For several decades, Sarah Sze has artfully transformed detritus into art, whether it’s the corner of Central Park at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, where she submerged a mini-replica of the white brick apartment complex across the street, filling it with objects from socks to alarm clocks, (Corner Plot, 2006), or the clever 1997 transformation of a closet in the Tribeca loft of Michael and Susan Hort, major Manhattan art collectors. Consider her the poet of clutter.
In recent years, the artist has focused on her own personal detritus, the method of her madness — or maybe the essence of her magic: the potpourri of materials, references and the tools of her craft, creating large-scale installations that emulate the interior of her working studio, and, by extension, the interior of her mind. Sze suspends her inventive ideas and associations in 3-dimensional space. The result is, in a sense, a new kind of kinetic sculpture: she is like a high-tech Jean Tinguely for the information age.
In her first solo show since 2015, Sze turned the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery — from its storefront windows to its entrance, and throughout its two first-floor galleries — into a revelatory exploration of the non-stop flow of transient images that cross her, and everyone else’s, field of vision on a nearly constant basis. From September 5th through October 19th, the gallery’s exterior windows and entrance were strewn with the bits and pieces of an artist’s studio life (Images in Refraction, East 2019): archival pigment prints, rolls of paper of tape, and various art materials. The wall in the narrow area leading to the main gallery (Images in Refraction, West) resembled a long bulletin board, covered chock-a-block with pigment prints of reference shots taken from phone and internet sources, over which floated, like a second skin, a loop of images of these self-same references.
The main gallery was center stage for an extraordinary immersive sculpture called Crescent (Timekeeper), a culmination of this barrage of images: an astonishing assemblage that looked like a skeletal metal teepee, strung, like an over-decorated Christmas tree, with hundreds of visual tidbits, some still, some moving. Meanwhile, a video montage of larger images, from clips of trees and sunsets to collapsing buildings and fires, flowed in a continuous loop around the gallery’s walls.
The effect was mesmerizing, making it difficult to tear away and venture into the next room, an ad hoc replica of Sze’s studio, (After Studio, 2019) complete with half-a-dozen paintings, tools, folding chairs, and even a ladder. Compared to the 3-dimensional virtuosity of the gallery installation, the studio space, though engaging, seemed 2-dimensional and somewhat literal.
Upstairs, one room was devoted to several large canvases from Sze’s Fragment series, as well as a painted schematic on the floor. Meanwhile, in the other room, Images in Translation (2019) provided a smaller-scale immersive experience, with several projectors and a computer used to create the visual alchemy. In this more intimate piece and the gallery-room sized Crescent, Sze’s brilliant use of mixed media, both moving and still, was dazzling.
Currently, Sze’s work is featured in one of the inaugural shows of the Museum of Modern Art’s recent remarkable full-scale renovation. As part of the immersive exhibit, Surrounds: 11 Installations, up through January 4, Sze gets a space of her own at the entrance to the sixth floor galleries, The Steven and Alexandra Cohen Center for Special Exhibitions. Triple Point, (Pendulum), part of MoMa’s permanent collection, was first shown in 2013, when Sze represented the United States at the 55th Venice Biennale. The term refers to the state in which water can exist simultaneously in three forms: steam, ice and liquid.
The piece is an echt Sze work, incorporating the banal, the antic and the whimsical. Enclosed in a circle, like a single-ring circus (indeed, the piece is oddly reminiscent of Calder’s famous Circus,) a simple pendulum rhythmically swings, providing a sort of metronome for the many playful items that vie for the viewer’s attention: reference photos strung like laundry; a stockpile of bottled water; a video camera mounted on a tall tripod. And more: lamps, books, games, t-shirts, jeans, packages of crackers and Pringles, styrofoam cups, paint brushes, and books on biology, chemistry and crafts. Among them, key to any of Sze’s intricately arranged immersive pieces, a tome aptly entitled Supply Source Book, akin to a palette for this ingenious artist’s multifaceted vision.
Phoebe Hoban is New York City Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Hoban has written about culture and the arts for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, ARTnews, and The New York Observer, among others. She is the author of three artist biographies: Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (1998), Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty (2010) and Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open (2014).