In a memorable scene from the biopic Houdini, released in 1953, the illusionist’s wife bemoans a performance at which the audience pelted her husband with tomatoes: "Nobody seems to want your magic, Harry." It’s a gut punch to the young magician: an unwanted magician is one in need of a career change. As truth-bending as the film infamously was, Bess’s lament feels plausible. Illusionist magic is gimmickry. Escaping while handcuffed from a locked box dropped into the bay, on the other hand–that requires dexterity and stamina, total physical control. Houdini’s real trick was to unlock the organic magic of the human body, and doing so over and over made him an icon. But nobody seemed to realize that Houdini’s hands were tied in more ways than one. The bawdy throngs who paid pennies to witness his death-defying acts demanded increasingly riskier antics. Houdini obliged, and by the time of his "buried alive" stunts, his lust to delight had boxed him into a corner; he had rendered his past work obsolete.
Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of the disappearance from the art world of the artist Cady Noland. While Houdini pushed himself until the very end–dying of peritonitis a week after his final performance in Detroit, in 1926–Noland simply walked away from her craft without explanation, an artist still very much "in demand." Everyone had wanted her magic. Noland was born in 1956 and grew up in New York City, the daughter of the highly regarded "Color Field" abstract painter Kenneth Noland. She likely began showing her work in the ’80s; the earliest piece I’m aware of is a no-longer-extant Rauschenbergian combine from 1984 with the chilly title Total Institution. Objects like a telephone receiver, clips, a toilet seat and a rubber chicken hang from a wall-mounted horizontal rack. During her brief career Noland’s gaze would remain fixated on institutional control and the American public spectacle of cruelty, and her aesthetic would grow increasingly embittered, clinical and mean.
Counting her debut solo show in 1988 at the nonprofit gallery White Columns in New York City, Noland had at least six solo shows over the next two years, a glut even by the standards of today’s über-productive artists. During an era when art got "loose" ("scatter art" became acceptable lingo for describing installation art of the late ’80s and early ’90s), Noland’s tightened up. Her installations were typically amalgamations of hardware found in stores and on the city’s sidewalks–not sculptures in the traditional sense but exercises in arrangement. She had an affinity for gleaming aluminum, chrome and other metals–some seemingly detached from machines and appliances–as well as the seedy Americana of the lower classes. Both were stand-ins for a national culture that was slipping and had been stripped of its vigor.
Despite a doggedly clinical aesthetic, Noland liked junk–spills, ooze, trash tossed from moving vehicles, wrecked cars and incomplete roadside construction. "It’s an American trip to take huge joy in wasting things," she said in 1994. James Dean’s death was interesting not only because he was James Dean but because it "highlights the trashing of appealing supplies," namely metal. "The joy in joyriding is the joy of damaging major metal." The title of her 1994 interview with Mark Kremer and Camiel van Winkel is "Metal Is a Major Thing, and a Major Thing to Waste," a direct quote of hers.
Metal was the foundation of her installations and the surface onto which she had been transferring images at least since 1989. When she produced silkscreens of murdered or scorned media celebrities (Abraham Lincoln, Betty Ford, Lee Harvey Oswald), she transferred the images from mass media sources onto aluminum or other metals and leaned the thing right against the wall; as she once said in an interview, she was interested in how consumer society reduces people to objects. Pieces like Booth–The Big Plunge and I Brushed My Teeth This Morning casually used images of incidental artifacts–the set of clothes worn by John Wilkes Booth on the day he murdered Lincoln or a page from a history book about the incident–and blew them up (hyperexposed them) on metal sheets. Sometimes she would print on unusually shiny metal so that a viewer’s reflection in these metallic rectangles would be comically distorted, as in a fun-house mirror. Once–again at White Columns–Noland suspended a metal pole in the door frame, blocking the entryway. A miniature American flag hung limply from the pole, a bluntly abject manifestation of patriotism. Along those lines, she also began building stockades. If the Pop generation preceding her used national symbols as question marks (or dollar signs), Noland used them as ironic exclamation points.