Sarah Sze’s first solo show in New York feels more like her second or third. It is as full of problems as her previous work was of promise—which is not to say that this work isn’t promising too.
At the age of 31, Sze has already had one-person museum exhibitions in Paris, London, Leipzig, and Chicago. She’s been in the Venice Biennale, Carnegie International, and Berlin Biennial. There are four catalogs devoted to her work, and one of her installations is featured in Agnès Varda’s new film, The Gleaners and I. While Sze’s been perfectly visible in New York, in prominent group shows—including the Whitney Biennial and P.S.1—when it came to having a solo gallery show here, it almost seemed as if she suffered from a form of stage fright. It may have been due to overcommitment, but she postponed the show she was to have had at Boesky last season. Maybe Sze just doesn’t buy New York’s self-centered rule that you gotta make it here or you haven’t made it anywhere. In any case, with a lot of work behind her and her reputation preceding her, this exhibition finds Sze ending one phase of her art and beginning another. In a way, she’s moved from the aggressive architectural disruption of Gordon Matta-Clark to the elongated surrealism of his father, Roberto Echaurren Matta.
Previously, Sze excelled at some unnamed genus of infernal architecture, what Tristan Tzara—in a fit of proto- or antifeminist ardor—called “intra-uterine architecture.” On the ceiling, inside walls, or on floors, Sze didn’t so much use space as colonize it like an invading insect army. Minute cavities contained never-ending streams of detail. Teaming teeny worlds filled with tiny Towers of Babel, Piranesian spires, and Simon Rodia minarets accrued into dense narrative jungles. Sze’s materials—including toilet paper, toothpicks, sugar cubes, and bottle caps—were almost always ephemeral. Her primary method of attachment was glue—which had the presence of a spider’s web. The work was precious, yet it teetered on the threshold of delirium and chaos.
Now, Sze has put aside maniacal accumulation, freedom of process, temporality, cuteness, and storytelling undergrowth. Individual objects are securely affixed to surfaces, materials are more permanent, color is limited and specific, and biologic growth has turned bionic. Everything’s planned out, finished, and clean. Perhaps mindful of being pigeonholed as a miniaturist, the always driven Sze has taken a bold but risky step. Here, she dives into some of the murkiest waters in contemporary art: the dreaded Gulf of Formalist Installation, also known as the Straits of Stella—a deadly place where form eats content. Artists who have foundered in this decorative sea include Judy Pfaff, Jessica Stockholder, and Frank Stella himself.
Sze’s new work has too much in common with these artists for my taste, and references to Naum Gabo, Moholy-Nagy, Constructivism, and certain disagreeable Deconstructivist architects don’t help. There are tasty reverberations of designers like Bertoia, Saarinen, and Venini, however, along with a nod to cartoons and coincidental suggestions of Duchamp’s Large Glass, Jean Tinguely, and the underknown Chicagoan Margaret Wharton.
If Sze gets by, it’s on what got her here in the first place: her marvelous ability to make an object, down to the last detail. Each one of the parts in this installation ends in a whimsical flourish. Dowel rods have little lenses affixed to tips; a stack of aspirin rests against a wall; Q-tips cluster in a crevice; beams curl into scorpion tails or are faced with bits of photographs; notebook paper is reassembled into expanded grids. If you can get into this Sarah-the-Anal-Retentive-Warrior-Princess perfectionism, things improve.
Sze’s installation is like one frame of the slow-motion explosion that occurs at the end of Zabriskie Point. Only instead of consumer goods, we get a kind of stop-action bedroom detonation, the genetic code of furniture. Sze gives us an instant of annihilation, an elaborately atomized household drama as staged by the Brothers Grimm and choreographed by the people at Ikea. The whole thing’s like a cubist assemblage crossed with a suspension bridge.
Entering on your left, a chair twists around a corner; a bed explodes into two constellations. On your right, the dresser shatters, sending drawers in every direction, while sundry parts twist around a corner, carom off another wall, arc out the window, and onto the building next door. Sze warps furniture the way Cecily Brown puts her figures through a wood chipper. Stretched into antiseptic Netscapes, her objects enter Star Wars hyperspace.
Sze has turned from allover accumulation toward something more technological, clinical, and sinister. Her objects may be organic—derived as they are from the everyday world—yet they occupy the gallery like insidious cyborgs. This coltish show provides enough hints of Sze’s intelligence, rage, and primal need to commandeer space, to suggest she’s got more on her mind than furniture and formalism. But even though she zeroes in on the charged site of the bedroom, the whole is oddly anonymous, almost confected, and tension-free. Her original promise is temporarily held in check by sculptural familiarity.