Monolith Mania Involves Chelsea
I am not blaming you if you never want to hear the word monolith again. It was surely one of the most abused terms of 2020. It officially means “a stone” (mono for one and lith for stone or carving, from the Greek word lithos) and was pushed into overtime last fall when social media stopped working Reports of “mysterious monoliths” were inundated.
Perhaps the real puzzle lies in how the word monolith, though incorrect, was instantly and globally adopted to describe this pillar – a pillar made of metal, not stone – that was discovered in November in a remote part of the Utah desert and a spawned series of copycat sculptures.
Such questions of nomenclature were re-awakened by “Between Earth and Heaven”, a beautiful and extraordinarily contemporary group exhibition at the Kasmin Gallery in Manhattan. It brings together 22 works, some newer, some fairly old, all of which are referred to as “monolithic sculptures”. This of course broadens the definition; Only four of the works are actually made of stone, while others are made of materials such as bronze, clay, and hand-blown glass. But let’s not elaborate on the point. We don’t want to be the monolith police.
Let’s just say the show is a spirited and extremely distracting look at the subject of verticality, with its inevitable ups and downs. There’s no easy way to explain how the shape of the freestanding pillar, a shape as elemental as a broomstick and as old as the first person to try stacking a few stones over the centuries using it so much importance was saddled. especially in relation to spiritual elevation and transcendence.
Compared to horizontal vectors, which the lying human figure and states of rest can evoke, the vertical one carries hints of the cosmos. Grounded on earth, facing up, it suggests the world beyond our desks – something bigger than ourselves and far more enduring. Famous megaliths like those in Stonehenge or on Easter Island do not aim to fathom our inner life or to provide insights into suffering, but rather capture a general longing for the majesty of the sky and the stars.
Some of this energy is recycled in Ugo Rondinone’s “The Dignified” (2019), the latest work on the Kasmin show, and is one of the most memorable. It consists of a charismatic giant with a large bluestone stone for the head and two different sized plates for the legs. His stance suggests his weight is being shifted to his back leg, signaling informality and making him feel less like a Paleolithic deity than an ordinary guy standing around waiting for his date.
In truth, the rondinone might look better outdoors, as might Huma Bhabha’s similarly oversized “God of Some Things” (2011), a chunky bronze goddess with enviable demeanor. Large format sculptures need to be viewed from a certain distance if they are to be seen in their entirety, including the air they enhance. On closer inspection, they can disappear into their own textures, and as you go through the show you may study surfaces rather than silhouettes – whether that means the blackened patina of Per Kirkeby’s “Torso I” (1983) or the earthy walnut of Saint Clair Cemins “Girls and Thoughts” (2014), a marvel of intricate carvings.
There are basically two types of columns on this show. There are sincere columns like the ones above. And in keeping with the postmodern taste for amused skepticism, there are ironic pillars – pillars that mock or deftly undermine the shape.
In the latter category, Marie Watt’s gripping “Blanket Story: Indian Territories, Round Dance, Grandmother” (2016) consists of a tall, four-sided column made up of a stack of neatly folded blankets. Instead of a rigid, immutable pillar, Watt, a citizen of the Seneca Nation, gave us a monument of warmth and variability. There are dozens of blankets in total, each of which is easily worn out, and it’s surprising how long you can spend thinking about a pink wool blanket made of satin versus a gray blanket with a flaky fringe.
Rachel Harrison, the New York sculptor, whose much-admired retrospective took place at the Whitney Museum a little over a year ago, offers another glimpse into traditional monuments. Her “Boss Revolution” (2015) is reminiscent of the pop-cultural form of a telephone booth, which is itself a monument of the 20th century. Harrison’s kiosk exudes a casual mess, with a black phone in the air hanging forever from its hook and an oversized photo of a woman hiding her face behind a hooded sweatshirt. Communication has clearly broken down, and the presence of white pages sticking out in the direction of the viewer and opening up a full-page ad for a personal injury attorney offers little security.
The column satire culminates in Tom Sachs’ “Here III” (2017), an inside joke that feels a little weak. It pays homage to Barnett Newman, the revered Abstract Expressionist, whose characteristic “Zip” paintings, with their thin stripes isolated from wide fields of color, have given verticality a new impetus. Newman’s “Here III” (1965-66), an elongated steel plinth that rises into the sky from its Cor-Ten base (it’s not on display and belongs to the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas), is the inspiration for Sachs sculpture of the same name, an intentionally sloppy and inferior replica that looks unfinished and has pencil marks and exposed screws. It seems to be saying, “I’ll never be as good as Barney.”
James Lee Byars also openly robs a predecessor’s column. Byars, a dandy figure in a top hat who died in 1997, was loved for his performances and discarded paper works. But his “Figure of Death” (1987), which occupies a separate space in Kasmin, is the opposite of short-lived. Consisting of a stack of white marble cubes that pay homage to Constantin Brancusi’s “Endless Column”, this suggests that even a renegade like Byars occasionally yearned for durability and a surface of smudge-free perfection.
The older artists on the show, on the other hand, seem to be conflict-free in their love of art. Irony is ironed out of existence in the work of Beverly Pepper, whose “Ptolemy’s Wedge II” (2010) revolves around balance, and Isamu Noguchi, the incomparable expert on rocks. His late carving “Gift of Stone” (1982) is a 7 foot high column made of light gray granite that rewards a close look. What at first glance appears to be a typical flint surface turns out to be texturally dramatic, with dents and dents and cascades of pointillist points. “Gift of Stone” culminates at the top at a 45 degree angle, making the piece look like a Stone Age tool for giants.
Like most group shows, this one provokes the strange reflex that leads you to look for noticeable omissions. Where is Brancusi to start with? Where are Anne Truitt and John McCracken, both exemplary minimalist sculptors who turned the pillar into a vehicle for amazing displays of brilliant colors? Last fall, their names popped up as possible creators of the pop-up column in Utah, which has since been removed and whose creator remains unknown.
Despite its overarching theme, “Between Earth and Heaven” does not want to be final. Nor does it seek the scientific weight of a museum survey. It is not accompanied by a catalog, and the information made available to visitors is largely limited to the vital signs. Even so, the show is ambitious in its historical course and includes a selection of antique and tribal pieces.
There is a carved stone pillar from Veracruz, Mexico, as well as wooden figures and masks from Central Africa and Papua New Guinea. While looking a little lost and out of context, together they offer a generous reminder of the essential role ancient and tribal art played in the development of modern sculpture, and taught everyone from Picasso down that sometimes the most emotionally “real” form is the is one that has had realistic details removed.
“Between Earth and Heaven” comes at a random time. Locked up and pandemic mad, most of us had more than our share of horizontality lately, staying at home and shuffling from room to room. “It is not in our power to travel vertically,” wrote the French philosopher Simone Weil, explaining why we “cannot take a single step towards heaven”.
But when our feet cannot travel vertical distances, our eyes can. The point here is to look at vertically oriented sculptures, regardless of whether they are technical monoliths or not.