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Marble Sculpture from 350 B.C. to Last Week is one of two shows — both curated by Gian Enzo Sperone — currently on view at Sperone Westwater’s citadel on the Bowery. (The other, installed on the third and fourth floors, is Portraits/Self-Portraits from the 16th to the 21st Century — go for the Picasso alone.)
I can’t say I wasn’t charmed by Marble Sculpture’s title, though it’s a tad overblown (there are several works from 2011, but none from last week). And I was pleasantly surprised by the almost gauche clutter I encountered on the gallery’s routinely Spartan first floor, with thirty-one midsize-to-extra-large artworks from wildly different historical periods crowded together like refugees from an intergalactic conflict.
My attention, however, was immediately monopolized by Tom Sachs’ marble garbage can. It’s called “Brute” (2009-2010), after the brand name etched in bold black letters just below its rim. It is nearly life-size (32 inches tall, if it weren’t toppled on its side) and its marble is whiter than white — a striking level of brightness accentuated by the two yellowed Roman sculptures (both 2nd century CE) flanking it: a ravaged, noseless “Bust of a Young Man” and an equally damaged (no head, no hands) vestal virgin.
Endless metaphors can be spun around the juxtaposition of these three objects, and for this reason alone it is difficult to dismiss Sachs’ piece as a joke or unalloyed kitsch (as you can, respectively, with Bertozzi & Casoni’s “GorilBattista” (2011), a decapitated gorilla head, à la John the Baptist, served up on a trash-strewn platter, and Barry X Ball’s “Purity” (2008-2011), a syrupy bust of a veiled woman — her tilted head and uncertain features recalling Medardo Rosso, but without the Italian master’s delicate sense of mystery – carved out of translucent white Iranian onyx).
“Brute” is obviously jokey in intent, however, and the longer you inspect its cylindrical perfection, the more darkly hilarious it becomes. Its prima facie satirical element — its material — upends the idea of the precious object while luxuriating in its own snarky precious-objectness, but in a way that is qualitatively different from the other works in the show that simulate everyday items (and there are four: Not Vital’s “Untitled (Binoculars),” 1988; Mario Dellavedova’s typewriter, “Il faut respecter le noir un rien le prostitute,” 2011; Fabio Viale’s intertwined car tires, “Infinite,” 2011; and Ai Weiwei’s “Marble Doors,” 2007).
These four works invest the medium of marble with varying degrees of whimsy and sobriety (with a premium on whimsy), while Sachs’ receptacle seems calculated to bite the hand that feeds it. I say “seems” because, although he has proven himself a sharp-witted satirist, Sachs is not a William Powhida-style art world agent provocateur, and so my reading of the sculpture and the artist’s concept may diverge significantly. In fact, Sachs’ renderings of utilitarian objects in other sculptures, such as a cinderblock, a table, a bench and a chair, engage an eclectic mix of materials and formal conceits, and so this work may be one experiment among many. However, when it comes to art, as we know, creative misinterpretation is the name of the game.
And so consider the implications of a marble garbage can in light of the battle royal now being waged in the headlines and the streets between the financial elites and everybody else. As an object, “Brute” must have been absurdly expensive to quarry and craft, and unless the hollowing out of its interior resulted in a miraculously unbroken, reusable block, its fabrication would have been inexcusably wasteful as well — a significant chunk of gorgeous natural material chipped down to rubble.
What can we make of so much skill, labor and expense going into the creation of a simulacrum of a garbage can? An unsightly civic necessity ordinarily, and preferably, relegated to the margins of daily life, it is transformed into art by dint of its material richness and profound uselessness. We’ve seen this before — 52 years ago in fact — with Jasper Johns’ “Painted Bronze” (1960), a hand painted cast of two Ballentine ale cans that he made in response to Willem de Kooning’s oft-repeated remark about Johns’ dealer, Leo Castelli: “That son of a bitch Castelli. You could give him two beer cans and he could sell them.”
“And Leo,” as Johns reported in Emile de Antonio’s classic documentary, Painters Painting (1973), “sold them.”
In her book, The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art (MIT Press, 2003), Martha Buskirk describes Johns’ “Painted Bronze” in terms that also apply to “Brute,” but a crucial difference:
Johns’s version of the readymade came at the idea from a different direction than [Marcel] Duchamp’s initial gesture. Where Duchamp selected objects for their unremarkable qualities in an act that amounted to a challenge to fine-art traditions from the realm of mass production, Johns was undermining from within, using time-honored materials and methods but disguising those means so that the work would masquerade as an object from outside that tradition. Johns was also invoking a particular type of object, not just any beer but a specific brand, known through its trademarked name as well as the design of its packaging. (pp. 66-67)
Sachs, like Duchamp and Johns, chooses an object for its “unremarkable qualities,” but in this instance he drops the “masquerade” that would present the work “as an object from outside [the fine art] tradition.” His marble effigy aggressively asserts its lineage within that tradition – and, unless he painted it battleship gray, how could it not? Nothing telegraphs “art history” better than marble, a sentiment seconded by the trash can’s two sidekicks from ancient Rome. Is Sachs then, in the baldest of puns, consigning that history to the dustbin? And what, if anything, can we read into the title, “Brute”?
I suppose it all depends on how far to the left you stand on the cultural/political divide, but in this our storming-of-the-Bastille moment, wouldn’t it be ignoring the obvious not to detect an indictment of that sliver of the collector class whose ancien régime wealth — maintained and compounded through thuggish economic stratagems — has swarmed our fragile aesthetic ecosystem with Versailles vulgarities? And what does it tell us when the measure of a dealer’s mettle has ramped up from selling lovingly painted ale cans to intensively engineered garbage pails?
Nothing, perhaps — at least nothing out of the ordinary for a late-capitalist business cycle — but perhaps not. As a work of art, “Brute” offers little more than surface perfection and material lavishness. You can say the same thing about Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog” (1994-2000), which a descendent of Louis XIV called “a desecration” when it landed in Versailles back in 2008.
“Balloon Dog” is made of high chromium stainless steel, which frees it, like a soap bubble, from the past’s gravitational pull. There is something uglier and gutsier, about Sachs’ calculated offense. To stare into the bottom of his trash barrel is to sink, inexorably, into a coldly polished tomb — defunct, discarded and hauled out to the curb.
Marble Sculpture from 350 B.C. to Last Week continues at Sperone Westwater (257 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 25.