Originally published in Barry X Ball: Medardo Rosso Project exh. catalogue, Venice, Ca’ Pesaro – International Gallery of Modern Art, Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, May 9 – Septemer 22, 2019; Published by Magonza editore
Look what remains
Pour ashes where they claimed my name
They say I changed
What a pity if I stayed the same
Solange, Don’t Wish Me Well, 2019*
In 1977, Douglas Crimp penned his famous “Pictures” essay to try to make sense of emerging artists such as Robert Longo, Sherrie Levine, Jack Goldstein, and Troy Brauntuch, all born around 1950 (among others, including Cindy Sherman and Louise Lawler). These artists appropriated the visual culture that floods our perceptions and created isolated pictures, intensified in focus yet distanced in attitude. We now call their type of studio practice postmodernist because it suggests that experiences and emotions are not the result of our own insights but are fed to us by the imagery we encounter throughout the day. In this dismal worldview, the mediaverse rather than the universe is the actual basis of reality.
The best-known illustrations of this postmodern proposition are Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, 1977–80, since people think they recognize the Hollywood scenes in the photographs but cannot quite place the actual movies – because there are none. What Sherman did was re-create a familiar type of image by photographing herself in costume, setting up a conflict between recognition and doubt. Our simulated existence, the brave new world in which we live, is one that Crimp described in unwelcoming terms even back before Instagram: “To an ever greater extent our experience is governed by pictures, pictures in newspapers and magazines, on television and in the cinema. Next to these pictures firsthand experience begins to retreat, to seem more and more trivial.” With their pictures, these artists reflect the shallow world back at us, with our own superficial characters captured in two dimensions.
In recent years, however, it has become clear that a number of artists who were also born around 1950 or somewhat later have started pursuing a different kind of appropriation in many of their works. They are not the pictures generation but the statues generation, and include Charles Ray, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Katharina Fritsch, Chris Burden, Matthew Barney, and Barry X Ball. Instead of mirroring the screen culture of the mediaverse, they reference masterpieces of Western art, not in terms of appearance but of presence. These new forms quote the technical mastery and the sensual majesty of the greatest sculptures of all time, but shift the context to our present moment. They ask one damning question: What does a timeless masterpiece mean to those living in the age of no tomorrow?
The new statues are Trojan horses. Is Ray’s Boy with Frog, 2009, a reincarnation of Donatello’s gentle David, about 1440s? Is Koons’s one-ton Balloon Dog (Blue), 1994–2000, as vivid as Marcus Aurelius Equestrian, 161–80? The metric is one to one, present to past. It does not presume to value empires – there is no implied Pax Americana – but to weigh the ability of twenty-first-century objects to seduce us into believing that they too are vital. The judgment is visceral as well as intellectual, though it rests on stunning feats of engineering and artistry, which hide stainless steel with innocence and air, among other strategies. The possible poetry of the new statues cuts through the global clutter of visual art, where anything goes and everything seems to count.
Some of my aesthetic terminology, especially presence and conviction, belongs to the legacy of Minimalism, where surfaces and shapes respond to the interest of each viewer. As early as 1967, Michael Fried voiced these principles in, ironically, an attempt to discredit Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Tony Smith, especially. “Nothing short of conviction,” he proclaimed, “specifically, the conviction that a particular painting or sculpture or poem or piece of music can or cannot support comparison with past work within that art whose quality is not in doubt – matters at all.” The demand for timeless artistic excellence in new art has been taken seriously in academic circles for the past half century, even though it proved to be Minimal art that planted a thousand flowers. Tellingly, Minimalism’s intellectual rigor and formal language – actual light and space, literal and elusive materials, sensual rewards that expand in real time – continue to find new elaboration by younger artists as diverse as Carol Bove and Rashid Johnson.
Barry X Ball specifically credits Minimal sculptors and monochrome painters such as Joseph Marioni and Marcia Hafif with his own development, as he first began to explore spiritual values in primary structures. (One of his early wall pieces, Panel 3, 1982, like Giotto’s fourteenth-century Crucifixion, is a twelve-inch-square field with a gold metal surface that shimmers and shifts in the changing light, and sometimes catches the viewer’s reflection.) In fact, Ball’s growing prominence clarifies the stakes of the tour de force fabrication that unites him with his peers, whom we might otherwise think of as lone wolves. In the hands of these artists, statues are the counterpoint to pictures because a range of expressions – from Hirst’s cold-blooded distance to Ball’s warmhearted embrace – are grounded in the test of time rather than undermined by faithless representations.
Ball’s most recent project extends symbols of distinction he finds in the Italian sculpture he loves. In this work, Ball invokes Medardo Rosso, a contemporary of Auguste Rodin; over the past decade in his Masterpiece series, he has cited Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Umberto Boccioni, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Antonio Corradini, and Giusto Le Court, a Flemish immigrant, for similar purposes. These new pieces result partly from Ball’s sustained investigation into how Rosso used light and shadow to disrupt the contours of his seemingly unfinished works, and partly from the ambition to have his analog-to-digital-to-analog production methods measured against Rosso’s experimental foundry practices, which left the casting process exposed. “My goal,” he explained, “is to take the already mysterious, abstract Medardo Rossos to extreme, enigmatic places.” These transformations are what gives present-day consequence to past perfection.
Ball’s light and magic deserves special attention. His craftsmanship integrates traditional skills with ever more sophisticated technologies, much as Ferrari does with its newest sports cars. The first step is to study works of art that capture his imagination at length and in person, as he seeks to understand the physical properties that so fascinate him. He and a team of experts scan these pieces with state-of-the-art equipment to create high-resolution digital images in the round that reveal every nuance. He transforms the models by using CAD software to sculpt them to the far edge of recognition. These changes launch another sequence of interventions, from the selection of blocks of exotic stone sourced worldwide for coloration, opacity, veining, texture, and density, to the preliminary shapes carved by his robot diamond-wire profiling saw, to the rough shaping outsourced to CNC milling specialists, to thousands of hours of hand carving, filing, and polishing by his assistants, all artists in their own right, in quest of ultrafine finish detail and luster. However, like Rosso before him, Ball allows the final forms to acknowledge the process of their creation, hereby preserving the micro-fluting, the barely visible residue of the computer-controlled cutting. “What does it mean to make it my own?” he asks – and answers with the creativity and labor of every piece.
In total, Ball scanned thirty-nine of Rosso’s sculptures from important collections, establishing a baseline of merit for his responses. He intends to engage nearly all of these, including the most intriguing multiple times, because presence has no single iteration. To date, he has completed twenty-two digital models, with nine more nearly finished. There are currently seventeen sculptures ready for display in various combinations depending on the nature of the exhibition, including three that were coupled in Maastricht in 2019 with a representative selection of his work from recent years.
If Rosso’s art appears unfinished, Ball’s conclusions are astounding. One of the most suggestive antecedents is Madame X, 1896, a cast wax and plaster head in Ca’ Pesaro, Venice. In Ball’s Madame X, 2013–19, the single piece of Golden Honeycomb calcite, a transparent and translucent crystal that Ball sourced from a mine in the Uinta Mountains in Utah, glows from inside as the color flows between saffron and amber. The luminosity changes depending on the ways the thickness of the stone blends with the viewer’s movements. The surface is viscous like maple syrup and as indeterminate as fog – so much so, Ball tells me, that he cannot take photographs with his camera set on autofocus. Hints of a face are whispers, barely voiced and perhaps not at all. The form weighs some twenty pounds, but, unlike a Minimalist object, it is as light as air and displaces no volume. A bright white calcite vein flashes across the surface like a lightning bolt, and then it is gone, leaving nothing behind. The piece could tip over.
Another marvel is the Hand of the Artist, 2013–19, which Ball fabricated from a block of translucent golden-pink onyx, a gemstone renowned for healing powers. The piece seduces with sensual qualities of surface, depth, color, texture, transparency, and glow, as the material offers surprises for the artist and viewer. The form is ephemeral despite the solid state: a frozen cloud. The work is never fully discernible from any single viewpoint, and it rewards the investment of time and energy. Milling marks preserve the history of the facture, a self-referential gesture. It would be figurative had Ball not framed Rosso’s representation of a hand with postmodern quotation marks, covering over that old reference with a new abstract impression, not of old plaster coming to life but of new stone claiming past greatness.
Ball’s statues style of appropriation is especially provocative, since he asks viewers to consider the raw data that lie under our aesthetic emotions. What are the empirical facts that give a Rosso, a Bernini, a Michelangelo their transcendent qualities? Ball has digitized this information. He has studied every nuance. He has experimented with its replication, not as a direct copy but as one challenged by high-performance technology.
Replication studies are the cornerstone of science because they retest the experimental evidence that supports commonplace principles and practices. Many of these redone experiments fail, leaving a crisis of certainty where conjectures masquerade as knowledge. Art finds itself in a similar situation, as our faith is abused in so many ways. What Ball tests is belief, offering up direct comparisons between art of the present and past. Are we convinced? In this sensibility, the line between science and religion can be hard to locate, deliberately so, for as Jonathan Binstock stated: “Ball proves our belief in Michelangelo, in Rosso.” This grand elision is how the best new statues justify their presence.
While Ball cares deeply for Italian art, audiences need not, despite its pleasures. People all have private passions that help them, at a minimum, survive the day, or, at maximum, make art. What matters is not any ostensible content, not Barney’s convoluted backstories or Burden’s dubious toys, not Fritsch’s German fairy tales or Hirst’s unbelievable shipwrecks, or whatnot. For the statues generation, these themes hitch a ride on presence, the constant value of all great works of art. Presence is what demands our attention and invites our imagination. It fills the experience with drama and requires that we take art seriously. Presence is what makes one work stick in our heads while others disappear. What I have been calling statues are the three-dimensional replications of the feeling of presence, postindustrial forms that reach back to the lost world of the craft objects we consider masterpieces.
Unlike a statue, which braves history through change, a picture destroys every grand narrative. A picture sheds context so that it signifies only image-to-image in a potentially endless regress that melts the air. In the mediaverse, there is no science or religion or history, just the ruins of enlightenment. In this respect, with art dead, it is no surprise that art journalists universally expressed awe when encountering Ball’s pieces in Maastricht, the Netherlands, reaching deep into their dictionaries for words they rarely utter, such as spectacular, standout, and showstopper. It was the presence of Ball’s statues that compelled these judgments of excellence, and they were much like what Jerry Saltz reported of his encounter with Apollonius’s bronze Boxer at Rest, about 100 BCE. “I lost all bearings at the shocking first sight,” he said, escaping this world for a better place.13 In Ball’s statues, we too find what remains.
David Raskin is the Mohn Family Professor of Contemporary Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; www.davidraskin.com
*Solange Knowles, Don’t Wish Me Well, 2019. In 2017, she performed at the Chinati Foundation in front of Donald Judd, 15 untitled works in concrete, 1980–84.
Thank you to Barry X Ball and Jonathan Binstock for illuminating conversations, to Jodi Cressman and Katie Geha for helpful feedback on preliminary drafts, and to Catherine Lamendola for research assistance.
- D. Crimp, “Pictures,” in Pictures, exh. catalog, New York, Artists Space, September 24 – October 29, 1977 (New York: Committee for the Visual Art, 1977), p. 3. In 1979, Crimp expanded and changed the focus of his 1977 catalogue essay to engage poststructuralist theories, and he used contemporaneous lyrics from Laurie Anderson as an epigraph. In the 1977 version, Crimp focused on Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, and Philip Smith. The 1979 version added Cindy Sherman. D. Crimp, “Pictures,” October 8 (Spring 1979), pp. 75–88. In 2009, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, mounted an exhibition, The Pictures Generation, 1974–1984, displaying works by thirty artists, including Louise Lawler.
- Pictures generation birth years: Longo, 1953; Levine, 1947; Goldstein, 1945; Brauntuch, 1954; Sherman, 1954; Lawler, 1947. Statues generation birth years: Ray, 1953; Koons, 1955; Hirst, 1965; Fritsch, 1956; Burden, 1946; Barney, 1967; and Ball, 1955. Other artists whose practices can partly be engaged on the same terms are Anish Kapoor, 1954; Roni Horn, 1955; and Robert Gober, 1954.
- In a conversation with me about Ball’s art, Jonathan Binstock said, “The Balloon Dog is the Trojan horse.” Jonathan Binstock, conversation with the author, Rochester, New York, March 2, 2019. Others will find their own associations, but some that I see include Hirst’s The Severed Head of the Medusa, 2017, from Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable, to Canova, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, 1804–06, perhaps crossed with Caravaggio’s painting; Frisch’s Hahn/Cock, 2013, to The Great Sphinx of Giza, ca. 2575–2465 BCE; Burden’s Urban Light, 2008, to Bernini, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1645– 52; Barney’s bronze and copper water-cast artifacts of his films River of Fundament, 2014, and Redoubt, 2018, to the Vatican’s ancient Laocoön and His Sons; and, naturally, Ball’s Pietà, 2011–18, to Michelangelo, Pietà Rondanini, 1552–64
- On “interest” as the central value for Donald Judd, see D. Raskin, Donald Judd (New Haven / London: Yale University Press, 2010), pp. 1–7. The quotation is from M. Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum 5, no. 10 (Summer 1967), p. 21, italics in the original. Fried used the word “conviction” nine times in the essay. In 2017, on the fiftieth anniversary of its publication, “Art and Objecthood” was the subject of two issues of Nonsite.org, an online journal where Fried serves on the editorial board. Crimp raised the concept of presence in the revised pictures essay, quoting Henry James: “The presence before him was a presence.” He elaborated the following year in relation to photography in order to directly challenge enlightenment concepts, such as individuality, freedom, and aura, writing: “I want to add a third definition to the word presence. To that notion of presence which is about being there, being in front of, and that notion of presence that Henry James uses in his ghost stories, the presence which is a ghost and therefore really an absence, the presence which is not there, I want to add the notion of presence as a kind of increment to being there, a ghostly aspect of presence that is its excess, its supplement.” D. Crimp, “The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism,” October, no. 15 (Winter 1980), p. 92.
- Ball specifically credits Marioni for contributing to his development as an artist. See Laura Mattioli, “From Duchamp to Bernini,” in Barry X Ball. The End of History, edited by A. Bernardini and L. Mattioli, exh. catalog, Varese / Milan, Villa e Collezione Panza / Castello Sforzesco, Museo d’Arte Antica, April 12 – December 9, 2018 (Arezzo: Magonza, 2018), p. 29. Of the monochrome painters, Ball said, “Soon after arriving in New York, I met the group of Radical/Fundamental painters – Joseph Marioni, Marcia Hafif, Olivier Mosset, Phil Sims, Günter Umberg, et al. – and absorbed their rigorous, ascetic approach to making and discussing paintings.” Further on, he continued: “Medieval panel painting’s exacting discipline and Minimalism’s primary structures, together with my search for a new spirituality – to replace that of my severe Fundamentalist Christian childhood – came together in my early New Work works.” Ball in “Sculpting and Transforming Bodies of Work: Barry X Ball and Bob Nickas in Conversation,” in Barry X Ball, p. 155. For Marioni on Fried, see Joseph Marioni, “Footnote Number 6: Art and Objectness,” Nonsite.org, no. 21 (July 17, 2017), https://nonsite.org/article/footnote-number-6- art-and-objectness.
- Though less known to American audiences than Rodin, Medardo Rosso (1858 – 1928) was the subject of comprehensive exhibitions in 2014–15 at the Center for Italian Modern Art (CIMA), New York, and in 2016–17 at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis.
- Barry X Ball, e-mail to the author, March 19, 2019.
- Barry X Ball, interview with the author, New York, February 1, 2019.
- Barry X Ball, telephone conversation with the author, March 7, 2019.
- Binstock, conversation with the author, March 2, 2019.
- For Fried’s description of presence and dismissal of its aesthetic value, see Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” 16. Philip Fisher wrote: “In our model objects for the industrial world we have similarly reached back to the abolished world of craft objects.” Philip Fisher, “Pins, A Table, Works of Art,” Representations, no. 1 (February 1983), p. 56.
- For spectacular: http://www.lefigaro.fr/artsexpositions/2019/03/17/03015-20190317ARTFIG00077-tefaf-maastricht-2019-les-dix-coupsde-coeur-du-figaro.php. For standout: https:// hyperallergic.com/490921/barry-x-ball-sleeping-hermaphrodite/. For showstopper: https:// www.limburger.nl/cnt/dmf20190314_00096570/ nieuw-bloed-moet-tefaf-meer-schwung-geven.
- J. Saltz, “Jerry Saltz on the Met’s Incredible Boxer at Rest Sculpture,” Vulture (June 28, 2013), https://www.vulture.com/2013/06/jerry-saltz-onthe-boxer-at-the-met.html.