Monolith Mania Comes to Chelsea

I don’t blame you if you never want to hear the word monolith again. It was certainly one of the most misused terms of 2020. It officially means “one stone” (mono for one and lith for stone or carving, from the Greek word lithos), and was pressed into overtime last fall when social media was inundated by reports of “mystery monoliths.”

Perhaps the real mystery lies in how the word monolith, even though incorrect, was instantly and globally adopted to describe that column — a column of metal, not stone —— that was discovered in November in a remote section of the Utah desert and spawned a series of copycat sculptures.

Such questions of nomenclature have been newly awakened by “Between the Earth and Sky,” a handsome and inordinately timely group show at the Kasmin Gallery in Manhattan. It brings together 22 works, some recent, some quite old, all of them billed as “monolithic sculptures.” This, of course, is stretching the definition; only four of the works are actually made of stone, while others are composed from materials including bronze, clay and blown glass. But’s let not belabor the point. We don’t want to be the monolith police.

Let’s just say the show is a spirited and hugely diverting look at the theme of verticality, with its inevitable ups and downs. There is no easy way to explain how the form of the free-standing column, a shape as elemental as a broomstick and as old as the first human who tried stacking up a few rocks, has been saddled over the centuries with so much meaning, especially in regard to spiritual uplift and transcendence.

Compared to horizontal vectors, which can evoke the recumbent human figure and states of rest, the vertical carries intimations of the cosmic. Grounded in the earth, pointing upward, it hints at the world beyond our desks — something larger than ourselves and far more enduring. Celebrated megaliths like those at Stonehenge or Easter Island do not aim to plumb our interior lives or offer insight into suffering, instead capturing a generalized yearning for the majesty of the sky and stars.

Some of that energy is recycled in Ugo Rondinone’s “the dignified” (2019), the most recent work in the Kasmin show, and among the most memorable. It consists of a charismatic giant with a big bluestone boulder for a head and two differently sized slabs for legs. His stance suggests that his weight is shifted onto his back leg, signaling informality, and making him feel less like a Paleolithic deity than an ordinary guy standing around waiting for his date.

The Rondinone, in truth, might look better outdoors, as would Huma Bhabha’s similarly outsized “God of Some Things” (2011), a chunky bronze goddess with enviable posture. Large-scale sculptures need to be viewed from a certain distance if they’re to be seen in their entirety, complete with the air they enhance. At closer range they can disappear into their own textures, and as you go through the show, you might find yourself studying surfaces rather than silhouettes — whether that means the blackened patina of Per Kirkeby’s “Torso I” (1983) or the earthy walnut of Saint Clair Cemin’s “Girl and Thoughts” (2014), a marvel of intricate carving.

Basically, there are two types of columns in this show. There are sincere columns, like those mentioned above. And, in keeping with the postmodern taste for amused skepticism, there are ironic columns — columns that mock or cleverly subvert the form.

In the latter category, Marie Watt’s engaging “Blanket Story: Indian Territories, Round Dance, Grandmother” (2016) consists of a tall, four-sided column contrived from a stack of neatly folded blankets. In lieu of a rigid, immutable pillar, Watt, a citizen of the Seneca Nation, has given us a monument to warmth and variability. There are dozens of blankets altogether, each slightly worn, and it’s surprising to realize how long you can spend contemplating a pink wool blanket edged in satin versus a gray one with fuzzy fringes.

Another jab at traditional monuments is provided by Rachel Harrison, the New York sculptor whose much-admired retrospective at the Whitney Museum was held a little more than a year ago. Her “Boss Revolution” (2015) harks back to the pop-culture form of a telephone booth, itself a bygone 20th-century monument. Harrison’s kiosk gives off an air of casual mayhem, with a black rotary phone dangling in midair, forever off the hook, and an oversized photograph of a woman hiding her face behind a hoodie. Communication has clearly broken down, and little assurance is provided by the presence of a White Pages that juts out toward the viewer, flipped open to a full-page advertisement for a personal injury lawyer.

Column satire reaches its peak in Tom Sachs’s “Here III” (2017), an inside joke that feels a little callow. It pays homage to Barnett Newman, the venerated Abstract Expressionist whose signature “zip” paintings, with their skinny stripes isolated against vast fields of color, brought a new oomph to verticality. Newman’s “Here III,” (1965-66) an elongated steel plinth rising skyward from its Cor-Ten base (it’s not in the show, and belongs to the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas) is the inspiration for Sachs’s sculpture of the same title, a deliberately shoddy and substandard replica that looks unfinished, bearing pencil marks and exposed screws. It seems to say, “I’ll never be as good as Barney.”

James Lee Byars, too, openly pirates the column of a predecessor. Byars, a dandyish figure in a top hat who died in 1997, was beloved for his performances and tossed-off works made from paper. But his “Figure of Death” (1987), which occupies a room of its own at Kasmin, is the opposite of ephemeral. Composed of a stack of white marble cubes that pay homage to Constantin Brancusi’s “Endless Column,” it suggests that even a renegade like Byars occasionally longed for permanence and a surface of smudge-free perfection.

The older artists in the show, by contrast, appear unconflicted in their art love. Irony is ironed out of existence in the work of Beverly Pepper, whose “Ptolemy’s Wedge II” (2010) is all about balance, and Isamu Noguchi, that peerless connoisseur of rocks. His late-life carving, “Gift of Stone” (1982), is a 7-foot-tall column of pale gray granite that rewards close looking. What at first may appear to be a typical flinty surface turns out to be texturally dramatic, with dings and dents and cascades of pointillist dots. “Gift of Stone” culminates at the top in a 45-degree bladelike angle, making the piece look like a stone-age tool for giants.

Like most group shows, this one provokes that curious reflex that causes you to pine for the conspicuous omissions. Where is Brancusi, for starters? Where are Anne Truitt and John McCracken, both of them exemplary Minimalist sculptors who turned the column into a vehicle for startling displays of lustrous color? Last fall, their names surfaced wishfully as possible makers of the pop-up column in Utah, which has since been removed, and whose creator remains unknown.

Despite its overarching theme, “Between the Earth and Sky” does not aim to be definitive. Nor does it aspire to have the scholarly heft of a museum survey. It is not accompanied by a catalog, and the information provided to visitors is pretty much limited to vitals. Nonetheless, the show is ambitious in its historical sweep, and includes a selection of ancient and tribal pieces.

There’s a carved stone column from Veracruz, Mexico, as well as wooden figures and masks from Central Africa and Papua New Guinea. Although they look a little lost and contextless, together they provide a generous evocation of the essential role that ancient and tribal art played in the development of modern sculpture, which taught everyone from Picasso on down that sometimes the most emotionally “real” form is the one from which realistic details have been stripped away.

“Between the Earth and Sky” comes at a fortuitous time. Locked down and pandemic-crazy, most of us have lately had more than our share of horizontality, staying home and shuffling around from room to room. “It is not in our power to travel in a vertical direction,” the French philosopher Simone Weil wrote, explaining why we “cannot take a single step towards heaven.”

But if our feet cannot travel vertical distances, our eyes can, and here’s to looking at more vertically oriented sculptures, whether they are technically monoliths or not.

Between the Earth and Sky

Through Feb. 27, at Kasmin Gallery, 509 West 27th Street, (212) 563-4474; [email protected] Open by appointment.

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