Process Imperfect
Nov 8, 2010 – Jul 25, 2011

While the process by which an artwork is made has been fundamental to painting since the birth of Modernism, by the middle of the twentieth century the performative nature of Abstract Expressionism brought process to center stage. In its wake, means became ends in themselves, process became product, the raison d’etre of art, the generative pulse. In more recent decades, process has provided the path to a reinvention of both painting and sculpture. The current installation looks at process in works in The Rachofsky Collection of the last six decades.

A principal trajectory of Modernism had been the assertion of art’s objecthood, which was stated ever more reductively and emphatically as the perspective progressed. By the 1950s, artists around the globe had become focused on the basic matter of defining the limits of just what an artwork is. The ground floor of the Rachofsky House examines a number of these manifestations in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Some are rooted in the material, such as Robert Ryman distilling painting into its essence of paint, support, and authorship, or Piero Manzoni presenting a canvas whose gesture is formed by the inevitable behavior of its materials. Others are more inherently political, as with Shozo Shimamoto consuming the daily newspaper with such heavily worked paint that he violates its surface. By peeling posters off city walls, turning them face back, and displaying the glue undersides as found compositions, Mimmo Rotella revealed something as simple, and yet as mysterious, as what lies beneath what we commonly view. At the same time, also in postwar Italy, by piercing the canvas and applying bits of glass to its surface like gestures of light frozen in relief, Lucio Fontana aimed at the existential, exploring space beyond our visible field. Indeed, in the 1950s and 60s art became increasingly centered on examining its integrity to both define its limits and explore its thematic and experiential limitlessness.

But in the last two decades, for younger artists, process has become prologue, the route to experience and the formation of image, the creation of worlds where the imagination can reside, a means to reinventing an end. The wrinkle of the canvas of the 50s and the mark of the brush in the 60s give way in the 70s to the static of television in the paintings of Jack Whitten (which also anticipate the raked abstraction of Gerhard Richter) and in the 80s to the reinvention of image in the work of Carroll Dunham. In riffing off the grain of the wood that forms both the surface and the support of his early paintings to produce images, Dunham’s art (following in a line of art traceable through Donald Judd) provides a pivot point from a materially self-generating art to a psychologically self-examining one. His work also opens the door for successive generations of painters, as diverse in their range as Nigel Cooke and Josh Smith, to create visual worlds that grant them a creative place in which to reexamine the space of a painting, and, perhaps, dimensions of creative exploration.

If the ground floor of the current installation is focused on tracing a rather precise lineage of process-driven painting, the second floor explores a variety of ways in which that language is torqued, brought into narrative, theatricalized, defied, and perhaps even mocked. The Illusionist by Sigmar Polke, the iconoclastic artist who produced one of the richest bodies of painting of the last fifty years, functions as a fulcrum for the current installation, illustrates a magician at the height of his inventive powers, orchestrating sight and transforming matter, commanding light and spirit through the forces of representation and abstraction. All of this is depicted on a corrugated surface that was invented by the artist and permitted him in his last great body of work to explore surface, the physical and mental space "behind the curtain," and all the furrows and crannies in between, with even more opulent and mischievous possibility than ever before. Friday’s Child by Thomas Eggerer (a German-born, New York–based artist) hangs opposite Polke’s work and functions as a companion play of a sensibility of a younger generation exploring the space of an artwork and the imagination that experiences it.

In the same central space of the installation, Rachel Harrison reshuffles the deck of the language of sculpture (or for that matter, the language of picture-making) and its both literal and metaphoric ways of becoming. In a work that plays in several ways with the Modernist dilemma of the sculpture and the pedestal, bases are forms in themselves, disconnected from the things supported. They also function as walls, an impenetrable portal, a support for an image and a field of paint, a place where the process of being painted thrives. A blanket serves as both a utilitarian pad and a poetic nod to a Beuysian notion of art and its functional potential. In his very different recasting of the languages of sculpture and painting, Sterling Ruby inverts the properties and formal truths of process art, using their language to undermine the physical behavior of a drip and the conceptual integrity of a sculpture as a self-supporting object.

In the rest of the installation, the examination of process in art of the last few decades shifts from the physical to the psychological. Jiro Takamatsu’s photographs of the early 1970s, displayed in the spiral staircase, anticipate the predominant re-photography of younger generations of American and European artists. In situating the artist’s family’s snapshots in other places against common domestic "grounds," Takamatsu locates the processes of looking, picturing, and memory as melancholic searching.

Works on the third-floor landing (by William Wegman, Mona Hatoum, and Sergej Jensen), in different ways and across successive generations, suggest that process is somehow Sisyphean, a conundrum attended by a sense of inevitability. In the library, Andro Wekua’s magical and melancholic installation of painted sculpture, sculpted furniture, and graphic prints situates process as a permanent state of becoming, where the physical and psychological are one.

Finally, the works in the bedroom, spanning nearly a half-century of art and following a parallel historical line, combine some of the most psychological works in The Rachofsky Collection in deliberately close quarters. They serve as a reminder that a process-driven figuration also born of Abstract Expressionism has navigated the cracks of abstraction without ever wanting to shake the monkey of representation off its back.

Allan Schwartzman
Director of The Rachofsky Collection