On January 7, two days before Gerard Byrne’s exhibition “A thing is a hole in a thing it is not” opens to the public, the audio has not yet been installed and the four films that make up the artist’s new installation loop silently. Ladders lean against the walls of the gallery, mimicking the large, white rectangles onto which Byrne’s films are projected. The scene fits the art attic of the University of Chicago’s Cobb Hall, the white rectangles echoing the steep pitch of the Renaissance Society’s ceiling. Even before the art handlers finish, familiar indicators of a minimalist aesthetic, coupled with the quiet tone of Byrne’s films, create what feels like a respectful ambience.
As befits the inevitably self-referential nature of minimalist art, Byrne’s exhibit deals extensively in allusion and quotation, many works concerning the received history of minimalism. The title, “A thing is a hole in a thing it is not,” is taken from sculptor Carl Andre, whose grid sculpture is featured in Byrne’s film “Museum.” In a way, “Museum” serves as an index for Byrne’s installation. Filmed within the galleries of Holland’s Van Abbemusuem, the artist has created what Renaissance Society associate curator Hamza Walker calls “minimalist period rooms,” featuring many of the main players of minimalist painting and sculpture. The other films make explicit references to some of these artists–Frank Stella, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Robert Morris.
In “Museum,” the viewer sees the private lives of iconic minimalist paintings and sculptures, especially through the rituals of museum people: the curator, critic, art patron, security guard, and finally, the janitor who carefully and touchingly guides her broom around the edges of a Judd sculpture. Noting the fastidiousness that her task requires provides an interesting point of entry. Similarly, an extended shot of a Frank Stella painting being unpacked from a shipping frame calls attention to the care with which the frame must have been constructed in order to accommodate the unusual angles and contours of Stella’s canvas. These illustrate a quote from Byrne’s film “Radio Waves”: “Art asks to be considered art.” Art asks for special boxes, for special cleaning procedures, and ultimately for a special interpretative approach, and there is something impressive about this request.
Walker refers to two of Byrne’s films as belonging “to art historical lore.” In one, sculptor Tony Smith drives on the New Jersey Turnpike and discusses its bearing on his own philosophy of art. The second is modeled after Robert Morris’s 1962 “Column” performance. Byrne’s “Radio Waves” also revolves around a dramatization–the recording of the now-canonical 1964 interview with Judd, Flavin, and Stella, in which they explore the extent to which minimalism can be thought of as a new kind of abstraction, and to what extent it probes “the classic spirit.” The camera’s attention in this film turns to the periphery of their conversation. It moves between shots of mundane geometries: a pattern on someone’s shirt, on a lamp, a network of electrical cords, the window blinds, the winding of recording equipment through the fog of cigarette smoke. Towards the end of the interview, Stella summarizes his thinking about minimalism: “What you see is what there is,” to which the interviewer responds, lightheartedly, “Well, you don’t get too much then, do you?”
Byrne’s installation simultaneously implicates a historicization of minimalism and engages formal characteristics of minimalist painting and sculpture. In so doing, Byrne carves out a space of contemplation in which to situate the legacy of minimalism, and in which to linger over some of the motifs, impulses, and embedded logic of how minimalism has been integrated –or has resisted integration– into a conventional trajectory of modern art. In an interview between Walker and Byrne following the January 9 opening, the specificity of Byrne’s interest becomes clearer. It is precisely the tension in minimalism between its defiance of previous modernist trends in painting and sculpture and its relationship to self-reference–its elusiveness beyond the circles of the art elite–that Byrne wants to draw out. He sees this tension as finding perfect illustration in some of “the basic pragmatic questions that emerge” around minimalist work: how do you photograph a sculpture that consists of a square grid of tiles on the floor from where is it best viewed?
The Renaissance Society. Cobb Hall 418, 5811 S. Ellis Ave. Through February 27. Tuesday-Friday, 10am-5pm; Saturday-Sunday, noon-5pm. Special events scheduled every Sunday from January 23-February 27. (773)702-8670. renaissancesociety.org