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Postmodern One-Liners

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TONY TASSET

Rhona Hoffman Gallery

The sculptures of Tony Tasset now being shown at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery are worth a close viewing and careful consideration. To me the work seems academic and humorless, and the disappointments of the show far outweigh its pleasures.

The most compelling piece in the show is Open Sculpture Bench, a dark wooden cube that is open on top to reveal a sumptuously upholstered leather interior. The viewer is taken by the luxury-car smell of the leather and the inaccessibility of the enclosed form. Tasset seems to be simultaneously luring us in and closing us out, presenting a soft, desirable interior space that is impossible to sit in.

Tasset's art refers to and comments on concepts of minimalism; his sculptures exist to repeat and elaborate on the intellectual artwork of the 60s and early 70s and to seek some new insight by reconfiguring it and searching for new forms of presentation. Open Sculpture Bench brings to mind the ultrastatic cube forms of Robert Morris and Tony Smith. An even closer comparison can be made with Eva Hesse's Accession II of 1967, a perforated sheet-metal cube almost exactly the same size as Open Sculpture Bench (32 inches on a side). The three interior sides and bottom of Hesse's piece are lined with a grasslike surface of small plastic tubes. The effect on the viewer was similar to that of Tasset's work; the piece created an inside/outside dichotomy, tempting the viewer to get in. (Hesse's piece proved irresistible when shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 1968; it was destroyed by people climbing inside.) Accession II lured with its tactile interior and presented a paradox. The interior seemed natural--in a way the sculpture seemed to be a box of nature--but in fact the inviting "grass" was created from a manmade industrial material. Hesse's cube, in other words, ingeniously transformed materials through application. Tasset's version, by contrast, is a postmodern one-liner, an 80s BMW version of Hesse's deeply felt tactile experience from the 60s.

Another piece in the gallery, Chair Piece (for corner), consists of a small, cubic chair sitting with its back against the wall a few feet from the corner of the room. In front of and against the chair leans a large sheet of thick plexiglass, as if to separate us from the chair and prevent its use. The clear sheet may have been meant to impart a feeling of uneasiness or a state of tension, but because it is plastic and not glass there is little perceived danger. Also, since the vertical edge of the plexiglass is tucked into the corner of the room, and the bottom edge divides the 90-degree meeting of the walls, there is no physical way it can fall over. Indeed, a closer look from the side reveals that the glass does not in fact lean against the chair at all, but rather is supported by its contact with the wall: a person could reach in and pull out the chair without so much as touching the glass. Because the artist gives us so little to look at, every detail must be exhaustively considered, yet the intentions remain elusive. It's not clear why Tasset made a chair (or had one made) or why he decided on a scaled-down version. The fact that the chair and the plexiglass have no physical reliance on each other further confuses the intent. If the glass only prevents access to the chair, then why not put the chair in a glass box or steel cage? What is implied by the glass being propped up in the corner with the chair in an apparently precarious way? I give up.

Near the chair piece is a small room that contains an untitled site-specific installation, the biggest and clumsiest work in the show. The sculpture is only a little smaller than the room, enough to allow the viewer to walk around it. The wedge-topped monolith again refers to the minimalist geometric statements of the late 60s, but any relationship the mass may have with the proportion of the room or with its one window is spoiled by the insensitivity of the surface treatment. The sculpture's base, which is more than ten feet long and constructed of four-by-eight-foot sheets of birch plywood, has glaring vertical seams along its sides that make it look like a storage cabinet. The upper portion of the installation, a green wedge only slightly smaller than the base, is finished in uneven latex paint. The north light comes in the window and floods the green surface, exposing the longitudinal roller marks and the overall unevenness of the form. Again there is so little for the viewer to concentrate on that every detail must be examined; jarring flaws in conception and execution cannot be overlooked.

Like the minimalists whose work he comments on, Tasset doesn't actually build such sculptures himself. Unlike them, however, he seems unable to orchestrate the construction process properly. Artists like Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt (there are a couple of LeWitt's drawings in the gallery) had their sculptures built by technicians for a number of reasons. In reaction to the expressionist artists who preceded them--Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, David Smith, Mark Di Suvero, etc--the new college-educated generation wanted to remove all evidence of the artist's hand by making their sculptures with industrial materials not commonly associated with art, materials such as plastic, aluminum, and galvanized iron, best manipulated by skilled technicians and specialized equipment. While the expressionist art was conveying personal feeling and emotion in a gestural, hand-hewn style, the minimalists reacted with an art that explored ideas and concepts of time, space, and formal relationships, devoid of personal or individualized involvement.

As it happens, work from this period can be seen in the current MCA show "Three Decades: The Oliver Hoffman Collection," and on close examination the flawlessness of the pieces can be appreciated. For example, there is a long, horizontal polished-aluminum sculpture by Donald Judd (untitled, 1969) that hangs at about head level. Every surface of the relief and the way it hangs must have been carefully considered before the object was built. The sculpture has no visible fasteners or distracting joints, just smooth planes and crisp lines purely conveying its idea in a way that would impress a machinist. The piece is more than 20 feet long, and it is likely that Judd used as its core a four-inch-square aluminum tube just as it came from the warehouse in its complete 21-foot length. By contrast Tasset's installation uses four-by-eight sheets of plywood to fashion an object that is six feet wide, ten feet five inches long, and seven feet nine inches high. I have no objection to these dimensions except that they ignore the parameters suggested by the materials, which is to ignore an important element of the movement that Tasset is evidently commenting on.

Tasset's sculpture attempts to address issues of modernism, specifically minimal and conceptual art, in a blatantly calculated "postmodern" way. His involvement in the calculation resembles that which is required to solve a single algebraic equation, when the problem at hand calls for the solution of a conglomeration of interrelated equations. Looking at these pieces feels like eavesdropping on an inside joke: you know a story has been told and that it merits a reaction, but without having heard all the rhetoric related to the subject matter, you can only feign a reaction.

Every work of art starts with an idea. Then, with the process of making the art, the idea goes through a period of development; the artwork strengthens and informs the idea while becoming a separate entity that can be appreciated on many levels. Art doesn't depend on the idea for its existence but conveys the idea with its existence. Tony Tasset has gone to a whole lot of trouble to make one-liner art, academic statements about work that was severely academic in the first place. His sculpture is as obscure as it is expensive and sadly unenjoyable.

The installations have already been removed, but works in the main gallery remain up until February 9.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Tropea.

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