RUSSELL MALTZ The Needle and The Stack
By Gwenael Kerlidou, June 29, 2022
Minus Space, Brooklyn, NY, to July 30
In a 1973 discussion about Marcel Duchamp, Robert Smithson pointed out to the concept of the readymade as an atrophied non-dialectic way of thinking about art and to his own work as a response to the fetishization of the art object in our late capitalist system. It might be a big leap from atrophy to entropy, but one tempting enough to entertain the idea, even if only fleetingly, of the readymade as a symptom exposing the entropic character of the whole Modernist enterprise itself. And alternatively, of entropic decay as the ultimate destiny of the Ready-Made, thanks in part to our consumerist precept of built-in obsolescence.
This is the kind of musing that a visit to Russell Maltz’ three-part survey exhibition In Brooklyn might foster. Organized by Minus Space and covering a span of some forty years of work, its first part focused on an early collaborative project developed on the campus of C.W. Post College, Long Island, when the artist was still a student. The second part centered on the ongoing “Stack” works, a series began in the early eighties, while the third part revolved around the more recent “Needle” wall pieces.
In the first installment, the “Pool Project”, covering the years 1976 to 79, the viewer was tempted to see the empty pool structure as a Duchamp style found earthwork, of the early Michael Heizer kind, being re-purposed and subverted by a generation of younger artists. That early project seemed to give the pitch for the work to come.
Concurrently, in an empty storefront at 28 Jay St, the artist presented an installation of vertically and horizontally piled construction-grade plywood sheets, pallets of cinderblocks, bundles of metal studs and other PVC pipes scattered haphazardly, as if a material delivery had just happened on a construction site, except for the presence of yellow Day-Glo rectangles painted over each stack, unifying it as an object of consideration as a whole, and emphasizing intentionality where only chance seemed to be at play.
Installation View, 28 Jay St., Brooklyn.
The second installment consisted of seven large upright plywood stacks and one vertical glass stack in the main gallery, spanning the years 1984 to 2022. Some parts of each stack were painted, a different color for each stack and all were leaning against the wall, as if a construction fence, of the kind ubiquitous throughout the city, had just been dismantled at the end of a project and some of its elements temporarily left against a wall before their removal from the site. The pieces exuded an odd mix of the familiar and the uncanny, as Sigmund Freud would have it.
Maltz has been using paint and color since the beginning of his “Stack” works, first with industrial grade paints and then fluorescent colors, as a way to bring and hold together the disparate elements of the stacks. But besides their unifying function, the colors are also sending unsettling signals: On a construction site, colors are never used for esthetic reasons. They are a coded sign system, aimed at warning the worker of a potentially dangerous environment. Ultimately it is this tension between the perceived precariousness of the installation and its implication of a physical risk for the viewer, the weight of the materials or the danger of collapse of an unsteady pile, which colors our experience of the “Stacks” and “Needles” pieces.
Perhaps only to a European eye, Maltz plywood stacks may hint obliquely to Imi Knoebel’s 1968 “Raum 19”, a sprawling installation of unpainted MDF volumes, which included a few neatly stacked piles of panels, except for the fact that Malz’s are more unruly, more unstable, less organized, perhaps less conceptual than their European counterpart. A student at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie, Knoebel initially undertook the “Raum 19” project as a response to Joseph Beuys’ “social sculpture” program.
STACK, 1993, Enamel and aluminum radiator paint on plywood, 11 plates, 60 x 78.5 x 24 inches.
But in their shared rejection strategy of the white walled gallery and of the museum as neutral places of presentation, Knoebel conceived of “Raum 19” as a showroom or a storage space installation, while Maltz looked to the exhibition space as a place of intellectual exchange of ideas and to the construction site as a kind of space that could best fit his interest in an ever-evolving dynamic of exchange.
Back in the 70s, in the US, where vast open deserts were available as backdrops for emphatic artistic gestures, Land Art developed partly as a rejection of the gallery as a questionably neutral space of transaction. But the nagging nostalgia for Clifford Still’s Ab-Ex heroics never completely disappeared from Land Art. On the other hand, in Europe, where the luxury of such large empty expenses does not exist, Fluxus instead offered an approach of the quotidian experience as esthetic alternative to a gallery system growing too comfortable with the market.
Interestingly, Maltz appears to position himself somewhere between Smithson and Knoebel, in the gap between the American sublimation of Ab-Ex into Land Art and Europe’s Fluxus inflected esthetic. Next to Knoebel’s stacks, Maltz’s stacking gesture clearly still owes something to Abstract Expressionism, or rather to the idea that beyond the gesture of a paint loaded brush on canvas, the choice of materials, their placement in space, all still convey a notion of pathos and risk, which, interestingly, are absent from Knoebel’s work.
If Maltz’s direct American predecessors are indeed the land artists, none of the idealist concepts of the desert as a new Modernist blank page, or of the romantic metaphors of a lost paradise which pervades Robert’s Smithson’s work and writing, reappear in the stacks and needles work. But Maltz’s stacks are still non-sites in Smithson’s sense. The geological stratification that so fascinated Smithson is translated here in a layering of sheets of plywood (or glass, or both), all subject to the laws of gravity, which could also be understood as a literal versions of the layered, palimpsestic nature of painting itself.
But in many ways, more than found objects, the stacks, whether they be concrete blocks, plywood sheets or plate glass are also a found idea. They are essentially “found sites”, in a Duchampian sense, as Maltz calls his photographs of stacked building materials, such as those that any city wanderer might stumble upon in the street, even if the choice of the construction site as model, not just of a presentation context, but also of the methodology of the work, seems to be a very Fluxus inflected kind of decision. What is striking here is that Maltz seems to situate his work at the improbable confluence of Land art and Fluxus (as well as Arte Povera, if you think of it), beyond the pale of an Americano-centrist narrative.
Blue Riser, 2021, Polyurethane on Glass (3 plates) suspended from a galvanized nail, 111.75 x 3.5 x 4 inches.
On the other end, even if somewhat obliquely, Maltz also engages Steven Parrino. Their gesture is both radical and political. But Maltz avoids the poignant theatricality of Parrino’s punk rebellion against the status quo. What it offers instead is a proletarian, even materialist (as opposed to idealist) esthetics. It is political in the same way that Supports/Surfaces (think of Bernard Pages) or Arte Povera (think of Mario Merz’ work) were in the 70s Europe.
But more to the point, the undecidable question pervading this 3-part show is of whether any of these pieces, “Stacks” or “Needles”, should be approached as paintings or sculptures. This is what the 3rd phase of this survey addresses. In the late eighties, Maltz started to suspend the stacks on the wall, each on a heavy-duty metal pin, and doing so perhaps relating them more directly to the painting references that they hinted to from the beginning, but emphasizing their dependance on gravity more than liberating them from it. Starting around 2015, the more recent needle pieces, mixing wood and glass -materials previously kept separate in the “stack” works, both pared down and condensed the Suspended Works to their bare essence. The stunning “Needle” installation in the gallery begs the question of whether anything hanging on the wall can really be viewed from outside of the categories of painting.
The Needle pieces can’t help but bring to mind the hands of a giant clock, (“les aiguilles d’une montre” -the needles of a wristwatch- as they say in French) permanently showing six-thirty in the entropic time zone of the gray area between painting and sculpture, pointing down to the ground where they came from and where they are bound to return ultimately.
It is to Minus Space’s credit that they devoted so much time and space to this three-part/forty-year survey of the work of such a maverick artist, a survey which should have been organized by an American institution for once, as most of the artist’s previous surveys seem to have been organized by European institutions. It is not a hard reach to imagine a “Stack” in dialogue with a Knoebel, a Fred Sandback, or a Steven Parrino, in a setting such as Dia-Beacon, or a “Needle” amongst the Jannis Kounellis and Mario Merz at Magazzino.
This is the neighborhood where they belong.
ACCU-FLO Bundled #1, 2022, Day-Glo enamel on plywood with metal banding, 28 x 106 x 5 inches