James Lee Byars, The Philosophical Nail, gilded iron, 10 3⁄4” x 11/4” x 11/4”, 1986
We own Malraux for the notion of art as a moveable feast. Perhaps the most enduring contribution of André Malraux’s magnum opus, "The Voices of Silence," is its core insight about a work of art’s capacity to adapt itself to different contexts and thus be informed with new meaning over time. Otherwise, art of the past would be only that: art history. Titian’s "Man with a Glove," relocated from its original setting to that of the museum, becomes simply “a Titian.” The risk is that we don’t look beyond its celebrity status. The reward can be our discovery of new import.
The summer show at Peters Projects features six artists who have links to northern New Mexico—mostly to Santa Fe or, in the case of Agnes Martin, to Taos. More to the point, and save for one artist, the work in the show represents the signature styles that each developed in the 1960s and 1970s. This was the period of late Modernism marked by the rise of diverse movements that broke away from the long Modernist tradition culminating in Abstract Expressionism. The fact that many of the works in the show were done after 2000—decades after their “prototypes”—shows that these artists continued or continue to find them meaningful.
Minimal artist John McCracken’s painted planks, each composed of plywood, fiberglass, and resin ("Cosmos," 2001; "Particle," 2005; "Traveler," 2005) reprise the sculptural type that he debuted in 1966. Positioned as seen here with Traveler, a tall, narrow rectangular plank rests on the gallery floor but leans on the wall—for McCracken a stance that mediates Minimalist insistence on the literal presence of the artwork as “specific object” by evoking traditional sculpture (floor) and painting (wall) with their inherent illusive or allusive reference. Yet McCracken reaffirms the work’s status as an object in the viewer’s own space with the latter’s reflection mirrored in its glossy monochrome surface.
James Lee Byars’ conceptualist tack deploys the aesthetic of the specific object to carry Zen-like texts and titles that infuse idea and image as visual meditation. His understated koans and wryly ambivalent imagery ("The Philosophical Nail"), and above all, beautiful objects, are both saving grace and key to the success of his work.
The formless molten mass of aluminum of Lynda Benglis’s "Figure 6" is emblematic of a very different approach to specific objects, one that, for her, celebrates their shared organic identity. The power and perverse formal appeal of Benglis’s lumpen skulptur is on a par with the antithetical elegance of Ken Price’s equally amorphous ceramic work.
Two easel-scale paintings from Harmony Hammond’s "Aperture" series—monotypes on Twinrocker paper with grommets—have the convincing look and feel of oil on canvas, while her large oil and mixed media on canvas "Frazzle" comes across as matte monotype. Common to these three works is Hammond’s abiding artistry over the course of a long and distinguished career, marked by the artist’s unerring sense of what divides art from design.
The three large ink-on-paper drawings and the mounted steel and enamel wall sculpture by Roxy Paine do not engage at the level of the work by the other artists in the show. That said, Paine’s "RDA," a pyramid of pain divided into eighteen compartments illustrating devices for torture and ascending from medieval to modern variants, is a potent indictment of our contemporary culture of violence.
Agnes Martin’s 1973 portfolio of screen prints, "On a Clear Day," appeared a year or so before the artist would resume a career in painting that she had abandoned in 1967, when personal crisis led her to leave her studio and New York City to travel in the Southwest, where she would settle and build a new studio, in Cuba, New Mexico, in 1974. Each print in the series is a variation of a gray grid drawn in graphite on cream- colored rag paper. "On a Clear Day" is a rare opportunity to witness Martin’s understanding of “inspiration” as a mode of intellection, however intuitive. The first twelve prints are variants on a closed grid format framed by borders on all sides. The next five prints (13-17) explore an open-form grid of horizontal lines, and the last thirteen (18-30) depict open grids of hatching horizontal and vertical lines whose open ends produce the effect of a wire mesh. Any lingering tendency of the viewer to see these signature grids of Martin as “austere geometries” is dispelled by the added nuance achieved by her modulations of cell scale and shape and of the thickness of horizontal line in several prints. This approach, both intellective and intuitive, can be seen in her large pale acrylic horizontal-band paintings of 1993-1994 now permanently installed in the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos.
For the artists in "Temporal Domain" as well as for its viewers, Malraux’s insight about art as a moveable feast continues to hold true.