When first I heard that the sculptor Josiah McElheny had devised a series of paintings for his current show at Andrea Rosen Gallery, I tried to imagine what they would look like. I had a fantasy of McElheny, in spattered Oshkosh overalls, smearing a loaded brush of creamy black paint across a taut linen surface. Wishful thinking, I suppose, that he would turn into the archetype of a robust, sloppy abstract painter smothering the canvas in a kind of inert, dark shadow.
Dismissing that idea, I continued to search my mental library for an image more compatible with McElheny’s unpainterly sensibility, returning to his mesmerizing, luminescent vitrines (sometimes wall-mounted and other times freestanding), ensembles of glassware made by McElheny himself, with impressive mastery, in his small foundry on the banks of the Gowanus Canal.
Whether or not McElheny had begun to blow glass “paintings” in astonishing vessels of refracted and reflected rays, I’d propose that his craft — industrious and artisanal as it may be — is not based in glass, or paint, or, for that matter, any other material agent. His craft and medium, I would argue, are in the realm of Thought. And this being the case, McElheny could be considered a perfectionist in ‘thought molding’ — a reflectionist.
I would associate this with what is known as epistemology, which, according to Wikipedia, is defined as “the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope.” And perhaps even more relevant for McElheny, “the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from mere opinion.” In other words, McElheny’s artworks continue to be models and methodologies that aid in the justification, validation, clarification, distillation, and, indeed scope, of his, and therefore our, knowledge. Not the other way around. In other words, his practice uses art to validate thinking, not thinking to validate art.
In his current investigation, McElheny seeks an epistemological framework by bracketing his irrational impulse (in this case, to make a “painting”) within the aesthetic certitudes offered by a host of noted practitioners in the field. In a sense, he uses the traction of certain artistic ‘givens’ (as do we all, whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not) to further extend his own reach into uncharted territory. Despite his devotion and passion, his process is actually quite scientific. The practitioners, in this case — the givens — are as follows: Hilma Af Klint, Maya Deren, Wassily Kandinsky, Ellsworth Kelly, Kazimir Malevich, Albert Oehlen, and Ad Reinhardt.
When confronting the work on the wall at Rosen I was moved by a sense that these artists — particularly Hilma Af Klint — have all somehow metastasized within the locus of McElheny’s artworks, past and present.
While there are a few typologies in the show, I was particularly moved by a series of works titled Crystalline Prism Paintings, which appear to walk the painting gauntlet — to flirt most daringly, that is, with a painterly impulse, and an impulse that is perhaps closer to my initial fantasy of the smothering dark shadow.
These paintings are medium-sized, boxy wood panels with very deep, almost 6-inch sides, hung on the wall at eye level. They are encased in even deeper, darker frames that serve to fortify and formalize the entire unit, like a black overcoat worn over a suit at a funeral.
A coat (or two) of matte black paint has been spread by brush across the entire surface. No big whoop. Brush marks reveal themselves, though the paint is uniform and the handling is not particularly expressive in any way. These black, monochromatic fields are essentially a staging ground for the numerous geometric glass solids that have been inlaid flush into perfectly incised voids in the painting’s surface. It’s easy to imagine a robbery where one would find these gems removed, leaving only a black, boxy structure, like the hollow body of Johnny Cash’s acoustic guitar.
But for now the gems remain, like Kryptonite (or like any color-shape on any Constructivist painting) creating hypnotic zones of reflection and refraction seamlessly lodged within an opaque ground — a smothering shadow— of black matte paint.
Indeed the objects trap light, and our eyes, like embers, and a glow of human warmth is reflected in and off their soft, pale pigmentation.
* * *
The word “painting” has come to mean different things to different people, and in McElheny’s lexicon, I would assume that the word is meant to be enclosed in quotation marks. “Painting” (McElheny’s type) involves what I would call hyper-awareness of the act and the fact of painting within a finely-tuned historical perspective. “Painting,” thus, carries the weight of Painting and is in dialogue with Painting’s intellectual substantiality.
Many painters could care less about historical awareness or dialogue or intellectual substantiality (or any six-syllable word for that matter). Many painters feel no attraction, and have no calling whatsoever, to such burdensome dead weight. Maybe they are blessed by indifference. Or maybe they are missing out on the pleasurable tension felt from the life-long struggle to find wiggle room among the titans on the overstuffed, seemingly stuck elevator of art history.
There can be no doubt that finding this wiggle room is immensely important to McElheny, futile as it may feel at times. And, furthermore, it is abundantly clear that this artist refuses to take anything for granted. And while McElheny’s work attracts an equally rigorous outside critical evaluation, the self-sufficiency and thoroughness of his epistemology would be enough to advise most any critic to approach with caution. What writer would want to jump in with an artist-referent, for example, who is not already included on McElheny’s list? It could get awkward to enter a conversation that’s already in full swing. Nor would I, or any latecomer to the party, want to make an association that would jog McElheny’s delicate constellation of referents out of shape (the way one new star could turn the Big Dipper into, say, the Big Mallet)
I am ordinarily the kind of critic who, harsh at it may sound, seeks to mug a work of art in the alley and force it, against its will, to hand over all its “meaning.” Furthermore, I am often one to entirely ignore the artist, or treat him or her as an interloper. When digesting McElheny, however, I find the intoxication greater the more I get with his thinking, even as I forfeit my instinctual hunger for a solo encounter with the work.
All art, you might say, has a built-in human “intelligence” at its core. But not all artists are so precise in engineering their thoughts — in a sense, twining threads of “thought” with threads of “making.” Thus, to get with McElheny’s thinking is to feel that all the goods have been delivered.
On the opposite extreme, I’m reminded of the aphorism, “dumb as a painter” — a self-fulfilling prophecy and a conceit disguised as a put-down. It lays claim to the fuzzy notion that great art occurs when gut instinct is freed from the manacles of the cerebral. Take late de Kooning for example. One opinion is that, due to his degeneration from Alzheimer’s disease, we witness in these works a de Kooning who is at last emancipated, and fluid.
Furthermore, there’s no question that the industry of Modern Art thrives on a highly chartered division of labor, in which the management would prefer that the PhD’s provide the epistemological rigor on JSTOR, while the “creative types” are left to play in their studios.
In this schema, McElheny’s epistemology is problematic, for it threatens to wiggle into the elevator of academia. An even greater liability is how a rigorous thoughtfulness can threaten to hamper production or even bring it to a standstill. The artist in today’s culture industry is sadly like the wife in a sexist ‘50s marriage, where it is considered best for all parties if she were “at home, barefoot and pregnant.” Our industry similarly prefers its painters to be in the studio, carefree, and prolific.
So where, then, to begin with the actual packed, packaged, and impacted “paintings” on the walls at Rosen? Does one trust one’s own apparatus to parse them? Or is one better off using the manual provided by McElheny — a book accompanying the show titled, Josiah McElheny: Paintings after Hilma Af Klint, and Maya Deren, Wassily Kandinsky, Ellsworth Kelly, Kazimir Malevich, Albert Oehlen, Ad Reinhardt (2015), with two accompanying essays: “The Future Is Now: A Dialogue Across Time: Josiah McElheny and Hilma Af Klint” by Iris Müller-Westermann and “Josiah McElheny’s Visionary Modernism,” by Alex Bacon. The project comes across as a pre-fixe with scholarly muscle included. And McElheny’s contribution is itself an “essay” — an essay-in-objects.
What led to McElheny’s ability to assay — and to conflate — the multiple disciplines of painter, conceptual artist, curator, and Renaissance artisan? How did he cultivate this hybrid of hats? The impulse, we learn, began in 2007 when he was invited by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm to empty out a room in their permanent collection and reinstall it according to his own Modernist narrative. McElheny and Moderna curator Iris Müller-Westermann went into action — installing a constructivist painting by Malevich; a recreation of Tatlin’s tower; a work of his own called “The Alpine Cathedral and the City-Crown” (2007); and perhaps most significantly, fourteen Hilma Af Klint paintings that were hardly known. McElheny told me that after the exhibition, he received a very encouraging note from the Moderna Museet’s director, Lars Nittve, noting that he “made Malevich new again.”
Did the fourteen Hilma Af Klint paintings function, therefore, as an elixir (a potion enhancing virility and prolonging life)? Rather than suffering from a kind of entombment from historicization and periodization, the fourteen Hilma Af Klints seem to have come to the table, in a sense, narrative-free. They had never been classified empirically, nor made to ‘tell’ the official story of Modernism (sensational as it may be) over and over again like a broken record.
Influenced by this opportunity to see art history as a malleable substance in his own hands, McElheny decided to continue working in a curatorial manner. In 2009 he was again given curatorial prerogative when he was invited to reenact (though “reinvent” was the term used in the Hauser and Wirth press release for the event) Allan Kaprow’s iconic 1961happening, “Yard,” described in the gallery statement as “a veritable mountain of black rubber auto tires and tarpaper-wrapped forms through which visitors jumped and crawled.” Prior to installing the piece, a contract arrived from the Kaprow Foundation with an unusual set of legal terms that set up the parameters for a collaboration of sorts between himself and an artist who had been dead since 2006.
In 2011, McElheny collaborated with another dead artist, this time on a Blinky Palermo mural. The wall-painting had been photographically documented but the site-specific work was long gone, and Palermo had specified that it never be reproduced. McElheny, however, went about seeking permission to bring it back to life, as a “reenactment.” The work, was thus not “recreated” (artistically) but “reenacted” (curatorially).
Through these projects you might say McElheny gained even deeper insight into Hilma Af Klint, who was becoming a regular visitor from the crypt. Was it his responsibility, as curator, to position her work in its proper time and place and, in the process, to right (or to revise) a major historical wrong (or oversight)? In fact, McElheny rose to the contrary conclusion, that Hilma Af Klint, who had forbidden her work to be shown until 20 years after her death, did not belong among the cadre of sexist male artists (even to make the point that she had beaten them to the punch by inventing a completely abstract visual language years before their first toe-dipping into non-objective painting). Rather, she belongs, some way, somehow, with him in the present. But how is this achieved?
This question brings us to the present art show at Rosen — which (the book aside) features only works by Josiah McElheny. Now that I have gotten with McElheny’s thinking, I can appreciate that he has furthered his curatorial-artisanal calling by creating works that have a duality, functioning simultaneously as “individualistic original creations” and as “collaborative reenactments.” Rather than exhibiting among, or in close proximity to, or in conversation with one or many of his artist-referents, he has engaged in a form of compression or enjambment, embedding these artist-referents into his works — obviously at times, but at others with a degree of sublimity.
And if I am to stick with my thinking on McElheny’s thinking on Hilma Af Klint’s thinking (or Paul Sheerbart’s thinking — the list goes on and on), I suppose the optimal scenario is for McElheny’s “paintings” (or whatever you want to call them) to gather influence while being disregarded and forgotten. This way, according to my logic, they will one day haunt a future curator who will aspire to dislodge them from historicity and reenact them — and thereby put them to good use.
Josiah McElheny: Paintings continues at Andrea Rosen Gallery (525 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 24.