Invasion of the Sculpture Snatchers

Unintentionally playing the roles of Rupert Pupkin and Masha in The King of Comedy

"Cady Noland Approximately" is, according to its organizers, "the first survey ever devoted to Cady Noland's oeuvre." This aesthetic act of karaoke, identity theft, body snatching, and entrepreneurial table turning, created by Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett, co-directors of Triple Candie, a not-for-profit space that they have dubbed "Harlem's alternative for contemporary art," is a slap in the face, an act of misguided love, and an extremely challenging, maybe even radical, idea that could end up a fascinating footnote in future art history books. According to Bancroft and Nesbett, "The exhibition consists of objects re-created by the co-directors and four artist-assistants from images of Noland's art found on the Internet and in exhibition catalogs."

None of the work is for sale. Bancroft and Nesbett claim the exhibition "is meant to incite the public's desire and curiosity to experience the real thing, which remains frustratingly elusive." As a huge Noland fan, I know where they're coming from. Noland, not Barney, Hirst, or Gonzalez-Torres, is the crucial link between late-1980s commodity art and much that has followed; she is the portal through which enormous amounts of appropriational, political, and compositional notions pass. So mercurial, fierce, and originally poetic is she that I think of her as our Rimbaud.

Then, about a decade ago, for whatever reason, she absented herself. Noland hasn't had a gallery or museum exhibition in more than 10 years. When her work turns up in group shows it is said that she tries to have it removed. Thus the idea of any kind of Cady Noland show is mouthwatering. Nevertheless, judging from the results of this exhibition, if I were Cady Noland I'd think about getting a lawyer to get medieval on Triple Candie. Rather than creating a shining moment of revival, an artistic revelation, or a shrine, Bancroft and Nesbett are unintentionally playing the roles of Rupert Pupkin and Masha, who in the 1983 Martin Scorsese film The King of Comedy are so enamored of Jerry Langford, a talk show host, that they kidnap him.

A detail of an intentionally flawed recreation of a 1989 Noland sculpture
photo: courtesy of Triple Candie
A detail of an intentionally flawed recreation of a 1989 Noland sculpture

Details

Triple Candie
461 West 126th Street
Through May 21

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    This isn't a kidnapping. But remaking Noland's work without her permission is, in a sense, holding art for ransom. It's also nothing new. The art world has grappled with ideas about authenticity, the aura of the artist, originality, and transgression since Dada, Duchamp, Hugo Ball, and Walter Benjamin. Ball said, "Ideas are only labels"; Duchamp that "artists should be completely non-existent." Warhol maintained he wanted "to be like a machine." Recently, Elaine Sturtevant, Richard Pettibone, Richard Prince, and Sherrie Levine have made renditions of other artists' works. Now gallerists are doing it.

    "Cady Noland Approximately" tests these ideas and practices in ways that are at once admirable, complex, and vexing. The show asks several pressing questions, among them, do artists sacrifice their rights to anyone who wants to study their output? And is the art world only willing to grant permission to appropriate to artists or can art dealers get in on the act as well? A weirder wrinkle is that this isn't the first time that Bancroft and Nesbett have gone around an artist's wishes. Just three months ago they mounted "David Hammonds: The Unauthorized Retrospective," an exhibition consisting of scores of xeroxes of Hammonds's work. I liked the tribute-band aspect of that show, although I later heard from a third party that Hammonds was livid.

    "Cady Noland Approximately" goes far further and onto trickier ground. Bancroft and Nesbett make no claims about these being real Nolands. The checklist explicitly describes how these works were fabricated. One entry reads, "Noland used 34 A-frames in the original; for this exhibition 28 were used; Noland used a single wood plank that ran through all the A-frames, this piece is made from short, individual planks that were collected from Triple Candie's parking lot, painted white, and assembled to create the illusion of a single plank . . . " Another entry begins, "We were unable to locate the same stanchion bases Noland used, so substituted sign bases that we rented from a movie prop company . . . " Bancroft and Nesbett, who obviously love and admire this work, have gone to great lengths to make clear that these pieces are only approximations.

    The ideas are interesting and the organizers' hearts are in the right place, yet the show falls flat. Ironically and significantly, the problem isn't that these are para-Nolands; it's that the room feels so visually inert and lackluster. In a way "Cady Noland Approximately" makes one believe in artistic aura again. You start to understand why artists are so controlling about their art and also just how much of a spatial and material genius Noland was.

    "Cady Noland Approximately" will not explain to the many who have never seen an exhibition of her work why seeing Noland's art was once like taking an aesthetic joyride. To grasp the envelope-pushing impact of Noland's work, consider the famous story about Jackson Pollock, who, after completing an early drip painting, turned to his wife, painter Lee Krasner, and asked not if this was a good or bad work, but "Is this a painting?" The only time I had that kind of clueless, desperate, scared, amazed reaction in the face of contemporary art was with Noland's 1989 debut exhibition at the old American Fine Arts gallery. I didn't know what I was looking at or even if it was art. I was lost. Noland opened the door to a vast chamber within the house of art that no one knew existed. It was striking and unforgettable. This show is neither.

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