Polly Apfelbaum currently has two shows up in Chelsea: “Flatland: Color Revolt” at Hansel and Gretel Picture Garden and “Flatterland Funkytown” at D’Amelio Gallery. Seen in concert, these exhibitions demonstrate that Apfelbaum is an impressively crafty artist, and not only because her materials of choice are glitter, clay, and hand-dyed velvet. More important is the artist’s clever and considered deployment of these supplies. Apfelbaum selects these materials not to displace painting, but rather, to tell us something about it: what it’s been, what it is, and what it could be.
At Hansel and Gretel Picture Garden, wooden-legged work tables covered in protective newspaper and wax paper display brightly-colored compositions made of glitter and modeling clay. The rectangular works rarely, if ever, exceed a foot in either direction, but what they lack in size, they make up for in visual interest. The collection of works suggests an index: of color combinations, of shapes, or even of glitter types. Some are familiar tiny, mirrored flecks, while others are sandy, pillowy, or of textures too foreign to even be describable. Suggests an index, but never achieves, for the range of possibilities is too wide, the process of combination too subjective, to ever exhaust.
The show appears at first like a cheeky send-up of Paul Klee’s extensive theories or Mark Rothko’s existential justifications. But as one traverses the space, quantity comes to replace quality, and Josef Albers comes through as the artist’s primary reference point. Apfelbaum’s ragged, messy, and above all playful square may seem a far way away from Albers’ crisp geometric Homages to the shape. But like the Bauhaus professor’s immense series, Apfelbaum’s compositions in glitter are explorations of color theory that delve into the realms of both harmony and discord. By substituting childish craft materials for Albers’ oil on Masonite, she reminds us that the latter’s works, for all their polished precision, were experiments. Albers made over a thousand pieces in his series. Such a large number convincingly illustrates that, unlike in Modernism, their medium—and thus their status of paintings—was a tool for the artist to utilize, rather than a dictum to follow.
Systematic experiments, to be sure. But it was this precise fusion of the artistic and the scientif that made Albers so influential for a later generation of artists, most particularly in the post-war era. Perhaps most clear is his impact on the generation of early 1960s Color Field Painters, such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski. These artists happily inhabited the “Flatland” Clement Greenberg had built for them. With the canvas definitely established as a two-dimensional plane, color could fully escape its representational and even emotive duties and become, as in Albers’ Homages, a thing in itself, and for itself. But even earlier, from 1933 to 1945, Albers influenced art-historical giants such as Robert Rauschenberg and John Chamberlain during his stint at Black Mountain College. The Nazis may have closed down the Bauhaus, but he brought its method of “learning by doing” with him. It was a method in which art was bound up with craftsmanship and handicraft, and appropriately, Albers emphasized active experimentation in his classes. For the artist and professor, one needed to take risks—and fail—before he could make any real “art.” Such an approach, in that it might seem anathema to the geometric regularity of Albers’ later Homages, illuminates the artist’s true exploratory spirit. At Black Mountain, cheap materials and a dynamic classroom environment encouraged a free-spirited environment in which, particularly given the college’s lack of supplies, he and his students would work on the floor. (1)
Apfelbaum, too, often works on the floor, as is the case with “Flatterland Funkytown,” on view concurrently at D’Amelio Gallery. A sprawling splatter of hand-dyed synthetic velvet, the piece is an even kitschier version of one of Lynda Benglis’s pours. Like her “Fallen Paintings” or one of Robert Morris’s (or Richard Serra’s) Scatter Pieces, the precise appearance of Apfelbaum’s work is a product of chance. Yet the elaborate designs dyed onto her velvet strips push the piece away from these Post-Minimalists’ interest in pure process and further—perhaps back—toward its aesthetic result. Whereas someone like Benglis took the unpredictability of Pollock’s iconic drip method to the extreme, Apfelbaum is more sympathetic to his artistry. Examine a Pollock closely enough, and you’ll see carefully modulated skeins that prove the artist was not just wantonly flinging paint at his studio floor. In a parallel manner, and at a further distance from the bombastic rhetoric of Action Painting, Apfelbaum’s creative contribution is in the act of dyeing the velvet. The materials’ bright colors and lively patterns take over the work, such that the fact that chance governed the pieces’ precise arrangement barely seems to matter. Here, again, her practice comes back to craft, in which one gets as much enjoyment out of the process of making the object, and maybe even more, as out of the final object that’s made.
Apfelbaum’s art comes in a long line of artists who, to varying degrees, combined rational experimentation with personal creative input. For all the serious theory that has surrounded such practices, her work suggests that we think about this combination in a different way: as play. Learning through playing is a widely held understanding of how children develop skills, maturity, and self-confidence, all qualities that wouldn’t serve an artist too badly either. In Apfelbaum’s eyes, just because options for rational innovation are much more limited than they were fifty years ago doesn’t mean that contemporary art—and particularly painting—can’t provide an arena for personal as well as cultural growth. In fact, with the decline of hegemonic art theory as a dogma to either support or contend, the wide range of materials and methods that emerged during triumph of Modernism and its subsequent dismantling comprise an impressive craft box that any child would be ecstatic to have, and that any artist should be. Apfelbaum’s “Flatterland Funkytown” is a post-post-modern utopia where artists are no longer limited either by Modernism or the need to oppose it. That sounds like a very fun place indeed.
“Flatland: Color Revolt” at Hansel and Gretel Picture Garden and “Flatterland Funkytown” at D’Amelio Gallery are open through April 28.
Link: Polly Apfelbaum at Hansel and Gretel Picture Garden, Polly Apfelbaum at D’Amelio Gallery