Art Review | Rudolf Stingel
DIY Art: Walk on It, Write on It, Stroke It
By ROBERTA SMITH
Published: June 29, 2007
Rudolf Stingel’s show at Daniel Newburg’s SoHo gallery in 1991 has always stuck with me. Mr. Stingel was 35 and newly arrived from Italy, and his American debut pulled no punches. He simply covered the gallery’s entire floor with plush carpet so deeply orange that the white walls acquired a pinkish glow. The effect was profoundly, disturbingly, subversively optical, a Duchampian ready-made in blatant disregard of Duchamp’s injunction against the retinal aspect of art.
Two years later Mr. Stingel exhibited a similar work at the Venice Biennale, covering an enormous wall in the Arsenale with orange carpet that visitors could roughen and smooth with their hands, leaving transient swirls and marks that suggested giant brush strokes. It was like Etch a Sketch cave painting, and made for terrific impromptu theater. The shock was multiple: Not only was this immense, furry orangeness a painting, it was interactive; you could run your fingers through its color. Yet for all it malleability, the piece remained basically impervious to interference. It was a concrete metaphor for art’s ability to be different for each viewer and yet retain its essential integrity.
There is, regrettably, no orange carpet in the grandly spare, casually exultant survey of Mr. Stingel’s paintings at the Whitney Museum of American Art, but there is still plenty to enthrall and perturb. For nearly 20 years he has made work that seduces the eye while also upending most notions of what, exactly, constitutes a painting, how it should be made and by whom. Beauty, humor, euphoria, a democratic slant and a resolute sense of economy form the core of Mr. Stingel’s art. He combines a love of painting with the postmodern suspicion of it, and often achieves a near-perfect balance between the visual and the conceptual.
This show stands a good chance of fulfilling that old avant-garde imperative “épater le bourgeois” — shock the bourgeoisie. Some people may walk through it in five minutes, scoffing. But I doubt that anyone can move fast enough to evade its challenges to conventional ideas of painting, taste and progress.
For one thing, it has too much jaw-dropping, thought-provoking beauty. Even the most skeptical viewer may be slowed by the gallery where three gold-on-gold paintings with raised brocade patterns (and painted highlights if you look carefully) are reflected in a shimmering mirrored floor. Not only are you part of the painting that is this room, your reflection is too. The ensemble is a Baroque-yet-21st-century retort to Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, in which the main images are the viewers’ shadows.
The Whitney show opens with a silvery big bang: a large gallery lined with aluminum foil set aglitter by an immense crystal chandelier hanging from its ceiling. Viewers can mark on the foil, which is actually foam-backed insulation. An idea of what’s possible is provided by the already elaborately engraved foil on the upper reaches of the walls. Its exuberant textures, graffiti and carvings are the handiwork of visitors to the show’s first incarnation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where it was organized by Francesco Bonami, that museum’s senior curator. Its strikingly spacious New York presentation has been overseen by Chrissie Iles, a Whitney curator.
Optical intensity without sentimentality might be Mr. Stingel’s motto. He seems to define paintings foremost as flat surfaces that radiate visual power in unfamiliar terms. His art connects to European monochromists like Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni and also to skeptical painters like Albert Oehlen and Christopher Wool, but it may be best understood as an Americanized, Warholian version of Arte Povera; Mr. Stingel often favors cheap materials (Styrofoam, for example), but instead of being distressed they are always brand new, industrial and somehow implicitly American.
Big, even architectural scale and color are part of the mix, as well as thwarted expectations. Opulence is countered by austerity, spectacle is undercut by banality. All processes are as transparent and simple as possible. Skill is continually reinvented and always less central than thought. Abstraction is less important than physicality. [read on...]