Originally published in ArtCritical. ◊◊
Carol Bove does not consider her art in terms of its site-specificity, which might come as a surprise considering her recent projects for institutions such as the Highline and the Museum of Modern Art. Hers is a more holistic approach to site specificity as a call-and-response between a sculpture, its materials, and the surrounding environment. In an interview with Art in America in May 2012, Bove explains: “My sculptures can and must be taken apart and then put back together. Disaggregation is important. Therefore, each element needs to maintain its individual identity, its autonomy.” This is why I find it particularly worrisome that the press releases and texts in situ introducing two of her ongoing sculpture installations in New York City, Caterpillar at the Highline Park (through May 2014) [top] and Equinox at MoMA (through January 2014) [bottom], recommend allegorical interpretations of the art based solely on their material or textual components.
It is Bove’s solo show at Maccarone, her second with the gallery, titled “RA, or Why is an orange like a bell?” that most thoroughly escapes this trap of over interpretation. The work in all three exhibitions share materials: concrete, brass, cast steel, and powder-finished steel; unlike the outdoor installation on the Highline and the show at MoMA, the gallery pieces are not physically bolted down and hence not corralled by a specific space and its host of references. “RA, or Why is an orange like a bell?” confounds traditional notions of artistic authorship and object category. Only six of the twelve works listed are attributed to Bove herself, who regularly folds the works of others into her own shows in what she calls “forced collaborations.” Among Bove’s six works, a large percentage of the materials were industrially fabricated or found, and their identity as “artworks” is complicated by this sense of previous history. Just past the gallery’s entrance is one of Bove’s simplest and most eloquent works—an untitled sculpture in the round, made in 2013, in which a slab of petrified wood is fastened to one edge of a steel beam towering almost a dozen feet tall. Here, the support structure is an essential armature, and the fossilized organism an animated protagonist in comparison.
One of her most virtuosic displays is Peel’s foe, not a set animal, laminates a tone of sleep (2013). The work consists of delicate brass open cubes and rectangles screwed into intricate formations and woven into the openings of a concrete pillar. Even though not all the shapes implemented are regular cubes, the edges of both materials contribute to the contours of a regular grid when viewed straight on. As one walks around the piece, however, the tidy geometry ebbs into formal chaos before straightening itself again. The same could be said of her two white powder coated steel sculptures, Solar Feminine and Hieroglyph (both 2013), whose forms yawn and contract when observed in rotation, and I-Beam Sculpture (2013), which is set low to the ground and becomes nearly indistinct from it at certain angles. In all these works, Bove’s aforementioned notion of disaggregation is not merely a physical phenomenon, but an optical one.
The remaining works in the presentation were made by Lionel and Joanne Ziprin, Harry Smith, Richard Berger, and other unnamed members of their Lower East Side bohemian circle from the 1950s and ‘60s. Their contributions include a glass vitrine of anonymous doodles, scraps, and more complete works on paper (ca. 1951-1955). These, the list of works informs us, are not meant to be scrutinized for their content, but to be “illustrative of the creative atmosphere of the Ziprin circle”—much in the way the books in Bove’s iconic George Nelson shelf sculptures operate as cultural indicators rather than texts. The centerpiece of the show, if such a work exists, is Harry Smith’s Design for Qor Corporation (ca. 1960), a diminutively sized painting on cardboard sporting a brash red and green grid-like pattern with Celtic affinity. It is suspended high between two large panes of glass—a two-dimensional vitrine—such that one can’t look at the Smith painting without seeing other works in periphery. In a brilliant multi-dimensional play, this work is at once a motif, a shadow, and a physical intervention, imprinted upon the show without leaving an actual trace.
The artist does not make explicit why she chose the Ziprin circle’s works to feature alongside her own. The choice was certainly not incidental or merely aesthetic; in conjunction with her Maccarone show, Bove co-curated with Philip Smith a reading-room of Ziprin and Harry Smith ephemera a few blocks away at 98 Morton Street. In this appendix-like exhibition are works from the duo’s short-lived design company Qor Collective and other eccentric commercial projects like Inkweed Studios. When Lionel Ziprin passed away in 2009, he left behind an epic volume of poetry, which included the autobiographical lines: “I am not an artist. I am not an / outsider. I am a citizen of the / republic and I have remained / anonymous all the time by choice.” Nine years ago, Bove offered a companion statement in an interview with the curator Beatrix Ruf: “It has to be apparent that the piece was put together for this particular occasion, in this particular space, which exists in a particular cultural context at a particular moment in time. […] The objects are assembled from non-art objects and my fantasy is that they could return to a state of non-art.”
The show probably leaves room for an essay to be written about the link between Ziprin and co.’s Kabbalistic undertakings and the spiritual inflections in Bove’s titles, but I believe that it is unwise to give too much emphasis to cross-interpretation. Rather than looking at either body of work as an index, allegory, and appendage to the other, we should regard RA as a staged meeting of kindred objects that we are invited to observe before everything disbands again.