By Robert C. Morgan
In recalling the rise of appropriation art from the late seventies, it would appear that relatively little visual information was needed to produce quantities of language, “a heap of language,” to quote Robert Smithson. Whether advertising images addressed to women buyers (Salle, Prince) or fine art photographs by Walker Evans (Levine), the case was made to re-contextualize the image as a provocation to heighten our awareness of marginalized sociality. The degree to which the audience chose to get involved with such works ranged from ideological declarations to mundane subjectivity. Banal comments emerged, such as: What is interesting to some may appear less interesting to others (as if any kind of critical judgment or criteria were simply irrelevant).
The late seventies was the beginning the formalist breakdown. The critic Clement Greenberg was in the throes of being replaced by a new “Postmodern” agenda. But for this transition from criticism to theory to mean anything, certain assumptions were necessary to consider. These assumptions not only involved how one might visually engage works of appropriation, but also how one negotiated the conceptual premises behind them, namely the artist’s method and choice of subject matter. This further implies grasping the terms of appropriation, essential to Postmodernism, and thus to broaden one’s scope of visuality to include, rather than deny, the unseen: in essence, to think critically in relation to a larger cultural context.
In preparation for her exhibition last May at Metro Pictures, Sara VanDerBeek made numerous visits to museums in Paris, Rome, and Naples, where she spent lengthy hours and days observing antiquities and neo-classical environments. From her perspective, she was less interested in objects per se than in the images, which she would eventually redefine in terms of memory. Later she referred to this passage from observation to memory as a “fleeting, ephemeral experience,” which placed greater emphasis on the overall affect of what she saw in the context of particulars, the inductive in relation to the deductive, rather than the other way around. The three-room installation at Metro Pictures was a stark one, but also – in its own way – a beautiful one. The reverberating impact between the artist’s neo-Minimal sculpture and tinted framed photographs was pervasive throughout the three segments of the exhibition. VanDerBeek chose dark blue and underlying pink hues in the large photographs of women’s bodies, torsos, and busts, represented in a classical and neo-classical vein. These images were carefully measured and placed in relation to white column formations, exuding a late Modernist, space-age scenario, reminiscent of the closing bedroom sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1967).
In each of the three room-size installations, the crossover between sculpture and photography is both dream-like and palpable. Each sculptural antiquity – whether Pink Nude Blue (2013) in the first room or Roman Women VII (2013) in the third – is transformed into an image (an intention made clear by the artist). But collectively, the images of women as sculpture have been framed in semi-transparent glass. Their elusive appearance of the images makes them appear as something less than signs. The distinction might be considered as follows: Whereas a sign carries its own meaning, an image – before given a text, caption or intentional compliance with other images – floats in suspension and, thus, remains relatively neutral. Even so, both signs and images are essential to art, as in the Dadaist ready-mades. In the work of Van Der Beek’s appropriation of antiquities from the ancient world, they tend to shift back and forth. They are never quite steady as they go from meaning to absence of meaning and back again. Thus, history plays a fluctuating role in the artist’s desire to select and re-contextualize a series of impressions, as the nature of Impressionism is also to shift from presence to absence of meaning, from a consciousness of knowing to a willful unknowing in the act of perception. This is given a supreme, if not elegant presence in a series of large vertical photographs, titled Metal Mirrors (Magia Naturalis), equidistantly spaced in the large central room of the gallery. Here we observe the surfaces taken from sections of an oxidized metal wall, resembling the mirrors of Versailles, where a kind of patina has settled over time. In keeping with the visual aura throughout the exhibition, the photographs are a reflective dark blue and have been framed in mirrorized glass.
Perhaps, more to the point is the artist’s dream of history beyond any intention to document the history of art (a remarkable point evoked in an interview with Aperture magazine prior to the installation). This I take to mean a kind of aura related to the suspension of the image, which, I believe, gets to the core of the Metro Pictures exhibition where the installations appear to move toward the premise of the gaze as a vehicle to re-evaluate the representation of female body within the context of classicism. In so doing, VanDerBeek has evolved one of the most successful exhibitions of its kind, specifically in a post-conceptual era where appropriation strategies have, in the recent past, tended toward overdetermination in their academic rigor.
There is one final, but temporal point. Van Der Beek gives appropriation art, as it emerged in the late seventies, a quality distinct from the work of the five artists included in the “Pictures” exhibition (1977) at Artists Space in New York. We might call this quality an aura of poetics, which on some level conflates Classicism with Romanticism from the historical perspective of the twenty-first century. While the history of appropriation has been tied to Metro Pictures over a considerable span of time, this first exhibition of Sara VanDerBeek represents yet another chapter in a ground-breaking event: the shift of appropriation away from theory to poetics, a move from status to kinesis, when time not only hovers, but conjoins with space in the reevaluation of the history of the image of women, transposed through the dream.
Robert C. Morgan is an internationally renowned art critic, curator, artist, writer, art historian, poet, and lecturer. He holds an MFA in Sculpture from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (1975), and a Ph.D. in contemporary art history from the School of Education, New York University (1978). Dr. Morgan lives in New York, where he lectures at the School of Visual Arts and is Adjunct Professor in the graduate fine arts department at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He is Professor Emeritus in Art History from the Rochester Institute of Technology.
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