This is the html that we pulled from the URL. It’s been sanitized, so it will only contain safe tags.
The work of the sculptor Rachel Harrison is both the zestiest and the least digestible in contemporary art. It may also be the most important, owing to an originality that breaks a prevalent spell in an art world of recycled genres, styles, and ideas. Her work suggests standard categories of modern art-assemblage, construction, readymades-but evades them all, attaining a stalemate between figuration and abstraction. With Harrison, there is no more postmodernism but a nameless epoch that starts now. She is best known for her large, clumsy-looking sculptures-she wants to make 'shapes that can't be described,' she says-made of Styrofoam covered in cement, painted in acrylics, and equipped with banal objects: a case of grape soda placed on top, a water cooler nested in a side, an embedded photograph or video monitor. 'She takes a bad thing and makes it worse,' the critic and art historian Hal Foster remarked to me, approvingly. Sculpture is the hardest art. Unlike diffidently wall-mounted painting, it intrudes on an already crowded world: mediocre painting is easily ignored; mediocre sculpture is exasperating. To be tolerated, let alone welcomed, a sculpture must have immediate and persistent drama, often announced by a certain shock. Ann Temkin, the chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, told me, 'When I first saw work by Rachel, I actively disliked it. I thought, Uh-uh! Then I couldn't get enough of it.' That's not an infallible indicator of true innovation in art, but it bodes well.
The fact that Harrison is hardly a household name owes something to the nature of her work, which usually defies photographic reproduction, and a lot to her prickly abhorrence of market-driven promotion. She shows with the respected but low-profile Greene Naftali Gallery, in Chelsea, whose co-owner, Carol Greene, is a close friend. Her work sells at prices that are substantial-from about ten thousand dollars for a photograph to two hundred thousand for a large sculpture, Greene said-but nowhere near the millions that shower more biddable contemporaries. Yet, at least since 2007, when her piece 'Huffy Howler,' featuring a bicycle and a picture of Mel Gibson, from 'Braveheart,' was a hit at 'Unmonumental,' a pace-setting show of new sculpture at the New Museum, Harrison has been vastly influential among younger artists. 'There's a version of Rachel everywhere' in art schools, the Whitney Museum curator Elisabeth Sussman told me. From what I've seen, Harrison's imitators readily produce jazzy complexes of vernacular materials and objects, but they lack the formal command and the rhetorical specificity that make every nuance in her work feel destined.
Harrison also draws. A tempestuous series, from 2011, combines caricatures of the tragic, big-haired British singer Amy Winehouse, who died that year, with, in some cases, sketches of modern-art icons-Picasso or the late German artist Martin Kippenberger, painting in his underwear-and, in others, with images by Picasso (of his lover and muse Marie-Thérèse Walter) or Willem de Kooning ('Woman V'). The attitude seems to be part ridicule and part homage; it is altogether confounding. In addition, Harrison photographs constantly. In 2000, she was lured to a house in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, by the news that an apparition of the Virgin Mary had been detected in the glass of a living-room window. The pictures that Harrison took reveal no such semblance, but record the handprints of believers on the pane and the refractions of light from changing skies. They are beautiful. What we make of the associations to religion is not the artist's affair. 'People see what they want to see,' Harrison told me. 'My art is always loaded. There is too much, on purpose, because I'm not going to give you the thing you want.'
Her work has abounded with artifacts of popular culture and politics, such as a framed photograph of Leonardo DiCaprio and, during the Iraq War, a Dick Cheney mask. When expressed, her political leanings register in whispers rather than shouts-most explicitly, so far, in a series of sculptures from 2012 that are best imagined in the homes of rich collectors. They incorporate cleaning products and appliances, and are collectively titled 'The Help.' But, first and last, all the objects and images in Harrison's art are stubbornly real entities, taken from the world and returned to it without comment. Their topicality begins to date, aging pungently, the moment she chooses them; they aren't signs of anything, just more or less resonant facts.
Harrison's sculpture appears to be pictorial, encouraging a frontal view. But walk around it. There is no front. Each step discovers a different configuration and an altered mood, inflected by colors on an ably managed scale ranging from clanging garishness to exquisite subtlety. It takes time to realize that a work's oddities submit to an over-all, exacting rightness of form. About a decade ago, I mistook Harrison's work for a neo-Dada pastiche of 'junk' aesthetics. (That reaction lingers for some, including an ARTnews reviewer, who, in 2012, reviled 'the gimcrack, bauble-encrusted assemblages of Rachel Harrison.') But then it dawned on me that the stylistic echoes establish a cogent tradition: a past that she revises and propels into the future. That reshuffling effect impresses and reconciles critical theorists like Foster and aesthetes like me, who are apt to bristle at one another. As for 'junk,' Harrison exposes the arbitrariness of the word, which, like the use of 'weeds' to describe ungoverned plants, insults things that are no less particular for being unwanted.
Always, there's an undertow of comedy in her work, as in a wall piece, 'Teaching Bo to Count Backwards' (1996-97), that is composed of a shelf made of an inverted roof gutter, bearing thirty brands of canned black olives. The cans are organized, singly or in stacks, according to the number of olives pictured on the label-from one to a countless mass, decreasing from left to right. The array is punctuated by three photographs of the sinister-looking actor John Derek with his beautiful young wife, Bo, whom he groomed for her role in the 1979 movie '10.' In the picture on the left, Bo huddles against John and seems unhappy, as if daunted by a quantity beyond her ken. In the center, as the sum diminishes, she brightens and moves a little away from him. At the right, she stands fully apart, with an exultant expression and a raised index finger: one! Is the work a wishful feminist allegory of Bo Derek's emancipation or just a nexus of different orders of reality and logic? It runs the engine of your perception and cogitation on all cylinders. Incidentally, it is elegant.
Harrison, now forty-eight, is a friendly, fast-talking woman, quick to contradict herself from one remark to the next, who dresses down, wears no makeup, keeps her frizzy hair pulled back, and looks, in any weather, like someone just in from a brisk winter walk. She is funny but rarely laughs, as if to do so would waste time. She resists being photographed, and asked me not to name the neighborhoods in Brooklyn where she works, on two floors of a former industrial building-seldom with an assistant, a point of pride for her-and where she shares an apartment with her partner of ten years, the writer and editor Eric Banks. (Her studio is new. She had to abandon her previous one, in a garage in Williamsburg, to make way for a bar.) She told me, 'I need to be anonymous at the local falafel place if I'm sitting one day thinking about art. I know no one cares about artists, and that is a good thing, but there are too many art people out here who do.'
Harrison and Banks, a courteous Mississippian, who is a former president of the National Book Critics Circle and now the director of the Institute for the Humanities at New York University, are lively company. They are voluble with interests that include, for him, horse racing and baseball and, for her, whatever comes up. 'Say that I like plants,' she offered. Their conversations are like a badminton match in which neither keeps score. Banks told me, 'Rachel is an amazing shopper. Going to a Walmart with her is an adventure.' Harrison responded, 'I never go to Walmart anymore,' plainly meaning it, although with an air of having altered her policy at that moment. They are both steeped in classic and contemporary literature. A literary bent sparkles in the titles that supplement Harrison's works, generally without describing them: 'If I Did It,' 'Conquest of the Useless,' 'Schmatte with President,' 'Hail to Reason,' 'Long Inexcusable Title,' 'Frumpy at 38,' 'Who Gave You This Number?' A 2009 show of her work at Bard College was billed 'Consider the Lobster,' from an essay by the late David Foster Wallace.
Both Harrison and Banks dote on their dog, a self-possessed bluetick coonhound. She told me in an e-mail, 'The rescue place, where we got her, names dogs as they arrive alphabetically, like hurricanes. She got Flower, we shortened it to Flo but often refer to her as The Flower. Flo is also short for Flaubert, Florida and, of course, Florence.' She added, 'Be sure to say I am mean and hate people but love my dog and will give her anything she wants.' She savors the view from their apartment, of scarcely distinguishable rooftops sprawled to the horizon, 'because it's banal,' she said. On display are many paint-it-yourself, plaster-cast hobby busts of Abraham Lincoln, who interests Harrison as someone whom everybody likes. For years, she collected the busts-blond and blue-eyed, in one instance-on eBay, with an idea, since abandoned, that they might find a new home in her sculpture. Her most commonly used adjective is 'amazing,' often uttered just before she stops dead in front of something-an oddly formal pile of sidewalk trash, an unusual detail in a building's façade, a sign with eccentric spelling or grammar-that few other people would notice. From her studio, she can see a lot, which is partly divided into parking spaces. On one of my visits, we noted the comings and goings of an old Mercedes, colored an arrestingly ugly tan.
Harrison's work adduces a novel canon of modern art. It owes little to the reigning godheads of contemporary cool-Duchamp and Warhol, although she esteems them greatly-and much to the renegade audacities of Kurt Schwitters, Jean Dubuffet, Tony Smith, Anne Truitt, Robert Rauschenberg, Eva Hesse, and Paul Thek, with collegial inflections from numerous more recent artists, including Franz West, Mike Kelley, Haim Steinbach, David Hammons, and Isa Genzken. Harrison reveres, for their spirit, Ellsworth Kelly, Ed Ruscha, and Bruce Nauman, and shares their refusal to respect-much less to play by-any rules not their own. When I told Harrison that her Amy Winehouse drawings suggested a possible style of sophisticated cartooning, along the lines of Saul Steinberg, she responded that it was 'good to know for the future this possible misreading.' She enacts an idea of sculpture as an invasion of normal circumstances-as when, in 2007, she crammed Zurich's Migros Museum with scores of sculptural pedestals and plinths, which she slathered with plangent colors and, here and there, hung with amateur paintings that she had found in thrift shops. It is like her to focus on display units as objects in themselves.
So that I could better understand her taste, Harrison and I toured the Metropolitan, the Frick, and moma. At the Met, she asked me to choose my favorite pieces in the African and Oceanic collections. Soon we were sorting out best from next best, with attention to formal themes and variations in works ranging from tiny figures of various tribal origins to colossal Indonesian totems. At the Frick, our first glimpse of Velázquez's portrait of Philip IV caused her to exclaim, 'Boyfriend!' She meant the painter. I failed to sell her on my enthusiasm for Fragonard's delirious suite of murals, 'The Progress of Love.' She said it made her sick, but wouldn't say why. Instead, she zeroed in on 'Diana the Huntress' (1776-95), a delectable small sculpture by Jean-Antoine Houdon. She seemed pleased by its inconspicuousness, installed like bric-a-brac in the busy room. At moma, we gloried in a splendid sequential hanging of Mondrians, but Harrison's mood darkened at a grouped presentation, on a plinth projecting from a wall, of Brancusi masterpieces. 'You can't see a sculpture unless you can move around it,' she said. Anyway, some of her favorite works of Brancusi's are the dusky photographs that he made of his studio-'the way light reflects off the metal pieces and soaks into the different kinds of wood.' She added, 'He showed that sculpture is about light.'
Another day, we met outdoors, at Dubuffet's 'Group of Four Trees' (1969-72), the immense, four-footed painted sculpture, white and crazed with black lines, that stands in front of the former headquarters of the Chase Manhattan Bank, near Wall Street. For me, it's the best modern public art work in the city, for its melding of the august and the affable. Harrison agreed, but tepidly. The piece interests her only, she said, because it shows how linear pattern can affect the perception of material shape. She despises nearly all public art, for its obliviousness of the actualities of public life. The colorful food venders' carts in Zuccotti Park, the scene of the first Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, are far more to her liking.
I received another comeuppance after asking her to meet me at Augustus Saint-Gaudens's gilded equestrian statue of General Sherman with an Angel of Victory, across from the Plaza Hotel, on Fifty-ninth Street. I had promised to alert the skeptical Harrison to the work's virtues, but we found that it is now hidden in a huge beige box, for a restoration of the site. She was thrilled. The box and the picturesquely jumbled rubble and machinery around it looked like an outsized version of one of her own works-in-progress. Later, noting that repairs to the statue will entail entering it through a trapdoor concealed behind the horse's saddle, she mused that 'every sculpture should have a trapdoor.'
Harrison's only public art work was installed temporarily last year on a plaza behind the Dallas city hall. In steel painted Post-it-slip pink, a twenty-five-foot-high shaft supported a massive arrow, which pointed downward, at an angle, to another work in the plaza, 'The Dallas Piece' (1978), a typically solemn bronze of organic shapes by Henry Moore. The arrow teetered ambiguously between scorn and praise-a common tendency in Harrison's art. She told me that she likes Moore well enough but was irked by the work's sententious grandeur in a place that is little frequented except, at night, by 'homeless people with dogs.' She was responding, as well, to the 'earthy browns' of the Moore and the city-hall building, designed by I. M. Pei. (Both works were commissioned, she surmised, 'to help brand a new city after the J.F.K. assassination.') She likes the fact that the arrow is a diagrammatic form, directing viewers' attention elsewhere, which becomes overwhelming as a physical element of her sculpture. In a blunt, 'stupid way,' she wrote to me-noting, 'I'm not afraid of stupid'-it serves 'a conscious effort in my art to get at the act of looking. Luckily this gets all messed up, because I don't want my work to be literally about any one thing.' I deduce a stratagem: one thing in thought that is another in reality, forcing a pause in the information tornado of our time.
The first year of Harrison's life was spent in New Jersey, where her father, a lawyer, had clerked for William J. Brennan, Jr., before Brennan was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Her father was born in Brooklyn, her mother in New Jersey; both came from Russian and Polish Jewish stock. 'I had a lot of Great-Aunt Roses,' Harrison said, and received regular doses of Borscht Belt comedy and Mel Brooks-who 'might have been one of the few things my whole family could agree on.' Her fervently liberal mother studied Arabic and Middle Eastern history at Radcliffe. While raising Harrison and an older brother, who is now a business consultant, she worked at Sarah Lawrence College as an associate dean, then went on to earn a Ph.D. in psychology. Harrison calls her father 'an erudite man.' She told me, 'When I was little, he collected stamps, tearing them off envelopes, and maybe once a year we'd have the Big Soak, where we'd put them in bowls of water and then have them dry on the back of baking sheets. You can't get less hip than that. But I'm O.K. with it.'
When she was a year old, in 1967, the family moved to Hastings-on-Hudson, then dominated by an Anaconda Wire and Cable Company plant. The plant closed in 1975, leaving a middle-class village with a Superfund site of residual toxins. Harrison attended public school and, three times a week, Hebrew classes, which had a backlash effect. She said, 'I was an agnostic as soon as I heard that word. After my bat mitzvah, I evolved into an atheist.' The local Metro-North train station afforded her, as a teen-ager, frequent escapes to the city. In 1980, when she was fourteen, she had 'a very intense experience of 'Guernica' ' in a Picasso retrospective at moma: 'I couldn't stop staring at it. It communicated chaos.' But her active involvement in art didn't start until she was twenty. That was when she discovered the sensational work of the Conceptual artists Chris Burden, who, for one piece, had a friend shoot him in the arm with a rifle, and Adrian Piper, who soaked her clothes for a week in cod-liver oil, eggs, and milk, then wore them on the New York City subway at rush hour. Harrison still enjoys thinking of the 'sculptural space' that Piper thereby cleared around her. She cites with pleasure, as well, a misanthropic piece by Bruce Nauman: an empty room in which his recorded voice growls, 'Get out of this room. Get out of my mind.'
In 1984, Harrison enrolled at Wesleyan University, where she declared a major in comparative religions, but she dropped out after her sophomore year and drove with a friend to California, taking such odd jobs as cooking at a San Francisco pizza parlor called All You Knead. Uninspired by 'all that hippie stuff,' she said, she was no more pleased by a semester at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which admitted her on the strength of drawings that she had made in a life class at Wesleyan. (Although she has taught in art departments-at Columbia, Yale, Cooper Union, Bard College, and elsewhere-she questions the value of M.F.A. programs. She told me, 'You shouldn't have to go into debt to learn about art.') She returned to Wesleyan in 1987, where she was strongly influenced by two teachers: Jeffrey Schiff, a sculptor, and Alvin Lucier, a composer who makes sound installations. Another teacher introduced her to the poetry of William Carlos Williams, who appealed to her partly because, in his other career, as a family doctor, he delivered the artist Robert Smithson in 1938, in New Jersey. A line from Williams's epic 'Paterson' became a watchword for her: 'No ideas but in things.'
In 1989, she moved to Williamsburg, where she shared a loft with a boyfriend and, later, with various roommates until, one by one, they departed. In 1993, shortly after Harrison launched her art career, her mother died, from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. 'She was my best friend, my favorite person on earth, and I continue to miss her all the time,' Harrison said. 'I was alone. I was severely depressed, with massive anxiety.' But her art blossomed. She began to participate in group shows at marginal galleries. Her first solo show, in 1996, took its title from a question asked in a Times article on scientific preparedness for hurricanes: 'Should home windows or shutters be required to withstand a direct hit from an eight-foot-long two-by-four shot from a cannon at 34 miles an hour, without creating a hole big enough to let through a three-inch sphere?' The show included installations of wood panelling and photographs and many cans of green peas, which related to the title in that they were three inches in diameter. ('I don't do obvious,' she said, while citing a close call: 'Fats Domino' (2007), a brown-painted, jerry-built wooden tower topped with a can of Slim-Fast. Not obvious, until you think of it, is the anagram 'fast/fats.') She attained some renown on the Brooklyn and downtown-Manhattan art scenes, but 'not of the warm-and-fuzzy variety.'
Throughout the nineties, Harrison worked for a nonprofit organization called LeAp, as a peripatetic art teacher in troubled elementary schools, including some in the South Bronx and Brownsville. She liked it, finding that she could engage the students in group projects, such as using math to plan and build a model of Michael Jackson's Neverland ranch. In 1999, she was hired to teach photography classes at Columbia-photography being a field that was relatively open to women. She attributes a subsequent job there teaching sculpture, previously dominated by men, to a sort of feminist affirmative action. Her work was also increasingly included in otherwise all-male, or nearly so, group shows in New York and London.
Harrison's relation to feminism is at once rock solid and casual. It may bear on a quality that Hal Foster noticed in her: a way of responding to past titans of art, up to and including Picasso, with neither piety nor any trace of generational revolt. I asked Harrison about this. She replied, 'Women can't have heroes.' The absence of the 'anxiety of influence,' which the critic Harold Bloom posited as essential to originality, may or may not be definitively female; but it differs pretty sharply from the one-upping bravado of a Jeff Koons, a Damien Hirst, or a Richard Prince. Intriguingly, many of the cultural figures whom Harrison has apostrophized in her art are men-Amerigo Vespucci, Charles Darwin, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, as well as DiCaprio, Cheney, and, in his 'Scarface' role, Al Pacino. I sense a determined and cagey policy toward maleness: keep an eye on it.
Harrison isn't displeased by the high regard in which her work is held, or by the fact that it is sought after by such leading contemporary collectors as the New Yorkers Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg and the Frenchman Bernard Arnault. But she doesn't appear to be much impressed by it, either. She had a well-received show at the Galerie Meyer Kainer, in Vienna, in October, of new works that she terms 'framing devices': piquantly clunky forms, thickly painted in bright colors, which anchor parachute cords, stretched from the ceiling and the walls to the floor, outlining imaginary shapes. (Her use of the cords pays tribute to the signature motif of the late American minimalist Fred Sandback, ringing vigorous changes on an idea that would have seemed played out.) But it took her dealer, Carol Greene, to inform me that an exhibition is being planned at the new Whitney Museum downtown, and that a show is projected for spring 2016 at Greene Naftali. Nor did Harrison mention other upcoming shows, at the Cleveland Museum of Art and at Regen Projects, in Los Angeles. It seemed that she didn't want to think about the exposure, partly because she is loath to participate in the current brutish art market, and partly because she was still adjusting to her new studio. She even told me, at one point, that she isn't making new work. Only she is.
When I last visited the studio, a half-dozen large sculptures loomed, in various states of fabrication or abandonment, and smaller pieces occupied tabletops and shelves in the not yet comfortably cluttered cavernous space. She showed me a huge cement lump painted a patchwork of vengefully strident colors that segued into lovely filmy golds and violets. She said that she had thought of displaying it leaning against a washing machine-an echo of works in 'The Help'-but decided against it. Now a weed whacker perched in the work as a 'placeholder' for an object that had yet to present itself. She drank from a mug of tea and paced from piece to piece. One was the size and shape of a phone booth, containing a broken antique telephone and a raincoat, with a slim phone book (the 1969 Aurora, Kansas, edition) protruding from a pocket. Part of a series that she has been working on for a couple of years, it was as striking in form as in wit, but she wasn't yet sure how she would finish it.
We began talking about photography, and she drew me a sketch to explain an early work, from 1996, which I had seen and wondered about: a contact sheet of fifteen shots of people walking past a pile of green trash bags on a London sidewalk, interrupted by three pictures that show a roadside field, the interior of Salisbury Cathedral, and a mummy in the British Museum. Harrison took all the photographs on one roll of film, then simply rearranged the images on the sheet. But the apparent detour away from the trash bags and back is acutely mystifying if, like me, you read the sheet as a truthful sequence in time. (Harrison likes posing riddles with easy answers which, somehow, we are unlikely to guess.) Next, she picked up a wooden tray that held some toy insects and placed it experimentally here and there on various pieces. Then she showed me an old small sculpture painted iridescent purples, blues, and greens-the colors 'are hideous,' she joked-and draped it with a hood of greenish mosquito netting. The addition fit perfectly, and turned the now barely legible offending hues mistily seductive.
I asked Harrison if she contemplated any new themes in her work. She grabbed a few bits of wood and, with a red magic marker, wrote on them some phrases from recent news stories that had been on her mind-and her nerves. One was 'vertically integrated digital media'-'Doesn't mean anything,' she said-from reports on the shift in direction at The New Republic, led by a C.E.O. who had promised, employing a Silicon Valley cliché, to 'break shit.' Harrison is irritated, in general, by 'startup companies calling themselves the new counterculture' when it's really 'just business.'
She also wrote 'vertical patrolling,' the practice followed by New York City police officers in the stairwells of high-rise housing projects, which had figured in accounts of the fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American man in Brooklyn. That phrase, too, struck her as anodyne words obscuring their consequences and, perhaps, as material-a verbal object-fit for her use. She plunked down the signs, as sample titles, at the bases of random sculptures in the studio. How, if at all, these matters will register in her work, she wouldn't say. They already had, to my mind, as she retrieved the signs and tossed them on a table. ♦