My inner philistine was wondering what the museum guards watching over Rudolf Stingel’s art at the Whitney last week were thinking. Stingel hails from the Tyrol, that Alpine region where Italy blends into Austria, and though he’s lived in New York for over two decades, his sensibility seems distinctly Old World—almost Viennese in its cunning and ambiguity. Zigzagging between figuration and abstraction, his disparate oeuvre is filled with conceptual antics, optical pleasures, and abject traces of his melancholy presence. His fans says he’s investigating “the impossibility of painting”to that end, he’s cast radiators in orange resin, hung broadloom soiled with his footprints on walls, and carved into puke-pink Styrofoam. At times visually dazzling, his work is also strangely off-putting—flirting on the one hand with decay, and on the other with pure decoration.
A few years ago, New Yorkers will remember, he blanketed Grand Central Station’s Vanderbilt Hall with floral carpeting, weirdly domesticating one of Manhattan’s most public spaces. His Whitney retrospective opens with another spectacular bit of “redecorating”—an entrance gallery, illuminated by an immense chandelier, whose walls and ceiling are papered over with silver insulation foil. It’s a surface that begs to be defaced, and visitors have willingly (one might say, eagerly) complied. Scratched-in love notes from famous curators vie for space with crude self-advertisements, countercultural aphorisms (“Drop Acid Not Bombs,” penned no doubt by a refugee from the museum’s disappointing “Summer of Love” show), and the tracings a five-year-old made of his hand.
Part Austro-Hungarian ballroom, part public bathroom stall, this signature installation of Stingel’s called to mind a fin-de-siécle story by Guy de Maupassant, about a masked reveler who dances frenetically all night, until dawn reveals him to be a frail old mana tale of vanity, time passing, and the sheer fascination of watching things fall apart. Higher up along the gallery’s perimeter, Stingel has hung the tattered and scrawled-upon foil from a previous incarnation of the same work (at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, where this touring retrospective originated); its shredded, tinseled surface glitters still more brightly in the chandelier’s refracted light.
Nothing in this spare and elegant, 20-year retrospective packs quite the same wallop. In fact, the show reveals an art of bulimic extremes, alternately gorging upon and purging itself of beauty. (“A two-page review in the Times!” one of a pair of elderly matrons was heard to marvel, while moving through a room hung with white Styrofoam panels that Stingel had walked upon with boots dipped in lacquer thinner, creating melting footprints; her companion nodded in mute incomprehension.)
There’s an emperor’s-new-clothes-ish quality to some of the work, where the artist’s radical economy of means (a constant) falls short of the desired effect. But the finest pieces are both conceptually challenging and optically enthralling.
The earliest on display are fairly compact, monochromatic paintings to which Stingel added a final, silvery layer by spray-painting them through a haze of gauze. They’re like Rothkos emptied of spiritualityall surface and no inner illumination. The package and its wrapping are the content of these works. In case you mistook them for the unique products of an artist’s hand, in 1989 Stingel published a manual of instructions for making them.
More compelling is a gallery whose dramatic, mirrored floor (seemingly liquid, like the quiet surface of a lake) shows us, in upside-down reflection, both what’s hanging in the rooma trio of lush gold paintings patterned on damask wallpaper—and anyone who happens to be passing through it. (A tip for women: Wear pants.) I stood for a long time in one corner, puzzling over the radically disorienting expansion of the visual field that Stingel had accomplished here with a single gesture. (In her catalog essay, Whitney curator Chrissie Iles likens the theatrical self-consciousness this room provokes in viewers, who find themselves suddenly part of the work, to the effect on royal courtiers of the mirrored halls at Versailles.)
I think I know why Stingel likes damask, which returns in two immense black paintings hanging in the exhibition’s last galleryits patterns, shifting between negative and positive with the changing play of light, seem an apt metaphor for his entire elusive oeuvre. His latest works, also on display there, are large painted self-portraits, based upon photographs of Stingel by fellow artist Sam Samore. They show a grizzled man, around 60 years old, wearing a pin-striped jacket, a white shirt, torn jeans, and sporting a beard that might as well be stubble, reclining with the lassitude of the Russian antihero Oblomov (who never got out of bed if he could avoid it). The bags under his eyes speak of many a late night spent peering over the edge of nothingness. This melancholy, indolent creature could only be a postwar, European Conceptual artist—soldiering on in despair, after the end of art.