April 23, 2004

Minimalist Oases in a Bustling Manhattan


From "Singular Forms" at the Guggenheim, paintings by Ellsworth Kelly on the ramp and a work by Rachel Whiteread on the floor.

James Carpenter's cable-net glass wall in the Time Warner Center.

TAKING a Minimalist art tour in a maximalist city like New York is not easy.

In many ways, it's the polar opposite of going to Marfa, the tiny West Texas town where the artist Donald Judd bought a defunct Army base in the late 1970's and created a sprawling mecca of Minimalism. Getting to Marfa is difficult, but once you're there, everything else is simple. Little comes between you and the art, except the light and the view of uninterrupted high desert through the windows, which was Judd's almost monastic intention. It's like going to a museum on the moon.

New York City is, of course, a much more populous planet.

And its citizens have not always been so friendly toward Minimalism, which still poses difficult questions about the purpose and definitions of art. Remember that in 1989, Richard Serra's rusty steel "Tilted Arc" was hauled away from the plaza in front of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in Lower Manhattan, after years of complaints from the building's workers.

So when a group of curators and artists at the Guggenheim Museum recently proposed a tour in which they would present the city through the eyes of Minimalism and demonstrate how much the movement's precepts have already shaped the everyday fabric of New York I signed on as a curious art tourist with a notebook.

The ramps at the Guggenheim are now completely filled, or sometimes purposely not filled, with Minimalist art, as part of "Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated): Art From 1951 to the Present." The pieces, selected mostly from the museum's permanent collection, highlight the work of artists like Judd, Mr. Serra, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, Ellsworth Kelly, Bruce Nauman and younger artists who have absorbed and transformed Minimalist and post-Minimalist ideas, like Rachel Whiteread and Liam Gillick.

The tour started at the museum early one morning, with the show's two curators, Nancy Spector and Lisa Dennison, leading the way, along with Ms. Spector's husband, the architect Michael Gabellini, who designed the exhibition's installation, and Mr. Gillick, a young British artist whose work often investigates the relationship between architecture and art.

The basic idea was to use the museum as a kind of lodestone and then over the rest of the day to search the city for traces, echoes and mutations of what we had seen there. Looking at people who are looking at Minimalist art is always fun, of course, and as visitors began to fill the Guggenheim's curving ramps you could almost see many of them becoming self-conscious as they stared at stark works like Robert Rauschenberg's 1951 "White Painting," an all-white canvas that relies on the shadows of the viewer for part of its effect.

For some people staring at the painting, the induced self-consciousness an important element of much Minimalism seemed to be insulting or disorienting, and they laughed or shook their heads. ("It's a good thing we have some Impressionism on the second floor," joked Anthony Calnek, a spokesman for the museum.) But as our tour group left the cloister of the museum and plunged into the chaos of the city, the idea of self-consciousness became an important one to follow. New York, with its avalanches of billboards and advertisements and lavish store windows, often seems like a giant distraction machine. Every piece of the landscape seems designed to make you think about something or someplace else besides what you are looking at the tropical island where you need to relax, the pretzel you need to eat, the shoes you need to buy, the swimsuit on the model, the model herself.

Minimalist artists like Flavin and Judd (who hated the term Minimalism) wanted to create art that did not make you think about other things, like the subject of a painting or a sculpture, but about the artwork itself, and the space around it, and about your looking at it.

"It's become our form of modern classicism," Ms. Spector said. And in a city as exhausting as New York, which is always trying to pull you out of yourself, experiencing this sounded to me like an almost religious experience, an aesthetic oasis.

Arriving at this state of Minimalist Zen, however, would require a lot of driving. So we all piled into a van in front of the museum. It felt a little like the scene in Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters," in which Sam Waterston, playing an architect, gives Dianne Wiest and Carrie Fisher a car tour of his favorite Manhattan buildings. Except in this case, there were seven of us, along with Ms. Spector's and Mr. Gabellini's 3-month-old daughter, Chiara, in her own state of Zen, and the driver, who never quite understood the point of our tour, but didn't care as long as he could hear our directions.

A Recurring Theme

The grid is a recurring visual theme in Minimalism, and no sooner had we left the museum than we were imprisoned in one, somewhere on Park Avenue, gridlocked. (Mr. Gillick, with a lot of time to look out the van's window, remarked that the city's smoking ban had been good for architecture appreciation. "Look at all those people standing outside, staring at buildings," he said.)

Finally, we reached our first stop, or stops: the Seagram Building at 53rd Street and Park, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson in 1958, and Lever House, just up the avenue between 53rd and 54th Streets, designed by Gordon Bunshaft at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1952. Both buildings predate the Minimalist art movement as such, but they were revolutionary precursors of Minimalism's intentions and practices reducing, stripping off the unnecessary, revealing the structural bones.

Mies wrote that for most buildings, "when the outer walls are put in place, the structural system, which is the basis of all artistic design, is hidden by a chaos of meaningless and trivial forms."

His bronze-and-glass Seagram building now a city landmark, along with Lever House is certainly devoid of trivia. Even the lines of the ceiling panels that you can glimpse through the glass are in lock step with the building's unbroken exterior lines. It is a place where "the structure, really, is the expression of the building," Mr. Gabellini said, adding, "With Mies you knew the kind of suit he was wearing, and it was always a very formal one."

In a city of jumbled and often jammed-together architectural styles, the two buildings still have an almost puritanical effect today. Mr. Gabellini, who designed the Guggenheim's show by rethinking the museum's lighting and many of the surfaces inside, noted how the Seagram Building stands back from the avenue on its roomy plaza, making you aware of the space it occupies in a way the other buildings around it don't. And while other tall buildings push up like stalagmites, essentially extensions of Manhattan's bedrock, Lever House instead seems to float on its horizontal slab, breaking the city's vertical monotony.

The next stop was also architectural, but of a different sort. It was the Jil Sander store on 57th Street near Fifth Avenue, designed by Mr. Gabellini, who explained how much he had been influenced by Minimalist artists, especially those who deal with light, like Doug Wheeler, whose work at the Guggenheim is a large, serene room in which a blue-white light emanates from the corners of one wall.

The same effect could be seen in the spare Jil Sander clothing store, where light emerges from unseen places near the corners of one wall. The strong influence of Judd could also be seen. Isolated metal shelves jutting from the walls were reminiscent of the rows or stacks of wall boxes that Judd made, often from brass or aluminum. In fact, a metal display case in the store looked much like the aluminum Judd boxes on display in Marfa. Except that the box in the store displayed atop it a very pricey Jil Sander blue purse, reminding you that these days, Minimalism is the language lots of New York boutiques speak to say "expensive."

The stop at the store was quick because Ms. Dennison had warned us upon entering, "There is a very real danger that I will start to shop, so we'd better be brief."

Next it was across town to a much bigger and more crowded nexus of architecture and commerce the new Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle to see the artist James Carpenter's towering cable-net glass wall, the largest such glass wall in the world. It takes the reductionist mantra even further: crystal-clear glass interrupted only by the requisite number of stainless-steel cables needed to keep it together. It is a window that is barely there, as much for looking into the building as for looking out, reminding me of Gerhard Richter's plain glass window panes, which we had just seen in the Guggenheim show, and especially of a 1972 work by Lawrence Weiner that uses no materials at all, unless you count ink. It's simply words on a wall saying, "To See and Be Seen."

The last stop before lunch finally took us off the commerce trail and closer to art for art's sake again. We drove to Trisha Brown's new dance studio complex on West 55th Street, where she moved in 2001. While the 16,000-square-foot studio itself stripped-down loftlike space, painted white, with movable walls and basic lighting is minimal enough, the point was to talk with Ms. Brown, who in her early years, especially, was very influenced by Minimalist artists and, in turn, influenced them. The stop was particularly appropriate in such a tour of the city because Ms. Brown's earliest work rejected conventional stages altogether and often put dancers atop roofs in SoHo or in a harness, scaling the walls of a Lower Manhattan warehouse.

She has collaborated frequently with Mr. Rauschenberg and also with Judd, whom she recalled once sitting in a chair and watching her dancers as a pained expression spread across his face. "He said, `Trisha, they keep moving,' " she said. "He didn't know how to deal with that."

Echoing a theme that the tour had emphasized over and over, Ms. Brown said she was extremely happy with the new dance space on a street filled with trucks and warehouses between 11th and 12th Avenues because it reduced distractions.

"I've made very good work here in part because I think it just is what it is, a very clean, basic empty space," she said, adding later that there was "nothing here to gobble up your eye." (She said that she was also glad that it was in a former garage because, as a girl, she had attended her first dance classes in a garage in Aberdeen, Wash. "It's sort of like parentheses on my life," she said.)

By this point, art had made us so hungry that we almost abandoned Minimalism and veered off to a Greek diner on 10th Avenue. But we remained disciplined, stayed the course and ended up on a slow slog down to TriBeCa and 66, Jean-Georges Vongerichten's pared-down palace of Shanghai food, which was designed by the architect Richard Meier as a kind of "2001: A Space Odyssey" version of China.

After so many hours of looking at the city through Minimalist goggles, I was beginning to see it everywhere. It was easy in the restaurant, of course, which one amateur food critic described on the Web as "a Zen dim sum commune," but on the ride down, I had also been noticing many things differently. A pipe leaning against a building reminded me of Mr. Serra's "Close Pin Prop" at the museum, which is essentially a sculpture made with a leaning pipe. The huge metal plates that cover construction holes in the street were reminiscent of Mr. Andre's famous hot-rolled steel plates, arranged on the floor of the museum. And later, when we dropped by the sleek Apple Store in SoHo, an iPod display in the window with three colored light columns looked just like a Flavin fluorescent work.

Mr. Gillick, who described himself as distrustful of categories in the art world, says he also has Minimalist moments in many places in the city you might not expect. Like Penn Station. Or around the United Nations, where he has an apartment. He also says that he finds the empty space where Mr. Serra's sculpture once sat in front of the Javits Federal Building to be powerful in its own right because of the ghostly memory of the sculpture.

In the Guggenheim show, Mr. Gillick chose to hang "Trajectory Platform," one of his own works, which resembles a dropped ceiling panel with stripes of red in it, in an anonymous corner, near a door to a staff room. "I wanted a place that I thought of as semi-ambiguous architecture," he said, "a place that kind of plays with your expectations."

A Judd Building

The last major stop on our tour was that kind of place, too, but only because of its interaction with a city that never stays still. It was a building on Spring Street in SoHo that Judd, who died in 1994, owned and used as a home and studio.

Surrounded now by expensive perfume shops and shoe stores, and almost abandoned by other galleries, it can take a viewer by surprise. Through smudged windows, you can see an open first floor, with some of Flavin's fluorescent tubes glowing against the wall, Judd's boxes nearby and a plain roll-top desk and chair near the back of the room. Someone who didn't know the building's history might mistake it for a bankrupt store that hadn't yet moved out all of the lights and display cases.

But inside it is a kind of monastery of Judd's ideas and the tenets of Minimalism, and undoubtedly a great way to end the tour, solemnly, almost silently, finally shutting the city out again.

This cast-iron building, a former garment factory, has five large floors, almost all left completely open, displaying works by Claes Oldenburg, Frank Stella, John Chamberlain and Duchamp. On the second floor is a spare living and dining area. The third floor was Judd's studio, with a drafting table that still has a fold-out ruler, metal triangles and pieces of drawing paper atop it.

The fourth floor was intended as a formal dining room, but in theory only. In practice, almost no one ate there, said Peter Ballantine, a longtime Judd collaborator who conducts appointment-only tours of the building. Instead, it allowed Judd to make dining-room things like tables and a cabinet for storing dishes. The fifth floor is a bedroom, with a mattress barely raised from the floor on a wooden platform, and very Quaker-like cubicle rooms designed for Judd's son and daughter.

The most telling floor, however, is the first, which was Judd's studio before he had to abandon it, convert it to a gallery and flee upstairs. Why did he have to retreat?

Mr. Ballantine said that too many people started knocking on the windows to say hello to Judd, and that he couldn't stand it anymore too many distractions in a city that has always been too full of them.

Mr. Ballantine shrugged. "He became too famous, and SoHo became SoHo," he said. "What could he do?"

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company