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.

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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