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.
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Such art might, no doubt, be a little too understated for some tastes. Disgusting Mattress looks like sculpture in the pristine setting of MoMA, but on the High Line it would be just another bit of rubbish. By contrast, the works in powder-coated steel might seem too obviously sculptural in the museum, if not in the weeds. But permeability to its context is essential to Bove’s art. “A sculpture’s unfixed identity is a basic point of entry for me,” she’s said. “An artwork can be repelling for its cheesiness and conservatism and at the same time its elegance will point to the possibility for some kind of heightened experience.” The aspect of Bove’s art that points toward the search for heightened—I might even say transcendent—experience can best be seen at a third New York exhibition of her work. It’s in the West Village at Maccarone, where Bove has a solo show with the riddling title “RA, or Why is an orange like a bell?”, and she has also curated (at a project space around the corner, with Philip Smith) an exhibition called “Qor Corporation: Lionel Ziprin, Harry Smith and the Inner Language of Laminates” (both through October 19). The difference is not so much in Bove’s sculptures themselves; they are similar to the ones at MoMA and the High Line. It’s rather in the context she’s created by placing them in juxtaposition to the work of the cult figures Ziprin and Smith—of whom more shortly.
A word like “transcendent” can set off alarms. It doesn’t sound very critical or rigorous, and it might evoke New Age claptrap. The risk of plunging into some sort of hippie-dippy self-delusion comes with the territory that Bove’s been exploring ever since her sculpture began attracting attention a decade or so ago. Especially in the beginning (and in less overt ways, still today), the matter of her work—its materials and subject matter—has often mined or evoked the 1960s, which for her was the time of “a spontaneous widespread movement to reevaluate culture and to investigate being.”
It was a period of political unrest, but above all of spiritual upheaval. Among Bove’s first works to draw notice were sculptures in the form of shelving units displaying arrays of books and objects. Typical of these is one from 2002–03 called Conversations With Jorge Luis Borges, which takes its name, as you might guess, from one of the approximately twenty paperbacks it includes—some others being George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and D.T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. Some of the books are shelved upright, some have been placed in piles (spine out or bottom out), but two are held open to display black-and-white picture spreads: one showing African sculpture, the other what looks like an encounter-group exercise in which a scrum of people is holding someone up above their heads; the elevated person looks full of joy. Also on the shelves are a metronome and a sort of abstract object made of sticks and string, a kind of arts-and-crafts-class version of Constructivist sculpture (apparently, it illustrates the structural principle that Buckminster Fuller dubbed “tensegrity”). The selection of books is, of course, singular; it could have been the bookshelf in the home of some kid I went to school with, whose parents were much hipper and more worldly than my own. But the piece is not only about the content of the books it contains; it’s also about style and form—how the wood-and-metal shelving unit is as much a product of its time as the books, and how the square configuration of the piece as a whole recalls the back-to-basics aesthetics of the minimalist art of the 1960s.
Could such a sculpture, a Borgesian time machine, be owned by someone whose apartment is filled with books overflowing from shelves and piling up everywhere? I doubt it. Entropy would eventually erase the carefully constructed yet fragile distinction between Bove’s fastidiously arranged books and randomly accumulated new ones, and the old ones might even be read again. For Bove, that’s as it should be. Although her work teems with clever references to the history of modern art, it does not reaffirm the idea of a self-contained and autonomous history of art. Instead, it suggests that the impetus behind changes in art are part and parcel of broader cultural trends.
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Bove no longer makes pieces like Conversations With Jorge Luis Borges, but what has endured is her focus on the intellectual process by which fairly ordinary things can coalesce into a work of art and just as easily splinter apart and return to the quotidian world. As she recently told the critic Brian Sholis, “My sculptures can and must be taken apart and then put back together. Disaggregation is important. Therefore, each element needs to maintain its individual identity, its autonomy.”
Given that she seems to keep lowering the boundary between art and nonart to the point of near indiscernibility, it’s not surprising that the two shows at Maccarone left me wondering if there’s any difference between one person’s art and another’s, between an exhibition of Bove’s work and one she has curated. Although the show on Ziprin and Smith was as informative about those two fascinating and unlikely figures as one could hope—this is not one of those infuriating affairs where the curator calls more attention to herself than to her subject—in some ways it doesn’t seem that different from a Bove exhibition. One reason is that works by Smith, Ziprin, and his wife and constant collaborator Joanne Ziprin, as well as by a little-known West Coast sculptor named Richard Berger, had also crept into Bove’s show at Maccarone. Just as her art can encompass books and knickknacks by others, it can subsume their drawings, paintings and sculptures.
But I took Bove at her word and saw the show on Smith and Ziprin as just what it purports to be: a trawl through the archives meant to cast light on some of the most fascinating and mysterious characters in the American culture of the 1950s and ’60s. Smith is widely known as the compiler of the groundbreaking Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection of then–nearly forgotten music recorded between 1927 and 1932. Sourced entirely from Smith’s own collection of 78 rpm “race” and “hillbilly” records, it was released by Folkways Records as three sets of two LPs each in 1952 and jump-started the nascent folk music revival that came to a peak a decade later with artists like Bob Dylan; it was a harbinger of the re-emergence of what Greil Marcus would later call “the old, weird America.” But Smith was also a pioneering experimental filmmaker who specialized in abstract animations, influenced at first by the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, as well as a painter and graphic artist, although few of his works in these media survive. And as the child of Theosophists, Smith was an adept of the occult, “the Paracelsus of the Chelsea Hotel.”
For his friend Lionel Ziprin, coming as he did from a line of mystics and renowned rabbis, the supernatural was likewise all in the family. Ziprin thought of himself as a poet, but he seems mainly to have been a nerve center for the bohemia of the Lower East Side, at whose apartment artists, filmmakers and musicians would mingle—Bruce Conner and Jordan Belson, Thelonious Monk and Bob Dylan. Ziprin was a lifelong student of Kabbalah. His wife Joanna was a designer, model and sometime artist; clearly, it was she who had to make sure of the practicalities of life in the family, and so it was she who conceived the idea—how 1950s is this?—that they support themselves by going into the greeting-card business. Thus in 1951, with the intention “to design, perfect and market an idea in greeting cards that we believe in…having to do with imagination, bits of black magic and shoe strings,” they created a company called Ink Weed Arts. It was probably the black magic that doomed the firm, which was sold off three years later, near bankruptcy, only to be succeeded by another similar—and similarly short-lived—venture, the Haunted Inkbottle. Then, in 1958, the Ziprins came across a magical new material just developed by DuPont, called Mylar. They had the idea that decorative designs could be printed on Mylar and laminated to just about anything that could be used for any imaginable purpose. To promote the idea, the Qor Corporation was founded. As one of its veterans recalled, it was “a result of both genius, lots of marijuana, and arrogance.” It just might have worked, but Lionel Ziprin had no intention of actually manufacturing anything that would then have to be sold: “I’m not going to peddle it! I’m not going to sell it on Delancey Street!” He wanted to license his designs to big corporations and collect royalties. He found no takers.
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The Ziprins’ efforts to make it big in business have rightly been called “one of the most curious and wonderfully cracked attempts at merging Beat sensibility with American consumerism.” No wonder an artist like Bove is fascinated by them. That the seemingly most anodyne decorative motifs might nonetheless be impregnated with diagrammatic content of supposedly cosmic significance, such as the Kabbalistic Tree of Life (a favorite of Smith’s) and allusions to materials found in books with titles like An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy, sounds like a scenario from the paranoid fantasies of a Don DeLillo character. It also offers an eccentric parallel to the oft-heard demand that the barriers between art and daily life be dissolved.
Today, as the art world becomes increasingly corporatized, artists (and not only Bove) are finding impossible projects like Ziprin’s and Smith’s more appealing than ever. Where the artists go, the curators follow—and why not, since (as with Bove) the boundary between artmaking and curating has become as porous as the boundary between one person’s present and another’s past. This year’s Venice Biennale, for instance—which I haven’t had a chance to see in person—has thrown its net far beyond the official art world to find, as one observer puts it, “esoteric cosmologies…dark fantasies, enigmatic weirdness, monomaniacal tunnel vision, and much else in like vein.” It sounds like Ziprin and Smith would have fit right in, alongside such historical precursors (and merely unofficial artists) as Carl Gustav Jung, Rudolf Steiner and Roger Caillois.
Not everyone is happy about this. I’m as wary as anyone else of art being swept into some sort of Aquarian la-la land, but consider the supposedly hardheaded alternative on offer: “current artistic endeavors that define art as a social sphere of specialized forms of knowledge and dialogues that are themselves the result of historically specific linguistic and formal interventions within a highly developed system of individual and collective reading competences, incessantly shifting on a spectrum ranging from the mnemonic to the critical.” This is the art historian Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, describing the virtues of the art he thinks was underplayed in the current Biennale. A closed “social sphere” of accredited operators is enough to drive anyone in their right mind to turn on, tune in and drop out of the bureaucratic morass, and start delving into the alternatives. Or better still, like Bove, to search out the uncharted territory where critically sanctioned artistic approaches like minimalism and Conceptualism cross paths with their disinherited Orphic doubles—or at least their memory-traces.