Two wonderfully, sublimely minimal shows currently bookend the W.Chelsea gallery scene. First mark the extreme southern border of W.Chelsea at 19th St and the extreme northern border 29th St. The shows I am referring to are the 'Primary Atmospheres' group show, a collection of California Minimalists from 1960-1970 at David Zwirner Gallery on 19th St (which just opened), and the brilliant installation of Anthony McCall's new works at Sean Kelly Gallery on 29th St (which opened before the winter holiday and runs through the end of this month). Though this is a considerable haul, all of ten blocks in the blustery Hudson River chill of January, I urge you to embark on it and cover both shows in one day's worth of gallery-going, ideally beginning on one and ending on the other (the order I leave up to you).
I began at the southern end, at Zwirner's and the one holdover from the stunning Dan Flavin show from late autumn. This would be "alternating pink and 'gold'", the three-wall installation of sugary pink and goldenrod fluorescent rods at the 519 space. Though he operated from the other coast, this work falls w/in the adjacent show's timeline (here '67), and it's dope to look at. The Cali minimalist show proper, next door, starts off w/ a velvet-coated bang in the form of three Robert Irwin pieces, each superseding the next. In fact, the powder-white and clear works recede into and swell from the gallery walls, tricking us into thinking the room devoid of art. The two acrylic pieces in particular, a columnar glasslike obelisk and a reverberating UFO-like orb, seem to occupy additional dimensions in the way they play off the stark space. The calming, soft-edged Doug Wheeler neon and acrylic square in the next room prepares the eye for two brilliant colored-light projections from James Turrell, a master of 'emotive light'. For those of you not sold on his holograms exhibition @ Pacewildenstein this past autumn, I dare you not to be moved by the Jolly Rancher green lozenge and red triangle, in their respective rooms.
In the corridor connection 525 w/ 533, Laddie John Dill does this Robert Smithson thing w/ sand, glass and argon, creating Mesozoic-like land striations from these deceptively simple ingredients. And it's here that the exhibition opens up into a bunch of relatively smaller, though no less awe-inspiring, pieces. In fact, there are so many of them in the two exhibition spaces of 533 that you have to stop to catch your breath, visually speaking. Whether it's Peter Alexander's rainwater-colored polyester resin 'wedges', Larry Bell's vacuum-coated glass cubes (check esp. the brilliant etched ellipses box), or the polyester resin and acrylic orbs by Helen Pashgian (think of the mutant acrylic speakers from Apple, then rewind like 30+ years to possible source material) — there is a LOT of wicked stuff involving clear industrial materials going on here. The next room is overall more colorful and practically pushes the show over the visual threshold w/ De Wain Valentine's supersized holiday ornament (made of shimmery red fiberglass-reinforced polyester) and Craig Kauffman's pink-and-green gradiented plastic panel, flopped over a steel chain like soft-sculpture color-field crossed w/ Listerine PocketPacks.
Up ten blocks at Sean Kelly, Anthony McCall's new installation is comparatively simpler, as it 'only' involves two light projection pieces and those pieces are composed of light projectors and audio tracks. I write 'only' w/ some trepidation, as this show, like all of McCall's, is way more stirring in person than it will ever be in print. McCall is a light-sculptor, much as Turrell emotes light in his own works. But as McCall's involve moving light works, via projection, the effects can be all the more incredible, and interaction is strongly encouraged. His "Leaving (with Two-Minute Silence)", the double-projection installation in the main gallery room, is such a piece. The two light-beams 'draw' these undulating solid-line shapes on the wall, and should you walk in front of one of the beams, you would find yourself 'inside' the light-sculpture. Try to picture this: you're inside a cone of hazy light; it's not blinding you b/c the central beam is somewhere else, only its broadened dimensions have caught you. There are lines w/in this cone, some of them more solid and smokier than others. They appear solid but if you run your hand over one it lights up b/c, obvs, it's just light. 'Just light'. Check the smoke too when it billows up all around you lagoon-like. You may never want to leave. The other projection "Meeting You Halfway II", is interesting as the light-projection includes gaps of dead space, forming like bifurcated beams of smoky light that you can navigate around.
And this brings me to my 2nd topic, museum-worthiness. There's been a lot of news in this new economy about how museums will tackle exhibitions on a more mindful budget. This could mean less blue-chip knockouts (I'm looking at Cai Guo-Qiang's retrospective at the Guggenheim, a gorgeous affair but probably incredibly expensive), or more narrowly-targeted, rewarding mini-shows (Johannes Vermeer's "The Milkmaid" at the Met this past autumn is a wonderful example). So that's so, but then we have museum-quaility exhibitions in the galleries, too. And my way of thinking is: these belong in a museum. Or rather, why aren't they in a museum; I'm happy they're in W.Chelsea (or wherever), where I can access them whenever I want, but why didn't a museum think of this? I am referring to the Zwirner show, above, on California Minimalists, and on the new exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery in W.Chelsea, called Joseph Beuys 'We Are the Revolution', curated by Pamela Kort. Of course there was a superb Minimalist show at the Guggenheim back in 2004 (my first show at the Gugg!), but I haven't seen anything so deftly concentrated on this particular vibe as the Zwirner show. Anyone who knows my art-going tendencies knows I love Minimalism (check my time spent up at Dia Beacon); but again, this is Minimalism w/ all the sunny good-vibes feelings imbuing it. Perhaps it's the Cali angle? Regarding the Beuys show, Mary Boone enlisted Dr. Kort, independent curator and art historian, specializing in German art from Europe. She did a fine job in this intellectually-packed show, a suite of vitrines showcasing Beuys' multiples (the classics 'Sled', 'Telephone', 'Capri Battery' and loads else) and literary materials, plus pen drawings, drypoint and etchings, 'Action Third Way' blackboards, and felt literally everywhere (from the iconic 'Felt Suit' to a rather cool felt-lined tape deck, feat. this extremely Dada recording of Beuys' voice heard when you first enter the gallery). And trust me, much as I dig the Beuys wing of the MoMA, organized by Ann Tempkin (which incl. his seminal video "I Like America and America Likes Me" from '74), I'd seen a lot of those works before, or I felt as though I had...perhaps from my time spent amid the Beuys up at Dia. Kort's curated exhibition at Mary Boone felt entirely new — slightly, comfortingly familiar in the the way of 'Sled' and a few other multiples, of course.
And then I wonder: are these not BETTER than museum shows? Are they not MORE than museum-worthy? We don't have crowds of slow-moving tourists, holding those telephone-receiver ear-pieces, gawking at poetic signage instead of the art itself. Oh I'm going there. We don't have coffee-bars or museum cafés, either, nor queues to check our coats or have our bags searched. We enter the space, we take in the art, we read the literature at the front desk if we feel like it, and we leave. Perhaps these galleries have the right idea after all.