Sex In the City of Tomorrow

OCMA exhibit discovers when screwing became really mechanical

Photo by Keith MayThough brief—just a dozen or so sculptural objects and works on paper—"Correspondences" is nimble enough to display the uncanny convergences and marked "correspondences" between Noguchi and Kelly. Both developed an affinity for biomorphic forms, favoring a pared-down abstraction based upon careful observation of the natural world. And though they represent two different generations of American Modernism, both were deeply informed by early exposure to the European avant-garde.

Organized by the Whitney Museum, this exhibit places their work in quiet, decorous exchange. For those who like high-pitched polemics, "Correspondences" may seem tepid. But civility allows for intelligent conversation, and it's Constantin Brancusi, the arch-Modernist Romanian sculptor, that Noguchi and Kelly seem to want to discuss most.

Questions of pedigree and influence are always difficult and even a bit naïve in light of what Foucault, Barthes and poststructuralist theory have taught us about the death of the author. But Brancusi looms large here: while a Guggenheim Fellow in Paris from 1927-28, Noguchi worked for some six months as an assistant in Brancusi's studio. Twenty-two years later, Kelly leveraged the GI Bill into a five-year stay in France and a meeting with Brancusi.

Both encounters would have obvious consequences. Two of Noguchi's exhibited sculptures—The Gunas(1946) and Celebration (1952)—are plainly derivative of Brancusi. A third, Endless Coupling (1957), is an even more direct homage, borrowing both its form and title from Brancusi's variations of the Endless Column (1919-1937).

Endless Coupling is composed of three anthropomorphic, interlocking iron forms —each an ambiguously sexed conical projection with bulbous ends. The individual elements combine and rise in the form of an eight-foot-high column. Stacked one atop another, each fitted part is supported by a rod running from the sculpture's base and extending, exposed, beyond the uppermost form. Endless Coupling functions according to a structural logic first exploited by Brancusi: the repetitive, theoretically endless combination of interchangeable parts. Once the fundamental forms have been established, the coupling might continue in infinite extension like a tower constructed out of interlocking Legos or mass-produced industrial blocks—at least as long as the blocks hold out.

But the analogy to Machine Age mass production is complicated by the expressly biological character of these forms—which illustrates as well as anything Modernism's ambivalence about the machine and mechanical reproduction. By the time Modernism erupted in Europe, industrialization had transformed all aspects of modern life—for better and worse—promising a utopian vision of boundless technological progress as well as massive social dislocations. More disturbing to Modernists was the way the new technologies refashioned the human body itself into a part of the machines that men and women worked. It's not for nothing that the figure of the assembly-line worker as a cog in the wheel of industrial society has become a cliché.

Noguchi's Endless Coupling is similarly conflicted. If sex in the city of tomorrow amounted to little more than the mechanical and efficient slotting together of so many parts, eroticism wouldn't be worth the fucking effort. Endless Coupling also registers that unsettling tendency, still with us today, perhaps more than ever, to see the machine as but another human form—as a commodity fetish; or alternatively, even simultaneously, as a psychosexual fetish object, blocking and perpetuating the specter of castration. Check out the protruding rod: Does it signal the termination of this redoubling, generative process? Or emphatically, alluringly, bring attention to its potential for endless combination? Is it all dick, or not dick enough?

Noguchi's The Gunas, a staged ensemble of similarly abstract anthropomorphic figures constructed from polished marble, is also bound together by protruding and penetrating appendages. But its references to archaic and "primitive" cultures quotes from other pages of Brancusi's oeuvre. For Brancusi, the figure of the primitive was an elastic concept that could include anything from ancient Egyptian statuary to Oceanic and African masks or even his own native Romanian folk-art tradition—anything that stood at remove from post-Renaissance, Western pictorial practices, anything that bespoke of the exotic. This was but another attempt to reaffirm Modernism's opposition to bourgeois society—its fixed standards for classical, academic sculpture, its Western empiricism.

Kelly also explored the idiomatic forms of this largely invented primitivism, but abandoned it after the mid-1950s as he began to excise from his work all representations of the human figure. More important for Kelly were Brancusi's elaborations of the "essence" that lay behind or within natural objects. It was the reductive simplicity of Brancusi's idealized forms that would attract Kelly to his sculpture. Kelly's lithographs and graphite drawings of plants and leaves—Briar (1963), String Bean Leaves I (1965-66) and Locust (1966) —are all renderings from the landscape, but so spare and reductive that the objects in the world that they are ostensibly "after" are transformed into abstractions with only the most attenuated relationship to their referents.

Brancusi once famously remarked (with perfect Modernist hubris) that "simplicity is complexity resolved." If we can still take such a pronouncement seriously, it's well-illustrated in Kelly's drawings. His lines are fast and certain; "de-skilled" as they are, or perhaps because they have the look and feel of surrealist automatic drawings or the marks of children, they are strangely evocative. Here, you'll catch influences other than Brancusi—Jean Arp, most of all.

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