Abstraction with Likeness

Jean-Michel Othoniel, Artie Vierkant and ‘Like Life’ at the Met Breuer

Jean-Michel Othoniel. Installation view of the “Tornado” sculptures (2016–17) in “Jean-Michel Othoniel: Dark Matters”. Photo by Guillaume Ziccarelli, Courtesy Perrotin.

Galerie Perrotin’s relocation, from Manhattan’s exclusive Upper East Side neighborhood to the scruffy, more accessible environment of the Lower East Side, returns to the emerging history of New York City where the handmade and fine art existed in parity during the 19th-century. When Perrotin first opened its doors last year in the five-story S. Beckenstein building, the available exhibition space was modest in that exhibitions were limited to the street level space. In March 2018 Galerie Perrotin unveiled its new gallery space on the 2nd and 3rd floors with an expansive solo show of new sculptures by Jean-Michel Othoniel titled Dark Matters and a smaller introductory show of new work by Brooklyn-based artist Artie Vierkant titled Rooms greet people by name.

Artie Vierkant. Installation view of “Rooms greet people by name.” 2018. Photo by Guillaume Ziccarelli, Courtesy Perrotin.

With this new reveal made possible by the architectural design team from the Peterson Rich Office (P.R.O.), the gallery and its artists mark a new turning point. Vierkant’s very minimal installation shows the artist’s Image objects series from 2017 and presents itself as a real life rendering of a room in virtual reality. Pairs of long black rectangles intersect and appear along one wall, while two frames that contain camera devices open up the space further into a virtual sphere on one’s phone so that the exhibition can be experienced differently when seeing the show in person.

Now more than ever the art object, along with the notion of authenticity, is far more significant since both are symbolic of a unique moment, a condensation of being in the right place at the right time. I had first met Jean-Michel Othoniel in 2012 at the Brooklyn Art Museum, where we walked through his mid-career retrospective. Othoniel was strikingly humble and quiet since he was still in the process of completing his most significant commission at that time for The Water Grove in the Gardens of Versailles titled Les Belles Danses (The Beautiful Dances). (2015)

Jean-Michel Othoniel. Installation view of the “Tornado” sculptures (2016–17) in “Jean-Michel Othoniel: Dark Matters”. Photo by Guillaume Ziccarelli, Courtesy Perrotin.

Dark Matters currently on view at Galerie Perrotin opens with a small wall-hung sculpture titled Precious Stonewall (2017) that returns to the artist’s most significant motifs such as glass brick, threaded knots, glass beaded spirals and obsidian — natural glass made of volcanic rock. This piece appears near the gallery’s main entrance and features twelve components made of mirrored black Indian glass. Precious Stonewall is a title that the artist also used for two additional pieces made in 2014 and 2017. Each of these compositions consists of glass bricks, arranged and stacked according to color.

Jean-Michel Othoniel. Installation view of “Precious Stonewall” (2014–17) and “The Yellow Brick Road” (2017). Photo by Guillaume Ziccarelli, Courtesy Perrotin.

When stepping into Perrotin’s main space the gold sculptures that fill the left side of the room reference back to Othoniel’s monumental Precious Stonewall from 2010 that had appeared at the Brooklyn Museum in 2012. But rather than presenting a 14-foot tall structure with an 8-foot square width, Precious Stonewall (2014) hovers over a brick surface titled The Yellow Brick Road (2017) that stretches 21-feet across the floor while referencing the earlier piece from 2010.

Jean-Michel Othoniel. Installation view of “Precious Stonewall” (2017) and “The Blue Brick Road” (2017). Photo by Guillaume Ziccarelli, Courtesy Perrotin.

Within this installation the light shines directly on to the amber shaded glass, making it appear far brighter, like gold, while suggesting a move forward toward an optimism that embraces life rather than reflecting either grief or death. The bright hues seen subsequently across the room, in the mirrored blue Indian glass of three separate wall sculptures titled Precious Stonewall (2017) and The Blue Brick Road (2017), reaffirm the artist’s new direction when seen next to Grotta Azzurra (2017), a brick-glass enclosure that presents a fountain drowning in an iridescent blue.

Jean-Michel Othoniel. Grotta Azzurra. 2017. Blue & mirrored Indian glass bricks. 70 7/8 in. x 79 1/8 in. x 80 11/16 in. Courtesy ©Othoniel / ADAGP Paris, 2018. Photo: Claire Dorn.

In other words, the crux of Othoniel’s sculpture is less about what one sees and more about what is left unseen. The spiral Tornado sculptures seen on the third floor, for instance, are larger than life and sweeping in scale through the consistent presentation of large aluminum and mirrored glass spheres. Painted with hues of silver, gray and black, these orbs connect together along a twisting steel wire frame that gradually uncoils and suspends from the ceiling. Almost none of these pieces touch the floor — a detail that only highlights how these objects float against gravity. But the general, repetitive abstract form seen throughout the room suggests an outline of the standing and reclining heroic figures seen in Hellenistic Greek sculpture.

Installation view of “Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body (1300 — Now) at The Met Breuer. Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body (1300 — Now) on view at the Met Breuer takes a step back to the Greco-Roman era and shows the representation of the human figure throughout time, beginning with Duane Hanson’s Housepainter I (1984/1988) that shows an African-American man dressed in white clothes, spattered with colors of paint while standing on a white tarp and holding a roller to repaint the museum’s wall. The exhibition continues to one side with a small selection of Classical and Renaissance sculptures such as Hermes from the 1st or 2nd century AD and Bacchus (1554) by Domenico Poggini.

Installation view of “Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body (1300 — Now) at The Met Breuer. Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Since the Met’s exhibition is centered around color, addressing its constant use by artists, the overall display is captivating with chronology reiterating itself throughout the various arrangements. As a result, one sees color return to a classical white marbled past when turning to later referents such as Willem Danielsz van Tetrode’s Hercules (c. 1545–60) and El Greco’s Epimetheus and Pandora. (1600–1610) Given that the field of art history was not a significant lens of culture in America prior to the aftermath of World War II, these exhibitions at Galerie Perrotin and the Met Breuer provide an in-depth view of the many different ways that artists continue to negotiate their work around the idea of the figure especially when looking back upon the history of art.

Jill Conner, New York