The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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NOV 2013 Issue

New Jersey as Non-Site

On View
Princeton University Art Museum
October 5, 2013 – January 5, 2014
Princeton, New Jersey

The island of Atlantis, domesticated by sober laws of longitude and latitude, has seemingly shaken off the musk of legend. It lies off the coast of Africa, cradling the continent’s curve from Morocco to Senegal. But geography does not preclude the fantastic: the terrain is not covered with soil, but with shards of glass, as if a battlefield for champagne flute wars and wine glass skirmishes. At least this is how Robert Smithson charts the fabled isle in his collage composition “Map of Broken Clear Glass (Atlantis)” (1969). Smithson’s “Map” is among the nearly 150 pieces on view in the Princeton University Art Museum’s current New Jersey as Non-Site. The exhibition features works in a variety of media, created within that crucial corridor of decades—1950 through 1970—by 16 avant-garde artists including Allan Kaprow, Nancy Holt, and the Georges (Segal and Brecht, that is).

Robert Watts, “Flux Rattle from the Yam Festival Delivery Event,” 1962–3. Plastic hotdog, cork, clay balls, and paint, 14 x 3.2 x 3.8 cm. Courtesy and © Robert Watts Estate, New York. Photo Bruce M. White.

Smithson’s “Map” may not be the most visually dazzling of the pieces assembled in Non-Site. His Atlantis cannot offer the same romantic chance to chase eidolons as the script for a Happening might. Nor does it command attention, as does the film screened on a neighboring wall of a naked, clay-caked Charles Simonds emerging like a feculent primordial revelation from the muck of an abandoned Sayreville clay pit. In such company Smithson’s homely Atlantis might appear marginal. Yet “Map” in fact reveals the core of the exhibition, constituting nothing less than its photographic negative. It is also the best lens through which to understand the appeal of this otherwise underwhelming, occasionally pedantic paean to (mostly) second-rate art and withered fads birthed through undiscriminating neolatry.

“Map” seizes upon a mythical place and insists upon its physical reality. But it does so with incomparable clumsiness. The composition is a revolt against care: within the uneven borders delimiting the “island,” haphazard triangles—simple graphite outlines—collide. These are rendered so crudely that the calculated parsimony of neither symbolism nor stylization can pardon them. Ultimately, thanks to its own representational limits, “Map” fails to pluck Atlantis from the firmament of myth. It merely fixes it there more enduringly.

The New Jersey of Non-Site (the perfect sobriquet for this exhibition, as curator Kelly Baum well knows) is quite the opposite: a real place, transmogrified into a mythical one. The artists in Non-Site at turns endow New Jersey with primeval purity, insist upon its desolation, expose the ugliness of its urban woes and unspeakable pollution, or merely imagine it a netherland scarred by a network of desolate train-tracks. Indeed, it can signify so much to so many that by the final works in the exhibition New Jersey has become a nowhere, an arbitrary location, an anonymous wonderland. These mythologies of New Jersey are, like Smithson’s triangle-torn Atlantis, often crafted with a calculated crudity. But here the parallel ends. In Non-Site, paucity of skill (or studied guilelessness, adoration of spontaneity, principles of improvisation) does not subvert projects; inelegance does not undermine myth making; it gilds fiction with a patina of authenticity. Reality does not slip into fantasy. It is replaced by it—art becomes more genuine than truth.

Though Non-Site deals in fictions, as organized it is less an art exhibition than an historical monument. Though the exhibition is divided into thematic categories parsed with the despotic glibness of titles like “Cooperation and Contradiction” and “Fertility of Desolation,” these glossy phrases cannot conceal the fact that Non-Site is fundamentally a record of postwar artists grappling madly with a sense of creative crisis. Incidentally, Non-Site suggests that this particular postwar avant-gardesettled upon a rather traditional solution to the uncertainty of impasse. They left for new lands, migrating from the Cedar Bar of the New York scene to the nearest ‘wilds’ they could: New Jersey, where not every yard of space had yet been deeded over to history with dispassionate fatalism. What the works in this exhibition might lack in skill, they requite with genuine, unguarded consternation; their occasional absurdity is made endearing by the earnestness with which it is expressed.

Robert Smithson, “Map of Broken Clear Glass (Atlantis).” 1969. Collage, Photostat, map, and graphite on paper, 42.5 x 35.6 cm. Dia Art Foundation, gift of Nancy Holt. © Estate of Robert Smithson/licensed by VAGA, New York 2013 / Image courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York & Shanghai.

Yet consternation and absurdity, albeit unguarded, are not necessarily the stuff that ravishing, memorable art is made of. Non-Site assembles works from across artistic genres—Pop, Land, video, and performance among them—that are arguably “firsts” of their sort (including an extensive selection of objects related to the Yam Festival, the progenitor of the Neo-Dada Fluxus movement that radiated from Rutgers University to George Segal’s chicken farm). Primacy does not appear to vouchsafe artistic genius. Like much juvenilia, the works can be unrefined, as is Segal’s “Woman in Red Jacket” (1958), an early plaster sculpture of a woman leaning through the open window of a flimsy screen door. The subject is burdened with grotesquely overgrown paws; an unconvincing nose surfaces half-heartedly on an otherwise featureless face. The dilapidated half-mesh doorway highlights an embarrassing lack of sophistication, having been crafted with more skill and grace than the figure it frames.

Though Segal’s works are representative of New Jersey only in the most superficial way—they were conceived of and executed there—the concept of ‘place’ is often at the center of the exhibition’s works. And the pieces on view in Non-Site suggest thatNew Jersey is most inspiring when she is an ugly, rebarbative muse, disfigured with pollution, crisis, and economic collapse. The housing catastrophe gripping New Jersey in the early 1970s inspired Gordon Matta-Clark’s most memorable iteration of his ‘building cut’ series, the “Splitting” project (1974-1975), in which the artist vertically sawed in half an abandoned two-story house in Englewood, New Jersey. Non-Site includes a number of works from “Splitting,” compositions that seize upon and memorialize that moment of structural crisis. Matta-Clark’s “anarchitecture” transforms spaces that once existed solely for lives to be lived into stark, blighted dollhouses haunted by an unnervingly indifferent emptiness.

For some artists in Non-Site, New Jersey also came to signify a universal—liberated from the specificity of identity. That liberation is embodied here by the works of Land artist Nancy Holt, whose “Pine Barrens” (1975) is screened in the second gallery. Footage consists largely of the artist filming the vistas of a densely forested area in Southern New Jersey from her car, camera pointed upward to capture the view of a sky hemmed in by trees. Through disorientation of view, Holt transforms the Pine Barrens into an Everyplace, an unlocalizable embodiment of dislocated rusticity.

George Segal, “Woman in Red Jacket,” 1958. Plaster, burlap, wood, wire, and paint, 177.8 x 76.2 x 48.3 cm. Gift of the George and Helen Segal Foundation (2007-38 a-b). ©1958, George Segal. Photo: Bruce M. White.

Occasionally New Jersey figures into the exhibitionas neither metaphor, nor mythology, nor ideal. Sometimes its significance derives from nothing more than antiseptic historicity, as the site of a Happening or the place where the caprice of machine-gun bullets wrote the orchestral score for Dick Higgins’s Thousand Symphonies (1968). Dozens of objects included are not artworks but ephemera, for ephemeral events: posters, notices, scripts. And although most pieces in the exhibition are accompanied by detailed expository descriptions, which only occasionally crescendo into self-indulgent pedantry, it is in this final gallery filled with accessories of the evanescent that those descriptions serve as indispensible ciphers, decrypting what various objects mean or meant or were meant to mean.

The vitrines act nearly as reliquaries for their contents. But just how reverential can we be about ‘art’ dedicated to lost moments? What of Kaprow and his Happenings? Like the fairy masque in The Tempest, they are “melted into air, into thin air… And like this insubstantial pageant faded/Leave not a rack behind.” Those words may well describe many of the works featured in Non-Site. But it is uncertain that those works will weather the centuries as gracefully as the borrowed verses that epitomize them.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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