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FRANKFURT — A major museum survey of Cady Noland’s work — who would have thought it possible? Noland burst on the scene in the late 1980s, with six solo exhibitions in quick succession between 1988 and 1990, and then left the art world just as abruptly, following her last display of new work in a 2000 group show. But the dark vision threaded through her work has retained its power. Americana is everywhere, simultaneously familiar and sinister. Dynamic tensions between order and chaos are part of a precisely executed vision of a world that is both tawdry and violent.
Noland’s “Publyck Sculpture” (1994), presented in the Museum für Moderne Kunst’s dramatic, multi-story atrium, encompasses this range. Three tires suspended by chains from a spare support structure evoke a melding of pop art and minimalism that runs through her oeuvre. More urgent is the double association of an ad-hoc child’s swing set and a row of nooses. The whitewall tires, already out of general production well before Noland’s incorporation, suggest the flashy prosperity of a bygone era in the US automotive industry. And, reviewing the 1994 Paula Cooper Gallery exhibition where it initially appeared, Roberta Smith drew connections to photographic works showing a similar swing in front of the Death Valley hideout of murderous cult leader Charles Manson and his followers.
Taking over all three floors of the MMK’s wedge-shaped Hans Hollein building, 80-plus works produced by Noland between 1984 and 1999 strikingly showcase an intense 16-year period of exploration. Her subversion of minimalism is particularly evident in sculptures based on historic pillory devices. Along with structures made from various configurations of chainlink fencing, they call forth histories of punishment and containment — and, in this respect, are thematically connected to her blown-up tabloid stories (a different type of public shaming) silkscreened onto aluminum and other surfaces. There is also ample evidence of Noland’s strategy of using found materials to create assemblages that are both familiar and disturbing: American flags, walkers, handcuffs, Budweiser beer cans, metal chains, and assorted car parts all make repeat appearances — whether spread out across the floor, draped over freestanding structures made from scaffolding poles, suspended from walls, or piled together in metal baskets.
Given the topical nature of many of Noland’s references, it would be comforting to be able to dismiss the vision of a pathological public sphere explored in her work, as well as her 1987 essay “Towards a Metalanguage of Evil,” as hopelessly dated. Unfortunately, the opposite is true, considering the renewed relevance of Ronald Reagan’s loose grip on reality — now conveniently overlooked by his conservative admirers — and then-recent evidence of Richard Nixon’s criminality. Some of her subjects are well known: her sculpture “Oozewald” (1989) and related works depicting Lee Harvey Oswald recall both the violence and contested history surrounding the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. On the other hand, a silkscreened panel that quotes from the 1993 suicide note left by White House staff member Vince Foster ought to be obscure to contemporary audiences, but isn’t, due to Donald Trump’s revival of unfounded conspiracy theories about Foster’s death.
Noland’s fabled decision to withdraw from the art world makes this survey an impressive feat by Susanne Pfeffer, who assumed the directorship of the MMK at the beginning of the year and also served as the exhibition’s curator. Regarding the ongoing relevance of Noland’s work, she points to contemporary violence associated with spatial and ideological demarcations. According to Pfeffer, “The American dream, which Cady Noland addresses, has become a globalized reality characterized by the glorification of violence, radical individualism, consumption as both stimulus and fulfillment, and conflict in the form of separatism and exclusion.” But despite Pfeffer’s penchant for challenging work, any museum retrospective carries perils, here most apparent in an overall ambiance of austere elegance.
Creative acts of assembly are evident within works like “Stockade” (1987/88) or “Bloody Mess” (1988); but in contrast to early solo exhibitions, where individual examples were incorporated into larger, unexpected ensembles, here the pieces are largely isolated. Descriptions of Noland sometimes virtually inhabiting the gallery during installation suggest an open-ended creative process that extended from studio to exhibition space. The clear separation from work to work at the MMK does, however, reflect another truth, which is that the elements comprising those initial installations were dispersed into different hands — with an impressive roster of institutions and private collections reflected on the checklist. And there is definitely no invitation to visitors to occupy the pillories, as there was during the 1994 Paula Cooper show.
One unexpected aspect of the exhibition is its presentation of selected MMK collection works “in dialogue” with Noland’s: over a dozen artworks by Michel Asher, Joseph Beuys, Bill Bollinger, Kenneth Noland, Claes Oldenburg, Steven Parrino, Charlotte Posenenske, Sturtevant, Andy Warhol, and Franz West are interspersed with hers. The four collection works by Parrino, plus two more borrowed from other institutions, add up to a miniature retrospective of an artist whose connection to Noland is indicated by an important essay he wrote on the final work she exhibited in 2000. Posenenske makes for an even more intriguing comparison, given her industrialized version of abstraction and her distrust of the art world, the latter indicated by her creation of explicitly unlimited editions and her eventual departure for a career in sociology. On the other hand, one wonders how much to read into the placement of a painting by Noland’s father, Kenneth Noland, in a gallery demarcated by the row of scaffolding pipes that constitutes Cady Noland’s “Dead Space” (1989).
Despite the attention given to Noland’s withdrawal, anyone who follows art-world news closely will be aware that she has remained active behind the scenes, ensuring that her work is treated with proper respect when it comes up for auction, and consulting with curators. Recounting her curatorial preparations for the New Museum’s 2013 exhibition “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star,” Jenny Moore (now director of the Chinati Foundation) recalls being warned that Noland would be difficult, but finding, on the contrary, that “she was specific and exacting, precise and brilliant in the choice and placement of her work.” Tellingly, Moore observes, even when these same words are used to describe male artists, “they are seemingly never labeled ‘difficult.’” Although Noland did not travel to Frankfurt, Pfeffer spent an intensive several weeks with her in New York, where they planned the exhibition with the aid of a model of the museum and maquettes, followed by daily dialogues, via phone calls and photographs, while it was being installed.
There are even a few works in the exhibition with dates that extend into recent decades, including “Untitled” (2008), a metal basket assemblage with motorcycle helmets and other material, and “Untitled (Small tires)” (2005), listed as a loan from the artist. In addition, two sculptural works with bullets and other objects suspended in plexiglass carry slash dates, “1986/2018,” which, along with their gleaming perfection, suggest possible refabrication.
An important aspect of Noland’s vision has always been her exacting attention to objects and images that might otherwise be dismissed as detritus or ephemera. Even though her work is rooted firmly in the 20th century, with production ending punctually (other than a few minor exceptions) at its close, the fault lines she explored have continued to resonate. The exhibition provides a noteworthy opportunity to experience the dark thematic complexity as well as formal rigor of this remarkable body of work.
Cady Noland, curated by Susanne Pfeffer, continues at Museum for Moderne Kunst (Domstrasse 10, Frankfurt am Main, Germany) through March 31, 2019.