Morsel: Robert Breer's Floating Gumdrop

Robert Breer's Osaka I (1970) in MoMA's Sculpture Garden, July 2018. Photo: Chris Murtha

The subtlety of Robert Breer’s whimsical Osaka I, which is currently on view in the Museum of Modern Art’s Sculpture Garden, stands in contrast to most kinetic art. Powered by car batteries—a nice nod to the artist’s father who was an engineer for Chrysler—the sculpture moves at a rate of 2 ½ feet per minute. Slow enough to go unnoticed. That is until you walk away and return to find it several feet from where you swear it was just standing.

Having noticed that, you stop to look at the sculpture—one of what the artist called “floats” or “motorized mollusks.” Staring at it, your eyes start to blur and your head gets a little funny because it’s subtle enough to make you question your vision and memory. It’s like trying to see the moon move.

A woman sitting in a nearby chair starts to get uncomfortable when she realizes she is sitting way too close to the art. “Wait,” she thinks, “is this art? And did I approach it or did it approach me?” To be safe, she moves to another seat. Several eons later, the giant white gumdrop nudges the woman’s former chair and politely reverses course—looking for other visitors to unseat or unsettle, silently menacing the garden.

Robert Breer's "floats" amid Nakaya Fujiko's fog sculpture, Pepsi Pavilion, Expo '70, Osaka, Japan.

After establishing himself as a filmmaker specializing in experimental abstract animations, Robert Breer (1926-2011) started producing motorized sculptures in 1964. Osaka I was initially exhibited at Expo '70 in Osaka, Japan, as one of seven "floats" installed outside the Pepsi Pavilion, which was organized by E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology). Later that year, it was exhibited in MoMA’s Sculpture Garden (from August 20, 1970 to April 11, 1971) and was acquired by the museum in 1971. It currently finds itself roaming the garden again as part of the Peter Fischli-curated “If Everything Is Sculpture Why Make Sculpture?

Robert Breer's Osaka I installed in MoMA's Sculpture Garden in 1970. Photo from MoMA's online archives.

Morsels are a series of brief texts—ruminations—on a single work of art.

On Jason Dodge for Artforum

After some time away from critical writing to focus on my studies, I'm excited to get back into the swing of it. Read my review of Jason Dodge's exhibition at Casey Kaplan over at

As is typical for Dodge, this exhibition is a curious collection of commonplace objects assembled towards poetic ends. The artist's engagement with poetry extends to his publishing company fivehundred places and the title of this exhibition, which was borrowed from the Franz Wright poem “Recurring Awakening.” That title – "hand in hand with the handless" – might as well be a mantra for the Readymade. But unlike Duchamp's supposedly indifferent Readymades, Dodge's are suggestive of meaning, which must be teased out by the careful observer. This initially elusive exhibition rewards such consideration.

Jason Dodge
hand in hand with the handless
Casey Kaplan
On view through July 27

All images are installation views of Jason Dodge, "hand in hand with the handless," Casey Kaplan, New York, June 21 - July 27, 2018. Photos: Chris Murtha.

What We Look For When We Look At Art: Rachel Harrison’s Perth Amboy

Installation view, Rachel Harrison: Perth Amboy, The Museum of Modern Art, March 19 – September 5, 2016.

In Fall 2000, Rachel Harrison set out to document a modern-day pilgrimage to Perth Amboy, NJ. Residents there claimed to have seen an image of the Virgin Mary in their second-story window and people were flocking to this town on the outskirts of New York City to behold Her presence. Harrison’s resulting project, Perth Amboy, is currently being re-staged by MoMA fifteen years after its original presentation at Greene Naftali Gallery.

From early on, Harrison’s work has presciently combined sculpture and photography to explore our relationship to images more concretely. Here, she pairs her own photographs from Perth Amboy with a series of found-object sculptures. With this installation, Harrison questions how we view art and, more specifically, what we look for when we view art. In retrospect, it represents her archetypal project.

Harrison’s understated photographs forego documentation of the apparition and focus instead on the moment when visitors touch the window in hopes of gleaning any lingering presence. One photograph eerily captures the faint image of a person’s face, just visible through the glare of reflected sky and the accumulation of handprints. In effect, the handprints form a new image, one that recalls the smudges that initially conjured the Virgin Mary. With an emphasis on contact, Harrison’s photographs transport the image of this holy apparition back into the physical realm.

Installation view, Rachel Harrison: Perth Amboy, The Museum of Modern Art, March 19 – September 5, 2016.

The rest of the installation, which fills the entire gallery, is set up as a cardboard maze that limits our mobility and seems to entrap us within the space. The cardboard panels are unaltered except for the folded scores that allow them to stand on their own, somewhat precariously. Situated (and sometimes hidden) among them are seven sculptural arrangements, exhibited on customized bases that include a mirrored pedestal and a Stor-All box. The gallery is so crowded with cardboard that it is difficult to look at more than one of these tableaux at once, and impossible to view them collectively.

Several pairings focus on the act of looking, with one object contemplating another. In one, a ceramic figurine of a Chinese scholar meditates on one of Harrison’s characteristically lumpy cement sculptures. In contrast, a family of porcelain Dalmatians gazes up at a crumpled chipboard envelope as if it were an important monument. Others focus more directly on photography: a Becky doll (Barbie’s disabled friend and coincidentally "the school photographer") views an unspectacular image of a green wall and a miniature bust of a Native American in headdress admires a framed snapshot of a sunset (a remnant from Harrison’s earlier project, Sunset Series*).

Rachel Harrison, detail of Untitled from Perth Amboy, 2001, wood, GatorBoard, cardboard, Becky Friend of Barbie doll, thumbtacks, and chromogenic print, 96 x 38 x 41 inches.

Each pair is a reiteration of the others, a repetition of the gaze (and the projections that accompany it) that is central to the artist’s project. By relating her own pieces to common objects, Harrison may be poking fun at her own work and contemporary art in general, but more likely she’s taking aim at the loaded nature of the gaze, the awkwardness of the exchange between a viewer and an object.

Here, the observed objects signify nothingness, or at least an absence of clear meaning or function: an empty envelope, an abstract sculpture, a generic sunset photograph, and a green screen, which represents digital invisibility. Harrison’s readymade figurines are searching for something in these objects that they may not find, and this, perhaps, is what they share with the people documented in the photographs that line the gallery walls. Still, the effort is admirable.

Harrison may have been drawn to the initial spectacle in Perth Amboy as a skeptic, but she clearly respected the power of the apparition. Unlike the sculptures, there is no mocking tone in her photographs of the faithful. After all, it was the power of an image envisaged from a few smudges on a windowpane that drew crowds of people to an unassuming two-story house in the suburbs. It’s a similar power that transfixes the figures in Perth Amboy and keeps us wandering this cardboard maze.

Installation view, Rachel Harrison: Perth Amboy, The Museum of Modern Art, March 19 – September 5, 2016. (All photos: Chris Murtha)

Rachel Harrison: Perth Amboy
On view through September 5

The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street

*Harrison’s Sunset Series (2000) featured photographs that employed various analog distortions to create distinct images of the same sunset snapshot.

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s Otherworldly Treasures

In King of Lesser Lands, an eclectic but focused exhibition at Andrew Edlin Gallery, we are introduced to the world of self-taught artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein by a long row of erotic pinup portraits of his wife. As intriguing as they are awkward, these photographs are almost generic compared to the visionary works that follow. Von Bruenchenhein proclaimed that he was of noble descent but also referred to himself as a visitor to this world, theorizing that there was a “First World” that Earth had splintered from during a cataclysmic event. In light of this, many of his works can be interpreted as documents and artifacts of this fantasized world.

Von Bruenchenhein’s vision is most fully realized in his paintings—Technicolor skyscrapers and otherworldly landscapes that evoke popular science fiction imagery and Charles Burchfield’s more mystical works. The imaginary vistas and aquatic microcosms depicted in paintings like To The Endless Span of Creation (1954) and Sea Fringe (n°882) (1960) radiate with frenetic energy. To achieve this effect, the artist worked quickly and spontaneously, using his fingers, combs, crumpled paper, and sticks to manipulate the paint—scraping, pushing, and fanning out the oils in vibrating, electric patterns.

Von Bruenchenhein’s sculptures are evocative of unearthed royal treasures: miniature thrones intricately constructed from painted chicken bones, leafy ceramic crowns and vessels, arrowheads fashioned from broken glass (not exhibited here), and large-scale concrete heads that lined his house like spiritual guardians. All of Von Bruenchenhein’s works were made entirely at his home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—he even hand-dug the clay for his ceramics and fired them in his coal-burning oven—and they remained there during his lifetime.

Photographs taken of the artist’s home shortly after his death document the overwhelming accumulation of artwork and bric-a-brac. His ramshackle palace was an extension of his art and a kind of museum in its own right: the exterior was a patchwork of color, doors and walls were painted with scenic and abstract imagery, and placards with handwritten poems and theories hung throughout. His paintings and sculptures are presented here in stark contrast to the way that Von Bruenchenhein lived with them and, though that may be unavoidable, some of their power is lost. Nonetheless, we should be thankful to behold such curious and forceful treasures.

Top: Untitled, 1978, Oil on cardboard, 29 1/2 x 13 1/2 inches; Middle: To The Endless Span of Creation (detail), 1954, Oil on board, 24 x 24 inches; Bottom: Installation view, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, King of Lesser Lands, March 24 – May 8, 2016, Andrew Edlin Gallery, NY. (Photos: Chris Murtha)

Review: David Nelson at 80WSE

Untitled (from "1 Hour"), c. 1992-1993, photogram, 20 x 16 inches. (All works by David Nelson; all photos by the author.)

This somber, pensive, and sometimes haunting exhibition of David Nelson’s multidisciplinary art at NYU’s 80 Washington Square East Gallery is expertly assembled and presented by gallery director Jonathan Berger and Nancy Brooks Brody, a close friend to the artist. Brody’s personal relationship with Nelson is important, because once you know even a little bit about his life it’s hard to separate his work from the personal experiences that influenced it.

After moving to New York City in the late 1970s, Nelson became involved with a close-knit community of artists in the East Village. In 1985 he met his partner, the artist David Knudsvig, but he would lose him to AIDS in 1993. All of the works included in the show come from the period between Knudsvig’s passing and Nelson’s own death in 2013. Pairs, conduits, and ghostly images are prevalent in the exhibition, and many of the works are meditations on loss and time that can be seen as attempts by Nelson to reconnect with Knudsvig.

The first works encountered are a series of knobby and tangled sculptures of resin, roots, and dirt—the kind of earth that is so specific to New York City: dry, rocky, seemingly devoid of minerals and nutrients. After uncovering a cistern in his backyard, Nelson was inspired to keep digging holes, always by hand. The sculptures were created by pouring resin directly into these holes and extracting the hardened form, along with any matter that adhered to it. Some sculptures are then embedded in cubes of resin, frozen in time like a photograph or fossil.

Left: Untitled (Hole), detail, c. 1997, photogram mounted on canvas, 40 x 43 1/2 inches; Right: Hole Reflection 2, detail, 1997, silver gelatin print, 28 x 38 inches; Bottom: Installation view of "David Nelson" with Hole #16, 1999, and Untitled (Cube), c. 2000.

Many artists have given form to negative space—Bruce Nauman, Robert Overby, Rachel Whiteread, among others—but Nelson’s efforts contain a sense of exploration and discovery that feel more akin to archaeology. He further inspects his excavated sculptures with a series of abstract photograms, and the one on view here, Untitled (Hole), c. 1997, resembles an X-ray of something bodily or embryonic. In a similarly disorienting photograph, Hole Reflection 2, 1997, he captures the reflection of the sky and the edge of the hole in the newly poured resin. It’s a haunting, claustrophobic view from down within the hole that hints at what he was trying to dig up.

Central to Nelson’s work in this period is a small wooden figurine—a man with a top hat that holds two bone dice—that belonged to Knudsvig. Unknown to the couple, the figure is a representation of Papa Ghede, a Haitian Vodou deity that is thought to usher the deceased into the afterlife. After Knudsvig’s death, Nelson paired the figurine with his own prized toy train and dubbed it “train man,” establishing a talismanic stand-in for his departed partner. To create Untitled (Train Man, Brother: Doppelgänger), c. 1997, an extensive series of photograms installed in a large grid across two walls, Nelson converted his living room into a darkroom. Drawing with sand directly onto light-sensitive paper, he repeatedly captured unique but remarkably consistent images of the figurine. The repetition and subtle differences of these ethereal traces, especially within such an immersive installation, makes for an affecting tribute.

Above: Installation view of "David Nelson" with Untitled (Train Man, Brother: Doppelgänger), c. 1997, and Untitled, c. 1992; Below: Detail from Untitled (Train Man, Brother: Doppelgänger).

A series of works featuring a miniscule hourglass or sand timer are installed in the same room as the “train man” photograms. Representing the measurement of time as an exchange between two vessels, these pieces bring many of the themes in the show together. Time is malleable in the series 1 Hour, c. 1992-1993, in which nine photograms of the timers are presented out of sequential order, oscillating drastically between measurements. In a separate series of photograms, the timer’s glass is broken and the image is created with the sand pouring out of the vessel. Knowing this process, one can imagine that the “train man” photograms were similarly drawn using sand from broken timers, symbolically conjuring images of loss and absence from the remnants of time. In some of these pieces, there are traces of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work, but Nelson’s approach is darker and more brooding, less political. Whereas Gonzalez-Torres drew the viewer in via direct exchanges and shared social and political experiences, Nelson’s work is so personal and mysterious that a viewer can’t help but feel like an intruder.

Among several late paintings that evoke the work of Nelson’s friend Robert Bordo, the last gallery offers an intriguing sculpture made by combining several model train tunnels to form a disjointed landscape and passageway, conceivably for the “train man.” Here, without tracks, the tunnel is a conduit only in the sense that it leads from one point to another. There is nothing at either end though, just a negative space—a hole to be peered into, mined, traversed.

David Nelson @ 80WSE
80 Washington Square East (West Village)

Though the exhibition is no longer on view, you can find a selection of David Nelson’s works on the website for Visual AIDS, a sponsor of the exhibition and co-publisher of the excellent catalog, which is also available through them here.

Installation view of "David Nelson" with Untitled, c. 2009.