PHILADELPHIA — Once upon a time, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, there lived a family of sculptures. They were all smooth, white, and vacant-eyed. Surrounding them were works of clean, monochromatic abstraction and geometric minimalism: The hard-edged color fields of Ellsworth Kelly and Ad Reinhardt, the spackled white squares of Robert Ryman, the asphalt-like paint-sticked canvases of Richard Serra, an anodized aluminum square tube by Donald Judd. The family’s artificial sun was “the diagonal of May 25, 1963,” a stick of cool white fluorescent light by the minimalist Dan Flavin.
Embracing the Contemporary, an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showcases some 100 works from the collection of Keith and Katherine Sachs, all by major artists from the past 50 years. In the bulk of these pieces, there’s no trace of the human form: They come from a generation of abstract and minimalist artists who tried to finish off the so-called death of the figure. The few sculptures of human bodies that are featured in the show look like dazed survivors of this attempted erasure. Together, five of these sculptures, all made within the last 15 years, resemble a strange postmodern suburban family, frozen in a sterile gallery space.
The figures in “Light From the Left” (2007), a bas-relief sculpture by Charles Ray, could be the family’s mother and father. Made of cast fiberglass, stainless steel, aluminum and acrylic polyurethane, it depicts the artist handing a bouquet of flowers to his wife in the living room of their Los Angeles home. (Though the flowers are rendered in matte white, they’re somehow more lively than Jeff Koons’ bland “Small Vase of Flowers,” nearby, in colors that all look diluted with beige.) Like Richard Tuttle’s “Paper Octagonals,” irregular eight-sided shapes of white construction paper cut and pasted directly onto the walls of the next room, the characters in “Light From the Left” are almost invisible. They seem to be trying to camouflage into the white walls of the gallery.
This couple’s son, “Boy With Frog” (2008), also by Charles Ray, towers over the viewer at eight feet tall, made of cast stainless steel and acrylic polyurethane. Inspired by “a classic marble nude,” according to the wall text, it depicts a boy holding a squirming frog by the leg. It’s playful and uncanny, idealized in form but sinister in its depiction of a child discovering his power over weaker creatures. Unlike most “classic marble nudes,” which tended to idealize not just the human body but its soul, too, the boy looks to be growing into a kind of banal evil. The sculpture’s dry humor, and surreal play on scale, saves it from total soullessness.
“Standing Girl” (2004-5), a porcelain sculpture by Kiki Smith depicting a girl in a Peter Pan-collared dress, is the quietly desperate daughter in the family. She leans slightly forward, raises her hand, and looks toward the heavens, as if hoping to be beamed away from the black voids of surrounding Richard Serra canvases. Unlike the sleek form of “Boy With Frog,” her skin is marked with incised lines, and she has Smith’s trademark awkward proportions, expressing a tender vulnerability that’s lacking in Ray’s work.
Then there’s “English Teacher,” a brilliantly creepy sculpture of a balding man in a dumpy gray suit by Martin Honert. He is the family’s weird uncle. Inspired by a particularly unpopular teacher at Honert’s childhood boarding school in West Germany, it was rendered from a black-and-white photograph. Using grayscale and sepia-toned oil paint on the polyurethane, sand, and glass figure, Honert managed to make the three-dimensional figure resemble a two-dimensional vintage photograph when viewed from afar. Clutching a textbook, the stocky man could be a bureaucrat from a Kafka novel. With beady eyes that follow you and a vaguely predatory grin, he sparks more visceral emotion than all the members of the smooth white sculpture family combined. (“Wow, is that spooky!” exclaimed a woman in the gallery.)
The only figure with a pulse is “Baby” (2000), a sculpture by Ron Mueck, a former puppeteer and son of toymakers. Hyperrealistic, with bulging eyes, a pink umbilical stump, and a sideways sneer, it resembles a tiny Gollum. It could be the demon spawn of “English Teacher” and “Standing Girl.” Pinned to the wall, smaller-than-life, it appears to have just been born into this sterile space and is not happy about it.
The clunky title of the exhibit, Embracing the Contemporary, made me imagine trying to hug these figures. The thought was unappealing. Their sculptors seem to have been grossed out by the messy realities of the human body: Its fat, hair, blood, sweat, tears, etc. The result is that most of these sculptures are about as embraceable as robots. This doesn’t mean they’re “bad” — most are intriguing and unnerving and technically impressive — but they suggest a dearth of pathos in contemporary figurative sculpture. In an untitled work, sculptor Robert Gober pokes fun at this aspirational sanitizing of the human form: He lines a pair of small Mary Jane shoes made from beeswax with coarse black human hairs, sneaking unsightly bodily material into this otherwise pristine atmosphere.
The awkward effect of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s “Person Leaning” (1963–64), a stainless steel mirror adorned with a slouched, cigarette-smoking man rendered in painted tissue paper, is that it forces you to look at your own reflection as you stand among this smooth sculpture family and tundra of minimalist white canvases. Unless you, too, are made of stainless steel or polyurethane, you’ll most likely look lumpy, sweaty, hairy, unkempt, too pigmented, too human in comparison.
Embracing the Contemporary: The Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Collection is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until September 5th.