There is an empty room on the top floor of Sperone Westwater Gallery — empty except for columns of words and numbers running up and down the walls. The columns make up an inventory of every single possession belonging to the artist Michael Landy, which he systematically destroyed over the course of two weeks in 2001, more than 7,000 items in all.
And he didn’t just whack them with a hammer and toss them in the trash. In a performance commissioned by the British art organization Artangel, he enlisted a crew, rented a vacant building, set up a conveyer belt, and power-sawed and crushed everything to bits. There’s a video of the scene in the gallery’s “moving room,” which opens onto the display.
The action, called Break Down, is widely known in Landy’s native England, the piece that’s always cited when his name comes up. As a work of art, it can be perceived as celestially utopian or darkly pessimistic — or as a membrane between the two.
The starkest thing about it is its equal-opportunity devastation: no object’s worth or worthlessness was considered; everything, including artworks by himself and others (Gary Hume, Tracey Emin, Gillian Wearing, and Jean Tinguely), were ground to rubble. Fill in your favorite philosophical/political analogy here.
In an ironic, or fitting, twist, Tinguely, whose infamous, self-destroying sculpture “Homage to New York” (1960) hovers like an exterminating angel above the proceedings, was also the guiding spirit behind a small but stunning show in the same room in 2013. That exhibition, Radio Waves: New York “Nouveau Réalisme” and Rauschenberg celebrated a loose federation of postwar artists exploring the possibilities of found objects and kinetic assemblages; in addition to works by Tinguely and Rauschenberg, the show included contributions from Niki de Saint Phalle, Per Olof Ultvedt, Martial Raysse, and Arman, which were all gifts to Rauschenberg or exchanges with him.
At the time, I wrote that this show brought to the fore “the beguiling sense of inevitability that the sculptures achieve in spite of their components’ apparent randomness,” a sentence that can be seen as a perversely accurate description of what Landy is up to.
The inclusive, value-neutral swath of destruction perpetuated by Break Down can be seen as a form of both randomness and inevitability: the only thing that these doomed objects had in common was that they took up space inside the personal province of Michael Landy, no matter how they fell into his possession — whether he made them, bought them, found them, inherited them, or received them as gifts. And this property predicated their eventual demolition, a death unforetold at the time of their acquisition.
The flip side of randomness is found on the gallery’s two main floors, where Landy seems to be rushing in to fill the vacuum he created with Break Down by vacuuming up every political slogan and rant he can find.
Breaking News, the current body of work, counters his own background as a conceptualist committed to purity-unto-nothingness with a creative persona in thrall of visual omnivorousness. In these seemingly self-propagating images, the London-based Landy is attempting a mind-meld with the American political moment — a risky move that attempts to elevate hundreds of red-and-white drawings on torn paper, the visual equivalents of sound bites, into an aggregate environment beating with the fevered pulse of the times.
The drawings themselves are technical marvels. Ranging in size from minuscule to monstrous, they are done entirely in red and white oil stick, with the image scraped away via a sgraffito procedure. One of the two colors comprises the ground, which is subsequently coated in wax as a resist and then covered in the second color. Over this, the artist makes a pencil drawing of an appropriated, invented, or adapted image, and then proceeds to scratch away the figure with unerring accuracy.
The overwhelming number of these works (comprising a subset called “Protesters”) are on the second floor. These mostly very small drawings depict international gender signs (stick figures with circular heads, with or without skirts) carrying, for the most part, anti-Trump posters, although slogans from bygone eras (“JOHNSON IS A WAR CRIMINAL”) appear here and there as if out of a time warp.
The formal uniformity of the red and white color scheme, whose lush materiality is accentuated by the scrappy balls of oil stick skin accumulating at the edges of the sgraffitoed figures, coupled with the virtuosic displays of image-making, are thoroughly seductive, threatening to tip the political thrust into a stylish eyeful.
But there’s an element of grit that puts the brakes on, arising perhaps from the artist’s devotion to detail, perhaps from his attempt to crystalize the crosscurrents of contemporary politics into a visually digestible whole. If many of the sentiments are easily fired-off one-liners, the unrelenting accumulation of them simultaneously knocks you off balance and sucks you in.
The first floor is decidedly different from the second and third, even if it is filled, again, with white-over-red (along with several red-over-white) drawings. The scale is much larger here, and the appropriations are more exacting, with outsized copies of Philip Guston’s Nixon drawings and Jean Dubuffet’s expressionistic takes on women and heads, along with text pieces loaded with billboard-size letters spelling out “MAKE IT GO AWAY” and “GOT HIM!”
The references to past artists perhaps provides an entry point into Landy’s thinking about his decision to take on Trump’s political ruthlessness (Guston’s Nixon) and burgeoning psychosis (Dubuffet’s Outsider-ish imagery), but the most fascinating drawings for me were the ones that owed their allegiance neither to appropriation nor to a mimetic skill set, impressive though it is. They are the large, linear abstractions that Landy made with the back end of a brush, tracing a mad gestural path through the white or red topcoat into the red or white ground beneath.
In these drawings — equal parts pared-down formalism and uninhibited automatism — we see the artist making unmediated contact with his medium, an unsettlingly urbane howl in which the words teeming elsewhere in the show seem to catch in his throat. There’s one exception, though, in the rear room of the first floor, where an ocean of red hatch marks roils a white field in what might be a takeoff on a Mark Bradford torn-paper collage. It took more than one approach for me to realized that those hatch marks weren’t abstract lines at all, but an endless multiplication of the word “HATE.”
In an article posted on BBC.com, Landy told the art critic and broadcaster Alistair Sooke some of his thoughts as he was staging Break Down:
At moments, admittedly, I felt like I was witnessing my own death, because people I hadn’t seen for years would turn up, and I thought, “Well, they’d only turn up for my funeral.” But often I did feel real elation. No one had ever destroyed all their worldly belongings before.
However, the pairing of his past and current projects, as presented at Sperone Westwater, seems to cast Break Down less as a funeral rehearsal than as a pre-emptive King Lear moment — putting his affairs in order as a means of control, even if it entails complete destruction — and bearing witness to the aftermath.
The political chaos wreaked by Trump in the US and by Brexit in the UK are beyond his artistic responsibility, of course; rather, Landy’s hundreds of tiny sign holders — like pinpricks to the conscience — are reminders that the degradation of democratic norms now enveloping us proceeds from a failure of collective responsibility, the consequence of letting down our guard.
Michael Landy: Breaking News – New York continues at Sperone Westwater (257 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through December 20.