made for their eyes only, and was re-edited for this show — it is the film’s first public viewing since the late ‘60s. It’s fun to watch in a strangely voyeuristic way, precisely because the people in it are as self-aware as any two non-actor strangers would be when asked to share a bunch of food on camera.
My favorite moment in this work happens outside of the theatrical narrative and was only recently added by Nordman: after the screens fade to black, they do not immediately show the dinner scene again, but instead light up in a stark white light — simultaneously illuminating the room that has been in darkness and, like a camera’s slow-motion flash, transforming the room into an image of itself. This image (a monotone room divided in two) is reminiscent of a work Nordman made in 1968, a year after she made “FILMROOM EAT,” that marked Nordman’s decision to abandon electric light in the presentation of her work. Titled “Black Room,” it was an outdoor installation which invited viewers into a cube-like room, seemingly open on both ends. The structure, however, had a dividing segment in it which viewers could enter to find themselves in a pitch-black narrow space, essentially the inside of the dividing wall.
From that work on, Nordman has shown her work using only whatever sunlight filters into the room, and the exhibition at Marian Goodman is no different. Next door to the film room is an installation of Nordman’s works on paper as well as what she calls a “terrestrial drawing”: a sci-fi-looking mass of naturally occurring marble that must be seen to be believed.
In keeping with Nordman’s work, the viewing of these drawings is made into a conscious act: the drawings themselves (a total of four double-sided works) are encased and hidden from view in two sliding-door framing contraptions which viewers are directed (another sign on a metal pedestal) to pull out for themselves, curating their own little show out of the various options available. If you didn’t read the instructions, you would be left an uninformed viewer, in a seemingly empty room with two empty frames in it and light coming in the window. Like the show at large, it sounds empty but it feels very full.
Maria Nordman continues at Marian Goodman (24 West 57th Street, Midtown West, Manhattan) through July 31.
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As a scholar of African American history and photography whose work has focused on the status of violent images in museums and archives, I fully support the validity of Ms. Tamara Lanier’s claim and the amicus brief.
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