As the New Year approaches and brings the serene grayness of the winter season along, Degree Critical revisits the winter of 2012 with a review by editor-in-chief Jessica Holmes (Class of 2013) on the “Surface, Support, Process: The 1960s Monochrome in the Guggenheim Collection” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Holmes’ piece looks at works by artists such as Robert Ryman, John McCracken, and Robert Mangold, and furthermore considers the institution’s curating in this context. To quote Holmes, this is “a thoughtful, sedate meditation;” and her words reflect a similar sentiment throughout: Holmes’ writing reads clear and mindful like a Ryman work itself. In the end, the feeling it imparts is as energizing as her words, “as if biting into a grapefruit first thing in the morning.” Happy New Year.
—Cigdem Asatekin, Managing Editor
It was a one-colored world on the Upper East Side this winter. While Luxembourg & Dayan extended their popular exhibition Grisaille, featuring works executed mainly in gray, the Guggenheim Museum of Art hosted an exhibition similar in theme, though divergent in execution. Surface, Support, Process: The 1960s Monochrome in the Guggenheim Collection, showcased ten works from the museum’s permanent collection. Whereas Alison Gingeras, the curator of Grisaille, used the notion of “gray” as an excuse to bring together an impressive number of expensive works while sidestepping an actual thesis, the Surface, Support, Process curators Megan Fontanella and Lauren Hinkson seem to have considered thematic cohesion when making their selections for this tightly focused show. The outcome was a thoughtful, sedate meditation offered by an institution not often regarded as being especially thoughtful or sedate.
As the upcoming John Chamberlain exhibition was being installed in the Guggenheim’s main rotunda, much of the iconic building was closed off to patrons. As a result, disappointed visitors crammed into the Thannhauser Collection, a selection of some of the museum’s choice holdings permanently installed in the larger of the two annex galleries on the second floor.
Surface, Support, Process was located in a smaller gallery off this larger one—a remote area in the museum where few seemed to venture, at least on the day I was there. The stillness, in combination with the large and muted artworks, created an unearthly atmosphere in the gallery. Quite a few of the pieces were white, gray, or shades of white or gray. As I walked through the room, I felt as if I was communing with ghosts. Though it went unmentioned, the tenets of Minimalism were acutely felt. In their brief introductory statement, the curators noted that by adhering to one color (or tonal range), artists in the 1960s were able to fully explore the possibilities of not only their materials, but also their chosen mediums. Their assertion was nicely supported by the chosen work.
To the left upon entering the gallery, the viewer was confronted by two enormous Robert Ryman works dominating one alcove of the space. Surface Veil II (c. 1970), and Surface Veil III (1971), were the alpha and the omega of the exhibition, and they set its tone. Ryman mixed white oil paint with blue chalk on both canvases, resulting in paintings where, though the white dominates, suggestions of color are noticeable. A close reading of the two works even reveals bright blue edges around the huge swathes of white—evidence of the pure colored chalk that has been mostly diluted. The two elucidate Ryman’s abiding interest in his materials, and when inspected closely the mottled exteriors of his canvases give the uncanny feeling of apparitions arising from their surfaces.
Though several of the artists one might expect were accounted for, it was refreshing to see several unlikelier—that is not to say unknown—artists included in the exhibition. Untitled (1962) by Tadaaki Kuwayama is an austerely composed, yet deeply felt work. Onto four boards that he assembled into a larger square, the artist mounted Japanese paper by means of white acrylic paint washes. There is fragility to the piece and I found the textural effect of the strips of delicate paper surprisingly affecting, as if I was inspecting clean bandages wrapped gingerly around a fresh wound.
I also had a visceral reaction to John McCracken’s Blue Plank(1969). Its aggressively sunny blue was an obvious standout in the otherwise subdued room. The consistency of color and simplicity of form is an occasion to examine closely the surface of the sculpture. Despite its industrially manufactured appearance, McCracken made it by hand through a painstaking method of pouring resin over a fiberglass-coated plywood board, then sanding and buffing to achieve the desired effect. A close inspection of its surface yields no blemishes. Blue Plank was paired with a Robert Mangold work, Neutral Pink Area (1966). Though much subtler than the McCracken piece (the two irregularly-shaped boards mounted together range in shade gradation from sand to salmon), this work was the other clear shot of color in the room. Together, the two engaged in resonant conversation. Looking at them after having viewed quite a few gray or white works in succession by artists like Agnes Martin, Brice Marden, and Ellsworth Kelly, I felt reenergized, as if biting into a grapefruit first thing in the morning.
As a whole, the selected pieces offered a measured contemplation of a specific moment in American art; the show’s intimate scale also helps. By choosing to highlight only a handful of works, the curators allowed for unhurried reflection on the part of the viewer. The approach is quite different from that undertaken in the Grisaille exhibition. While fun to look at, the centuries-spanning works assembled seemed hung less for their purpose of similarity in color—the ostensible thesis for the show—than for their desirability as objects of conspicuous consumption.
In an age where boutique shops claim to “curate” their spring shoe selections, and gourmet grocery stores “curate” their spice offerings, the very notion of what it means to curate seems to be in a state of flux. Funnily enough, the Guggenheim is the institution that has probably done most to morph the idea of what it means to curate in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, the museum that gave us “The Art of the Motorcycle,” the Giorgio Armani show, and the Matthew Barney spectacle has now given us something entirely different—a successful exercise in old-school curating, where thoughtful research and a careful assemblage of work prevailed.