The following is a critical review of two works on display at the Met Breuer, written for a NYU course “Art History Since 1945.” We were asked to choose one work—one that we were interested in and one that we were not, and to write about them, in relation to class readings. In doing so, I actually became more interested in the concept behind the second piece than I had originally been when viewing it(!)
Home is a Foreign Place: Recent Acquisitions in Context at The Met Breuer
Home is a Foreign Place is a wonderful show at the Met Breuer that combines contemporary art from “iconic” Western artists with that of artists from South America, the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia in an attempt to weave together parallel histories and cultural themes. As I navigated through the exhibition to the second full gallery, an object to my left just barely caught my eye. Upon first glance, this specific object can come across as seemingly bland and two-dimensional as it is a white painting in disguise (unless you are interested, as I am, in Agnes Martin-esque works). However, it is perfectly placed in this transitional stage of the gallery, knowing you must walk past it in order to get to the next room. It had an unexpected shine. n/eighty nine (2016) by Prabhavathi Meppayil (b. 1965) is neither painting nor sculpture, though perhaps at best a very minimal assemblage. It is an object (48x60in.) made from copper wire embedded in gesso panel. Gesso is a white paint mixture that is usually treated as merely a base preparation for other materials. The wire is lain carefully, so that there are constellations of horizontally parallel wires of mostly the same length, and then some slightly longer wires to spatially break up the clustered patterns.
In Donald Judd’s “Specific Objects” he mentioned that as art entered new eras following modernism, new materials and recent inventions--things never used in art before--were making their way into works. This work by Meppayil forces you to think about materials and process, is dependent on movement and light, and it’s not a “painting” of anything. And though this work technically isn’t completely flat, it is perceived that way to the spectator and echoes Clement Greenberg’s testament that “paintings” were entering a new period of definitive flatness. Rather the ‘flatness’ of this object may exist from only one way of experiencing it. Head-on, Meppayil’s work appears uninteresting, but the positive experience comes from one’s time in three-dimensional space with the object.
The craftiness of this work calls on familial and cultural ties of the artist--”She combines Minimalist abstraction with centuries-old artisanal techniques informed by her family’s long history working as goldsmiths in Bangalore” (Wall text, n/eighty nine). While the work is from just three years ago, I cannot help but to contextualize the use of copper in relation to India’s production of the resource being pushed to meet industrial demand in the 80s. She is effortlessly melding industrial metal, personal history and Western minimal aesthetics into a singular piece. Meppayil’s work has been described by Deepak Ananth as “process-oriented,” as much of it involves an aesthetic of repeated actions--whether it is laying many thin copper wires into gesso panel, or making tiny indents (“thinnam”) with different metal tools (Ananth, Horizons of Silence: Nasreen Mohamedi and Prabhavathi Meppayil). The way the copper catches the light as you move around this work calls you to move in closer, and to inspect the object from many different angles. It is interesting even to view Meppayil’s work from the side, in order to better catch the wires. From far away, and even in photographs, it is nearly impossible to see the delicate and meticulous aspect of this work, and to notice the subtle imperfection of the gesso in resistance to the metallic fineness of the copper as your eyes move across the surface. It is a quiet work that relies on opticality as much as the spectator’s physical movement in space. The object’s description in the Met Breuer also mentions another dimension--temporality. “As copper wires oxidize over time, they turn shades of blue and green, enacting a form of visual resistance against the white background” (Wall text, n/eighty nine). There’s a sort of resistance or refusal of the copper both existing within this work as a forein object (to both the gesso and to the idea of a “painting”), and this mention of an element of change unto an unchanging base. This description also brings attention to its relationship not only to Glenn Ligon’s work in another room of the exhibition boldly declaring “I feel most colored thrown against a sharp white background,” but to the time-based experience that defines the spectator’s relationship to the work.
While Meppayil’s work subtly calls attention to itself, I found another work in Home is a Foreign Place to work in almost the opposite way. Almost physically diagonal from each other in the gallery was Edward Krasiński’s (1925-2004) 1983 Intervention made with acrylic paint on wood, and tape (39 3/8 × 38 3/16 × 5 11/16 in). Interestingly enough, the Met Breuer website classifies this work as both a “painting,” and “sculpture.” This object is the coalescence of three fragmented parts--the most simple aspect is the right side, where there is a painting of a white rectangular prism with a black background. This painting is layered three-dimensionally in front of another part: a black painted rectangular surface that has a rectangular cut-out in its center, making it seem like it is a thick painted frame and creating another prism using the white space behind it, and its shadows. The first painting occupies space in front of the ‘frame,’ casting a shadow behind it. The cut-out in the second part of the work casts a more centrally located shadow. The third aspect of the work is a singular, long blue stretch of tape that runs through the middle of the object, and at the same height throughout the rest of the room in the gallery--even through works by other artists!
While the painted portions of this object are relatively simple and frankly uninteresting, I am drawn to the three-dimensionality of this work, and most significantly to the affect of the blue tape. While Meppayil’s ‘foreign object’ (the copper) was elusive, Krasiński’s blue tape becomes the most overbearing and visually penetrative force in the room. Michael Fried may have described this use of the tape as positing a sort of “theatricality” causing the work to obscure the definitions of its supposed medium inhibition. It physically interrupts the space and affect of all other objects, while at the same time forces all of these objects to merge into a singular experience for the spectator. Intervention came right around the time postmodernism was on the scene. A characteristic of postmodernist art I had in mind while viewing this work was that it transcends anything that might have been imagined at the most extreme moments of what came before it in time. If I were to guess, I would have believed that all the works in the room were crafted by the same artist--it is not ordinary for one artist to intentionally disrupt the work or space of another artist in a shared gallery. This work more readily challenges historically definitions of painting and sculpture as it exists as both a “painting” and something else, and it has a significant reliance on three-dimensionality and the use of space. In the description of Intervention at the Met Breuer, it is stated that “Krasiński explored the relationship between the viewer and objects in space… the tape passes over an axonometric drawing--a geometric rendering of a 3D object on a 2D surface--in a playful linear gesture that literally and conceptually fuses the artwork and the architectural space of the gallery” (Wall text, Intervention). I was moved to think of Judd’s comment about how three-dimensionality causes a work to “open to anything,” and both the subtle and extreme ways Krasiński’s work engaged with this sentiment (755).
If Meppayil’s work was quiet, Krasiński’s was certainly loud. One draws you in close into itself, while another pushes you backwards to examine the entire room as one collective experience. In Robert Morris’s “Notes on Sculpture,” he talks about how new work has “expanded the terms” of their definition by emphasizing the conditions under which the objects are seen (231). Artists instill more control over the experience that spectators have over variables like light and space, which makes those elements of viewing the work more significant than earlier types of art. n/eighty nine so heavily relies on these variables. And the opticality of Intervention changes every time it is installed in a new space and overtakes new objects within it. The objects themselves however don’t simply become “less important,” it’s just that it is as much about these other variables and overall experience as the work in the space it occupies.
Anath, Deepak. “Introduction - Excerpt from Horizons of Silence: Nasreen Mohamedi and Prabhavathi Meppayil.”
Prabhavathi Meppayil. http://www.prabhameppayil.in/biography.html
Fried, Michael. “Art and Objecthood.” Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology. University of California Press. 1968.
Greenberg, Clement. “Modernist Painting.” The New Art: A Critical Anthology. NY: Dutton, 1973) 100-110.
Judd, Donald. “Specific Objects.” Art in America 1945-1970: Writings from the Age of Abstract Expressionism,
Pop Art, and Minimalism. The Library of America. New York, NY. 2014. 755-763.
Morris, Robert. “Notes on Sculpture.” Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology. University of California Press. 1968.
Wall text, Intervention, Home is a Foreign Place, The Met Breuer, New York, NY.
Wall text, n/eighty nine, Home is a Foreign Place, The Met Breuer, New York, NY.