The Impermanent Sculptures of Robert Grosvenor

Grosvenor shares almost nothing with other sculptors working today: He has not branded his work, nor has he made variations on a theme.

Robert Grosvenor, “Untitled” (2016), plywood, aluminum, steel, fiberglass and Plexiglas, estimated dimensions 84 x 360 x 240 inches (all images © Robert Grosvenor, courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, photos by Steve Probert)

“Patience” is a word that critics and curators often use when dealing with Robert Grosvenor’s work. The viewer needs to be patient in order to begin to fully experience it. This is how Anne Rochette and Wade Saunders put it in their article on Grosvenor, “Plain Seeing,” that appeared in Art in America in October 2005. 

His work is not harder to perceive than other sculpture; it is harder to “see,” and takes time.

It seems that Grosvenor is also patient when it comes to making the work.  According to Rochette and Saunders:

Grosvenor advances slowly; he has completed 18 sculptures and around 35 small drawings and collages since 1975.

This averages out to about one sculpture every two years.

I think another word that could be used to describe Grosvenor’s work, but one that observers are understandably reluctant to bring into the discussion, is “mystifying.” We see concrete blocks, fiberglass, steel posts, a table-like structure, plywood, Plexiglas, paint and steel tubing — all commonplace materials. Grosvenor does not disguise what he uses, and what he does with his materials is straightforward. He is not trying to wow viewers with his means of production. In fact, he shares almost nothing with other sculptors working today: He has not branded his work, nor has he made variations on a theme.

Detail, Robert Grosvenor, “Untitled” (2016), plywood, aluminum, steel, fiberglass and Plexiglas, estimated dimensions 84 x 360 x 240 inches

His exhibition, Robert Grosvenor, at Paula Cooper Gallery, consists of two sculptures dated 1991 and 2016, and a selection of seven drawings and works on paper dated between 1974 and 2010. While the works do not initially seem to have much in common, one feature many of them share is a strong horizontal: three overlapping strips of masking tape placed above a pencil line in the drawing “Untitled” (1975); a strip of painted metal attached to a sheet of paper in “Untitled” (ca. 1970-72); and in the sculpture “Untitled” (2016), two steel pipes stretched across two rectangular plywood bases, which are painted tan and placed a precise distance from each other.

Grosvenor’s horizontals evoke the meeting of sea and sky as well as desert and sky — both of which he experienced as a child. This is what he said to Hans Ulrich Obrist in an interview posted on the website of the Max Hetzler Gallery:

I spent my young years in Newport, Rhode Island, near the water. The water there is always in the distance — a flat, horizontal line. Then we spent a lot of time in Arizona, which has a similarly horizontal landscape.

I bring this up because we think of modern sculpture, starting with Constantin Brancusi, as being about the vertical, about rising up from a base. The other thing about these two horizons, which Grosvenor does not mention and Obrist never asks about, is the intensity of the light.

The other thing that struck me about the works on paper, especially the charcoal drawing “Untitled” (1992) on the wall behind the receptionist’s desk, is how delicate Grosvenor’s line can be. Once I saw that his drawings embodied a rigorous fragility, I began to see that his work was even more unique than I first thought.

I believe that Grosvenor is one of the most significant sculptors to emerge in the last 50 years, and that the art world has yet to deal with this and what it means. Instead, we continue to celebrate monumental sculptures that direct our passage through them, like obedient children in search of a thrill. And when we are not doing that, we are praising fabricated enlargements of kitsch, as if they are the penile extension that answers every need.

Installation view of Robert Grosvenor

Grosvenor does not rely on fabrications, nor is he about craft. In his use of cement blocks and his repurposing of rusted car hoods, he shares something with those anonymous laborers who build vernacular architecture, the kind you might glimpse while driving through rural America. There are times when his offbeat work seems almost functional. Here, the operative word is “almost”: Grosvenor is able to get right up to the line separating art from function without either crossing or commenting on it. That’s his gift, and I don’t know of another sculptor who has it. He is not being ironic, or charming, or trying to impress the viewer.  He does not resort to being obsequious, as Richard Serra or Jeff Koons have in the last decade.

Placed in the smaller gallery, “Untitled” (1991) consists of a base, a vertical rod, and a roof-like top. The base is made of two rusted car hoods bolted together to form a curved plane or low, mound-like shape, which is resting on four cement blocks, one at each corner.  A vertical rod extends out of the middle of the base. It supports a curved fiberglass plane whose convex underside is covered in plastic wrap. “Untitled” evokes a utilitarian counterparts in the everyday work. However, as soon as one comes to mind, it refutes them. If the post with the convex top suggests an umbrella that could protect someone against rain and sunlight, this does neither. The base is impractical and the top seems too small to do much of anything but sit there, echoing the base’s form. There is an absurdity to this work that never becomes explicit. The echo between the top and the base becomes an open-ended continuum of differences and similarities, which is the closest that Grosvenor ever comes to spelling things out. We are pleasantly baffled, or should be.

In the gallery’s main space, viewers encounter “Untitled” (2016). This sculpture consists of two separate constructions. One is a boxlike frame made of eight steel pipes welded together, four legs held together at the top by four horizontal crossbeams. A sheet of yellowed fiberglass has been attached to the four sides of frame’s top, like a tablecloth that sags because it has no table beneath it. The second construction consists of two painted, rectangular plywood pedestals. A pair of steel pipes is laid across them. An aluminum pole rises out of each pedestal. An elliptical piece of cut Plexiglas, which has been sanded until its surface is an opaque milky white, is attached to the pole — like a ragged banner or an imperfect angel’s wing.

Installation view of Robert Grosvenor

The yellowed fiberglass shares something with the yellow base, while the sanded Plexiglas and silvery shine of the steel pipes bring other tonalities and intensities of light into play. With the late morning light pouring in the skylight above one of the pedestals, “Untitled” became an abstract landscape-cum-structure interacting with its surroundings. The gallery’s white walls become part of the sculpture, not just a backdrop against which we see the object. Seeing “Untitled” as a landscape (complete with clouds) or as a structure (with banners) undoes any literal way we might regard it. Meanwhile, the boxlike frame with sagging fiberglass adds another element. Grosvenor’s structures are neither unitary nor separate entities, as the steel poles make evident; they establish a strange dialogue that invites viewers to tease out the relationship between them. Joined by the pipes, the two pedestal pieces are like parents, while the boxlike frame is the child, both in the larger unit’s orbit and separate from them.

Grosvenor’s use of rusted car hoods and sanded Plexiglas introduces the element of time into his work. One becomes aware of change and vulnerability, and that nothing is permanent. The plastic wrapping on the underside of the fiberglass panel echoes the rusted surface of the base. This is what separates him from his Minimalist peers, and from those that came after. His work acknowledges time’s passing, and its sensitivity to light and tonality even celebrates it. This is exactly what a large portion of America and certainly the art world cannot do — recognize that change is inevitable. Rather than being open to change, each tries to control the narrative. No wonder Grosvenor has never quite fit in. This is also one reason why his work is important and necessary.

Robert Grosvenor continues at Paula Cooper Gallery (521 W. 21st Street, Chelsea) through March 17.

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