Sex In the City of Tomorrow

OCMA exhibit discovers when screwing became really mechanical

Kelly appropriated a number of surrealist gambits, among them the "exquisite corpses"—the "accidental" drawings made through the collaboration of two or more artists—that relied upon chance and tended to obscure the intentionality and deliberation of "authored" production. Rather than indicate the originality and genius of the centered and self-possessed individual artist, Kelly sought to turn himself into an unconscious recording instrument. Devoid of affect and any sentimentality, Kelly's drawings collapse all distinctions of figure and ground, of depth and relief. Space remains activated only in the play of positive and negative forms, flat and congruent with the paper they are inscribed upon.

All of this brings attention to the very objectness of the drawings themselves, and this would have important implications. Drawings and later paintings on canvas could be approached as three-dimensional sculptural objects in their own right. But if paintings and drawings might call attention to the space they occupied in the studio or gallery, then perhaps sculpture might begin to masquerade as painting. That would seem to be the claim of Kelly's untitled sculpture of 1983, an expansive, unarticulated parallelogram with one slightly curved side, hanging flat against the wall like a monochromatic painting made of cor-ten steel.

"Correspondences" suggests other convergences. Both Noguchi and Kelly worked within the confines of avant-garde, Modernist production—the works on view here all share that peculiar Modernist ethos of self-discipline and truth to material, an unwavering commitment to bronze, marble, and the sanctified materials of high Modernism. But the exhibition also shows how Noguchi and Kelly would shape succeeding generations of American artists, as well as postmodernist art more generally.

Noguchi's investigations of the natural landscape, like his sculpture gardens (like the one near South Coast Plaza) and site-specific installations, interrogated the conventional boundaries of sculpture and made important inroads for the later innovations of earthworks, site constructions, and axiomatic sculptures, re-defining what Rosalind Krauss would describe as "sculpture in the expanded field." For his part, Kelly's monochromatic paintings and ever-more-reductive sculptures pointed the way to minimalism.

It's easy to see this in retrospect. But such characterizations—if they are anachronistic, ahistorical, or crudely positivist—may distort or flatten their work more than clarify it. We begin to sense, however, not only the crucial filiations between these two artists but also the way each was positioned at the cusp of late Modernism and the postmodern. That fact amounts to more than the not terribly interesting observation that the work for which they're best known was done in the middle decades of the last century. "Correspondences" also underscores how pervasive and restrictive the codes and conventions of Modernism were—and how they would be productive of all kinds of correspondences. More engaging is the way the exhibit allows us to perceive the ways these very codes opened up and prefigured techniques of resistance and opposition.

But Kelly and Noguchi would go only so far. Their work still retains an art-for-art's-sake aesthetic of the autonomous object; their work still has about it the whiff of preciosity. They are still committed to working with "dignified" materials: no detritus; no found objects; certainly no shit, here.

"CORRESPONDENCES: ISAMU NOGUCHI AND ELLSWORTH KELLY" AT ORANGE COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, 850 SAN CLEMENTE DR., NEWPORT BEACH, (949) 759-1122; OCMA.NET. THROUGH OCT. 15.

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