In September 1967, the artist Robert Smithson boarded the No. 30 bus at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan on a science-fiction journey to his hometown. In his account of the trip, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” Smithson describes a decaying post-industrial landscape where even the equipment for building a new highway looked like “pre-historic creatures trapped in the mud, or, better, extinct machines—mechanical dinosaurs stripped of their skin.” In his day, what is now called the High Line—the park built atop an old elevated railway spur on Manhattan’s West Side—was not yet such a ruin; it was entirely abandoned only in 1980. Since the first section of the High Line opened as a park in 2009, it has been as good an advertisement as any for an outlook that is surely the antithesis of Smithson’s pessimistic vision of a landscape pocked with “monumental vacancies that define, without trying, the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures.” Such terrain has proven ideal for real estate speculation, with its memory-traces offering a decorative “distressed” context for what might otherwise seem too glossy and boringly upmarket—dull.
The High Line project is not yet finished, and if you want a taste of the spur’s ramshackle grit from the days when only intrepid trespassers found their way onto its forgotten tracks, you can book a guided walking tour of the unfinished portion, which runs above a railyard that at some point is supposed to be occupied by sixteen mixed-use skyscrapers encompassing more than 12 million square feet of space. The topic of the tour is not the High Line itself but rather “Caterpillar,” a group of seven sculptures by the Brooklyn-based artist Carol Bove (on view through May), and the latest installment in the High Line’s ongoing public art program. Three of Bove’s pieces are rectilinear assemblages built of rusted I-beams that look as much like remains from the spur’s old rail machinery—or the flayed dinosaurs of Smithson’s Passaic—as brand-new constructions. A couple of others are, by contrast, snow-white curlicues of powder-coated steel, looking like bits of giant springs that have been partially unsprung. It’s strange to see them sitting amid weeds and rubble.
Whereas the I-beam constructions seem like remains from the past, the curlicues appear to have dropped in from a spiffy future that’s still as desirable as a child’s new toy. A representation of the present, full of plans and halfway built, might be the smallest of the pieces here, Visible Things and Colors (2013). Made of concrete and grids of little brass cubes, it could be a sort of architectural model, a reflection of the obdurate plans and glittering future being fashioned for the area. But another of the works, Monel (2012), might be an admonition against such ambitions, at least if you know its backstory. Essentially a flat slab of bronze, a kind of horizontal monolith, Monel was previously shown at last year’s Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany. Not long after being returned to Bove’s studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn, it was engulfed by the salty floodwaters of Hurricane Sandy, which corroded its glossy surface and introduced an unanticipated patina of decay. For Bove as for Smithson, there are always new ruins in the future; some of them we can learn to live with.
Another seven of Bove’s works are on view at the Museum of Modern Art through January 12 under the title “The Equinox.” Among them are an I-beam structure (Chesed, 2013) and one of the coiled and uncoiled powder-coated steel pieces (although its title, The White Tubular Glyph, 2012, belies the fact that one section of it is actually black); still another is very similar to Visible Things and Colors on the High Line, except that along with brass squares it uses high-density fiberboard, painted white, rather than concrete and feels correspondingly lighter. At MoMA, Bove has put the formal vocabulary of “Caterpillar” in a different context. No weeds here: the seven works are kept immaculate and untouchable on a vast white platform. Nearby, a mass of debris—wood, rusty wire and who knows what else—seems to belong to a different formal idiom altogether. Could it have been retrieved from the unkempt mess of the unrenovated portion of the High Line? Its title is Disgusting Mattress (2012). Maybe it’s another remnant of Sandy’s depredations; in any case, one more souvenir of disaster. The title of another piece at MoMA, Triguna (2012), is a reference to “the three universal qualities (gunas) of all experience in the Ayurvedic tradition: light, darkness, and change,” as the wall text notes. What’s remarkable is the understated way Bove’s art evokes all three.