American, born 1967
DRAWING RESTRAINT 7 (1993)
The passage from one state to another, from one gender to the other, or to yet a third, intermediate one is an underlying theme of Barney's videos, including DRAWING RESTRAINT 7 (1993). Barney explicitly invokes ancient mythology, in which sexual metamorphoses frequently occur. During one half of the tape, a pair of satyrs on a empty stage grapple with each other, or with their own awkward bodies; during the other half, they struggle against each other and against the confinement of the limousine in which they are speeding across a city, over a bridge, and through a long tunnel, the latter in particular suggesting a birth-canal-like slippage from one reality to the next. Every gesture they make exudes entrapment, frustration, or erotic anticipation. Nearly identical in their two incarnations' the first hirsute, the second clean-shaventhese creatures remain oddly indeterminate, their genitals having been reduced to androgynous lumps, despite the obvious maleness of their heads and torsos. Like Barney's work generally, DRAWING RESTRAINT 7 is a meticulously staged exercise in contradiction, without respite or resolution.
German, born 1956
Black Table with Table Ware (1985)
The sculpture of Katharina Fritsch is pristine and very strange. Sometimes grandiose and elegantly crafted, other times totally unassuming in size and facture (although no less painstakingly arrived at), her objects range from the fantastic to the eerily ordinary. Monumental despite their actual diminutiveness, these objects have an iconic stillness. Black Table with Table Ware (1985) illustrates this point. Initially the piece may strike one as nothing more than a dinner table of nondescript modern design, laid with a similarly undistinguished dinner service. The rigid symmetry of the ensemble nevertheless commands attention, as does the odd pattern on the plates and cups, depicting two identical men facing each other at an identical table, as if the setting for the picture had been cloned from the sculpture, or vice versa. Then one gradually realizes that everything that had seemed factory produced is in fact handmade, and imbued with the artist's extraordinary concentration.
Here objects of use defy use, not merely because they are in a museum, but because one cannot imagine disturbing the rigid order of an entity in which each component is held in place like a compass needle caught in a magnetic field. The part-by-part materialization of a visionary fixity, the table, chairs, and china, like most of Fritsch's sculpture, hover between the generic and the unique.
American, born 1954
The ambivalence that Gober's sculptures inspire, and the richness of the fantasies they are capable of stirring in individual viewers, are a function of their extraordinary ordinariness. If that quality seems like a contradiction in terms, then its essence is not purely logical but psychological instead. The experience that Gober's work evokes is the paradoxical phenomenon labeled "the uncanny" by Sigmund Freud. For Freud, the "uncanny" is something normal that as a result of even the slightest disorientation reveals a hidden abnormality. The uncanny makes itself known to us when long-forgotten fears resurge and long-established certainties break down in a confrontation with everyday realities that have inexplicably acquired a surreal aspect or intensity.
With its fleshy waxen skin, actual human hair, and plain pants leg, sock, and oxford shoe, Untitled (1989-90) has a slightly macabre aspect, and, given the fact that it is literally underfoot, a slightly aggressive one too. For some, moreover, it may also have a distinct erotic appeal, inasmuch as it focuses on a narrow band of the body where men routinely and unself-consciously show their nakedness. This piece is essentially fetishistic. The leg sculptures upset the enforced categories of "normal" and "abnormal" by appealing directly to the senses in ways that ordinary inhibitions fail to prevent.
It is virtually impossible to resist the visual and tactile intensity of Gober's objects, even when one knows that engagement with themand enjoyment of themthreatens to blur socially enforced distinctions separating "acceptable" from "forbidden" pleasures. Gober's point is not simply to shock or seduce people into new aesthetic experiences but to open up possibilities for imagining the world from an entirely different perspective.
American, born Cuba, 1957-1996
On the 16th of May 1991 an image turned up on twenty-four billboards around Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. The blowup of a light, grainy photograph, it showed the upper half of a bed covered with wrinkled white sheets, and topped by two pillows still bearing the imprint of the heads that had laid upon them. Startling by its reticence and delicacy amidst the usual run of advertising, the enlarged picture was also surprising because, as time passed, it became evident that it was not advertising at all. When it first appeared, the transfixing bareness of the layout seemed to be waiting for text to be dropped in. But while people on their way around town waited for some label or pitch to be added to the image of the bed, nothing happened.
Or, rather, something did happen, but it depended on them rather than on the billboard's unidentified source. Viewers supplied their own content for the anomalous but oddly familiar vignette. Where nothing was said, they were free to project their own experiences or fantasies on this unspecified and vastly enlarged domestic situation.
That sort of speculative response was exactly what the artist, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, had wanted to provoke; viewers were the content of the piece as much as his motives for making it were.
This landmark outdoor exhibition was typical of Gonzalez-Torres's quiet infiltrations of homes, galleries, museum and public spaces. Politically oriented and politically adroit, the artist tackled the thorniest issues of public policy and socially committed aesthetics with an imaginativeness, intellectual rigor, and rhetorical self-restraint unmatched in his generation. Personally implicated in many of the issues he raisedespecially that of AIDS, from which he was to dieGonzalez-Torres never indulged in special pleading but, rather fashioned the subtlest, most seductive links between those intimately aware of the inequities, threats, and desires toward which he pointed and those untouched by or as yet unconscious of them.
American, born 1955
Pink Panther (1988)
No artist among cool "postmodernists" of recent decades has flirted more openly with commercialism than Jeff Koons, nor has anyone struck so steadfastly earnest a pose in the endeavor. Unapologetically, indeed some say brazenly appropriating advertising strategies, off-the-shelf merchandise, and kitsch icons from the inventories of mass-marketers and carriage-trade purveyors, Koons pursues his ambitions with missionary zeal. Self-appointed prophet of a heaven-on-earth of unashamed materialism and sexual bliss, Koons has gone Pop art one or two better, making an art of "the pitch" and "the deal," as well as objects out of the flotsam and jetsam of consumer culture.
The Banality series consisted of gigantic tchotchkes executed in polychromed wood and porcelain, of which Pink Panther (1988) is a prime example. On one level Koons's humor is pleasurably sophomoric. His mating of Jayne Mansfield and the eponymous cartoon character in Pink Panther is a thoroughly enjoyable send-up of heterosexual rapture and celebrity romance.This series with its focus on object-lust and needy sentimentality, shifted the progression into a darker key, even as the things Koons was fabricating to represent his evolving program were becoming bigger, brighter, and more alarmingly cheerful.
Ephemeral reality scares Koons, so he makes indestructible totems to things that never lived and so cannot perish. His big yes to excess is a big no to irrepressible guilt. Despite all his put-ons and superficial cynicism, Koons is at bottom a deadly serious artist, a pivotal figure of his increasingly pessimistic generation.
American, born 1938
Ardently embracing painting's history, recent and remote, Eastern as well as Western, Marden has explicitly cited affinities with everyone from the Spanish Baroque realist Francisco de Zurbarán to the Tang and Sung Dynasty calligraphers of China.
Marden acknowledged his Asian inspiration, and bases his idiosyncratic interpretation of calligraphy on an overall fabric of translucent strokes. Suggestive of nets and webs, the open tracery in Vine (1991-93) and related works also recalls Philip Guston's loosely snarled drawings of the late 1950s and early '60s, as well as the interstitial linear element in the flagstone pattern mimicked by Jasper Johns in paintings such as Harlem Light (1967). Likewise, Marden's work invoke the allover abstractions of Pollock. Marden's delicately articulated canvases open inward to gossamer strands wafted by fluid currents.
The combination of respectful ambition and genuine refinement found in Marden's work is the mark of a traditional painter. Unshaken by avant-garde attacks on his medium, the artist has sought to synthesize once divergent approaches to it, and so add to the still unfolding history of abstraction. As with all purposefully traditional enterprises, the goal is not progress toward the unknown but fulfillment of an existing promise. The rewards for such effortmanifest in Marden's workis art of great stylistic fluency and beauty.
American, born 1941
Punch and Judy II Birth & Life & Sex & Death (1985)
Nauman's work raises questions related to eternal tensions between life and death, love and hatred, verifiable truth and existential doubt. He addresses these issues with great economy in a hybrid contemporary idiom devised to connect, in as many ways as possible, the thoughts of the artist with the experience of the viewer. Nauman seeks to involve people with hard-to-grasp ideas and hard-to-face uncertainties or ambivalences, and he is prepared to use any method to push aside distractions, break down resistance, and make contact. Correspondingly, the unease created by Nauman's all-out and all-fronts assault on his own and other people's mental habits expresses itself in many ways: recoil at the sight of an apparently grim object, confusion at the sight of an inexplicably abstract one, surprise at the intensity of sounds or lights, embarrassed laughter at a crude joke or cartoon. Whatever that discomfort's manifestation, however, its importance is the same. For Nauman, thinking is feeling.
Nauman's general outlook is correspondingly pessimistic, although pathos and tragedy frequently assume a comic guise in his art. The comedy can be harsh, as in Punch and Judy II Birth & Life & Sex & Death (1985), a preparatory drawing for a multiphase neon work in which the aforenamed puppet characters appear as a naked couple who engage in oral sex, attack each other with weapons drawn, and commit suicide, all at the same time.
German, born 1941
Der Ziegenwagen (The goat wagon,1992)
A stylist, satirist, and pictorial magician, Polke has eschewed formal consistency of any kind, turning to whatever medium suited his need or whim in a given circumstance. As a painter, printmaker, installation artist, photographer, and performerand often enough working in several of these capacities at the same timePolke has mixed media, symbolic systems, and poetic messages with such marvelous alacrity that the defining characteristic of his persona has become its sheer elusiveness.
Der Ziegenwagen (The goat wagon, 1992) is Polke at his full-blown best. On a background consisting of floral and geometric tablecloths stitched edge to edge, Polke has printed an enlargement of an old photograph of a peasant boy with a goat cart, and has embellished the picture overall with strokes and splashes of white, suggesting badly developed film stock or the drips of action painting.
The visual complexity of his paintings and drawings is matched by their thematic obscurity. His refusal to swear allegiance to any aesthetic creed goes deeper than a simple desire on his part to raid his cultural heritage at will. It is rooted in a quite reasonable fear that dogmatic principles of any kind lead to sterility or, as this century has shown, far worse. Better the sulphurous atmosphere of decadence than a surrender to order. Accordingly, Polke has made disorder his medium. No artist of the day seems more comfortable in chaos, nor has anyone shown its attractions more cleverly or more masterfully.
American, born 1930
"There is never a question of what to paint but only how to paint. The how of painting has always been the imagethe end-product." For those educated to the notion that the task of the artist is to find a suitable form in which to present a given content, this declaration by painter Robert Ryman may seem to beg the basic question of aesthetic meaning by concentrating exclusively on the issue of technique. However, it is the measure of Ryman's unequivocal faith in painting's expressive power that he sees no inherent distinction between "what" is said and "how" it is said. As far as Ryman is concerned, form is content.
The painting Untitled (1965) belongs to a series in which the artist filled his canvas with tiers of lateral bands made by the same brush as it sometimes smoothly, sometimes haltingly, moved from left to right or right to left. The spaces between each stroke, and the pinhole dots made by the skipping brush hairs, allow the rich tan of the unprimed linen to show through, as it does on the side of the stretcher bar, where the work's date and the artist's signature appear as active elements in the overall composition. In this instance, despite the painting's diminutiveness, the strokes are relatively broad. Whether large or small, for Ryman, overall scale does not determine a work's importance, nor are the little paintings studies for the big onesand whatever the size of the marks, the basic tension between the outward pressure of the horizontal lines and the structural compression of the fully symmetrical ground on which they are laid remains the decisive issue.
American, born 1939
When Richard Serra's interest shifted toward sculpture in his early days as an artist, the example of Constantin Brancusi's reductive abstractions offered him an insight the influence of which can be seen in virtually all of his mature works. In Brancusi, Serra indentified a model that instead of involving the juxaposition of more or less graphic components and more or less object-like ones, used linear articulation and the volume-producing disposition of planes as dimensions of the same forms.
Serra looked still further back in the modernist past to Russian Constructivists of the teens and twenties. Konstantin Melnikov (1890-1974), after whom Serra titled his 1987 piece, was a key figure in Constructivist circles. He was an architect by profession, and during the liberal years of communist cultural politics, just after the Bolshevik takeover, he founded an experimental architecture program within the existing Moscow art academy. His teaching focused on four issues. The first concerned volume in relation to the expressive attributes of surface; the second, the relation of weight and mass to volume; the third, construction; the fourth, space. The reasons for Serra's interest in Melnikov are obvious in that they translate with Serra's own preoccupation with the relation of weight to support, of cantilevered structure to enveloped or enveloping space, of expressive impact to matter-of-fact physicality.
As a sculpture, Melnikov embodies all of these qualities, thereby conceptually paying "in-kind" homage to its namesake. Resting one hot-rolled steel plate upon another tipped on one end, Serra has created a work as efficient in construction and as firmly balanced in reality as it is precariously heavy and overbearing in appearance. Formally pure and visually dynamic, the work realizes ideals set forth by the original Constructivists, through means that are nonetheless entirely of its own era.
American, born 1954
Cindy Sherman dressed up as a little child and still does. The irony of course is that rather than move on from juvenile role-playing to corresponding adult occupations, Sherman has persisted in her childhood habits, using the techniques of impersonation and psychological displacement she practiced long ago to hold up to general scrutiny the myriad conventional images of women disseminated by the film industry, art history, fairy tales, and gothic fantasy. From the apparently limited premise of mimicry and puppetry in front of the lens, she has created one of the most coherent, critically penetrating, and continuously surprising bodies of work of the last two decades.
The intrusion of the grotesque into an otherwise dignified setup becomes more extreme when, as in Untitled (1989) Sherman disappears altogether and replaces herself with obscene plastic surrogates. The image depicts what seems to be the aftermath of a rape, with a limp inflatable sex-doll as the victim, left lying on a hard bed of detritus. The violence of this picture is accentuated by the doll's blank, lipstick-smeared smile, and by the knowledge that this is the face men pay for when they buy such masturbatory products.
Sherman has progressed from the relatively naturalistic stereotypes of mid-century films in her early work to her more recent fantastically exaggerated archetypes of romantic fables and low-budget horror flicks. Plainly, dress-up and doll-play can be both serious grown-up businessrisky, tooand, in the hands of an artist of Sherman's caliber, as aggressive or as subtle a means of exploring social customs and psychological dispositions as we have.
©1997 The Museum of Modern Art, New York