We don’t see things as they are;
we see them as we are.
The solo exhibition of Ted Larsen presented by Privateview is an Italian and European premiere for the refined American painter and sculptor who has been the protagonist of many shows internationally.
It is no coincidence that the city that will host the show – also thanks to the vision of two innovative and perceptive gallerists – is Turin, which was culturally and historically a hotbed of contemporary art production in the 20th century and the stage for many extraordinary Italian and European premieres and artists from both sides of the Atlantic. The list includes Jackson Pollock and the Japanese Gutai, introduced for the first time to the public of Turin in the late 1950s by the famed French critic Michel Tapié in collaboration with Luciano Pistoi, in their effort to trace the “vast international path of the artistic avant-garde”. Turin hosted groundbreaking exhibitions like Arte Nuova, held at the Circolo degli Artisti (Circle of Artists) in 1959 featuring names like Shiraga, Motonaga, De Kooning, and Pollock, as well as Strutture e Stile (accompanied by the explanatory subtitle Paintings and Sculptures by 42 artists from Europe, America and Japan) organized by Tapié with Vittorio Viale at the Modern Art Gallery (Galleria d’Arte Moderna - GAM) in 1963. These shows at a time of experimental exuberance were turning points that paved the way to new trends which would later have serious repercussions – if not directly, then on artistic movements to come, at least in terms of generating curiosity and encouraging mutual observation. Those were real-time tokens of appreciation for the extraordinary art production processes that were gaining momentum with equal fervor and intensity, at the same time, in places that were geographically far apart.
This new attitude heralded other epochal turns, that only a decade later would see the affirmation of Arte Povera, whose name and manifesto were conceived by Germano Celant in 1967 in a famous article that appeared in the magazine Flash Art. This movement fell squarely into the realm of artistic research that comprised not only conceptual art in its strictest sense, but also Pop Art, Land Art, and Minimalism from the United States.
The Arte Povera movement was recognized internationally also thanks to the exhibition Conceptual art arte povera land art organized by Celant (who, in that same year, also sent to print the volume by the same name) in Turin, at the Galleria d'Arte Moderna, in 1970. Similarly to arte povera (an expression that Celant juxtaposed to arte complessa or complex art), the term minimal art appeared for the first time in print in Arts Magazine only two years earlier, in 1965, coined by the English philosopher Richard Wollheim.
Wollheim talks about "minimal reduction" with reference to artistic content and a radical simplification of sign and color, which implies serial repetition and the use of plastic and industrial materials. In this regard he cites, on the one hand, Marcel Duchamp and ready-made as the inescapable theoretical starting point for any attempt at reductionism and, on the other, the American painter Ad Reinhardt, whose purist reduction is analyzed in the framework of painting aimed at the elimination of all that is perceived as not essential (significantly Reinhardt himself was inspired by Malevich and his Suprematism, particularly the famous Black Square of 1915).
The representatives of Minimal Art – a label that artists often dismissed as too generic and undifferentiated, and inevitably subject to historical revisionism – include Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, John McCracken, Frank Stella, Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, Barnett Newman, Robert Rauschenberg, and Ad Reinhardt. Donald Judd - whose fame rests as much on art production as on his theoretical and conceptual contributions to the movement (he graduated in Philosophy and from 1959 to 1965 he was an art critic for Art News and Arts Magazine) – wrote in 1966 about Yves Klein and Enrico Castellani as precursors of minimalism with regard to the three-dimensionality of the painted surface, which thus becomes an object – yet another testimony of that widespread, real-time perception of a common thread between Europe and the United States in response to the dominant subjectivism of Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism.
In Italy critics and collectors alike showed the same perceptiveness in grasping the relevance of those novelties that minimalism and conceptual art had to contribute: consider the vast collection put together by Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, one of the most passionate connoisseurs and admirer of Dan Flavin’s work, that he discovered in the late Sixties in the gallery of Gian Enzo Sperone.
In recent times Turin has provided once again the stage for a meticulous reinterpretation of the greatest representatives of this movement: in 2006 Fondazione Merz hosted a dialogic exhibition that drew parallels “in harmonious dissimilarity” between Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings and the work of Mario Merz (which had appeared together also in 1986 at Galleria Pieroni in Rome). A few years earlier, in 1999, the enlightened patronage of the Ceretto family – one of the world’s finest producers of Barolo wine and passionate art enthusiasts – resulted in an extraordinary example of public art in the heart of Langhe wine country: the decoration of the small chapel of the Santissima Madonna delle Grazie in the small town of La Morra, perched on the hills near Barolo, that was commissioned to the English artist David Tremlett (on the inside) and Sol LeWitt (on the outside).
Lastly, in 2011 it was Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, just outside Turin, that presented the first Italian retrospective (and one of the most extensive in Europe) to the work of John McCracken, in a display that brought together his work – an expression of minimalism with mystic and spiritual influences – and the museum’s permanent collection, that includes numerous examples of Arte Povera and conceptual art. The artist, just like Larsen (whom he met), had his studio in the area of Santa Fe, which is traditionally powerfully attractive to the art community in the United States - from Agnes Martin to Bruce Nauman, Susan Rothenberg and Richard Tuttle.
It is therefore not surprising that Turin, with its critical historical and artistic vocation, will be home to this very interesting exhibition that presents to the Italian and the European public the contemporary development of some aspects of American minimalism through the work of an artist who was born and bread in that great period in the arts. Ted Larsen experienced that atmosphere first-hand, he met many of its representatives in the flesh and it is from this background that issues his art - an intelligent evolution of what came before and a quest for new ways and new paths, rooted in the lessons of Post-modernism that he applies autonomously and rigorously, along with aspects that make his research absolutely original.
Ted Larsen was born in South Haven, Michigan, and he has lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for years. His solid academic training have made him intimately familiar with the history of art and a passionate scholar. At first glance his work evokes prerogatives that are typical of minimalist language – the objectification of the art work, Frank Stella’s what you see is what you see, and mostly the formal actualization of the instances contained in the famous essay Specific Object of 1965 by Judd. The new works are hybrids that cannot be identified univocally as paintings or sculptures, but rather as new objects that fall in both “categories” at once, in the same tridimensional space. Like Judd, Larsen comes from a long painting experience which led him to a new form of sculpture-based abstract expression. However, Larsen takes substantial distance from this radical approach to objectification, also by virtue of a personal interest in Constructivism, Modernism, and Post-Modernism. In his work the manual effort of an individual is opposed to serial industrial production, salvaged (and pre-existing) materials become hallmarks of their own past life (coated in paint that is worn out by time, as opposed to industrial varnish). The subjective relevance of each work also issues from the name that he assigns to them (no longer a serial number, ruling out any repetitive process) which, in the artist’s view, becomes an integral part of the work itself. These names often contain an oxymoron, a clash between word and meaning that is the expression of the work’s inherent dichotomy (True Fiction, Divided Unity, Active Retirement).
In Larsen’s work the duality of painting and sculpture – resolved semantically in works that include both and give shape to what could be called sculptural painting and pictorial sculpture – precludes the crucial question about the relationship between the artwork itself and its perception. To the artist, the latter is one dimension of seeing that entails a space and a time, that in the absence of paradigmatic categories of objectual reference demands nothing but the viewer’s subjective gaze. The tridimensional object is the means through which an effect is generated in the viewer: it is the resulting empathy – and not the work itself – that can be defined as “Art” and it remains an eminently private affair, that may require different lengths of time or never occur at all. Larsen is not interested in the didactic interpretations or implications that one may find in his work: he set his elements free before the viewer, to be decoded on a strictly personal basis.
Larsen’s works are “absolute” ones, with their physical presence and their spatial volumetry, undeniably immanent. Josef Albers stated that minimal means maximum effect and Larsen adheres to this principle in full: cylinders, curves, lines, squares, circles, triangles, and other “primary” forms (which lie at the heart of the minimalist movement) matter first and foremost to underscore the primacy of form. His works have a powerful dramatic presence, a strong charisma, a weight: and yet simplicity is not elementary, at least not in this case. Painting is, to the artist, a gateway to the eyes of the mind, where associations of ideas are devoid of filters, while sculpture is the concrete manifestation of the idea: thus his works become a physical hybrid of the two, and one that also explains their purposely contradictory titles. There is memory, stratification, a constant exploration that never ceases to surprise even the artist himself, because his works develop their own energy as if oblivious to themselves, outside of any control, aiming to fill up their space in a way that is autonomous and personal. His works become the place, a topos of art-making in a celebration of chromatic and formal density, where abandonment is sublimated into re-use through a precise ritual of dismemberment and reconstruction, thus acquiring a new identity. In this way the construction becomes fundamental as is the relevance of manual work. To Larsen this means organizing a complex process into different phases: large pieces of discarded metal that come straight from the scrap yard are selected and then prepared in the studio - an ethical exercise that restores “beauty” from a world of consumerism and waste. He then proceeds to the construction of the individual elements (geometric components in the form of polygonal solids that take endless shapes) that translate into sculptures made of plywood. These are then assembled with silicone and eventually covered with the reclaimed metal, often marked by geometric lines of synthetic materials.
Form becomes a syntax of curved lines, protrusions, recesses, declined in endless variants and regulated by chromatic choices that are functional to the end result. It is a very personal language that turns the Construed Objects conceived for Privateview into sculptural abstractions that are theoretically endless: solid colors are matched and juxtaposed, shades from the same palette bring out the multiplicity of the creative act. These objects are characterized by a small scale (they never exceed 20 cm per side) that adds an element of formal elegance and reflects a deliberate interest on the part of the artist. In this sense these works bring to mind David Simpson’s Eccentric Polyplanes from the Eighties in their ability to play with volumes regardless of their actual size, sculptures that interact with the architectural space in which they are displayed and that would hold their own even on a monumental scale.
The use of color is crucial: Ted has a very personal approach to painting and chromatism, which comes from an intimate familiarity with art history as seen through the lens of the American socio-political context in which he grew up. He evokes the volumetric functionality of plastic and constructivist colors, whites and blacks from the Suprematist tradition (Voodoo Science) bring out primary tones against a foundation of greys, the pastel palette can be shiny or opaque and bears the signs of each work’s “past”. The varnish is scraped, scratched, creating additional patterns that bring to mind all-American staples like Formica table tops, diners, and glorious automobiles from the 1950s. The background is outlined by vanishing lines and contrasting contours that cross and stand out and mark the perimeter.
Lean works that develop horizontally, like Broad Spectrum, Awfully Nice and Awfully Good, are closely related to painting and to bas-relief: the wall is a natural background that is functional to the forms made vibrant by an abundant use of chiaroscuro to underscore the multiple edges. The parallel here leads inevitably to Léger’s famous Staircase (the 1913 and 1914 versions), but also to Daniel Buren’s kinetic painting: the work Broad Spectrum perfectly conveys the vibrancy of the chromatic scale that glistens with movement, while Awfully Good and Awfully Nice – two mirror images treated differently on the surface – hinge on a palette of gentler hues. In the former the artist underlines a rhythmic caesura, while in the latter he turns his viewpoint upside down to reveal the inherent and unexpected inner soul of the work: ochre bee’s wax poured inside a thin bar, a natural element selected for its color and its texture that started out as a fluid but ended up playing a structural role.
The show also presents a uniform set of medium-sized works characterized by a marked projecting edge: an element that functions as a frame to a painting but that also serves structurally, as an architectural device, to add volume to space reaching into a third dimension. The sculptural elements refer back to the space in which they are found and acquire their own weight and gravity, possibly suggesting movement inside a “box”. Color is dictated by reflections on its expressive potential (and in this case are characterized by tones that the artist does not hesitate to define “nostalgic” with their patina of wear and their vintage feel) and enhances the formal construction of each design: single full color in Rarely Done and True Fiction, bichromes for silhouettes and background in Master Slave, Same Difference, Hard Curve and Science Fiction, alternating warm and cold hues in the geometric variations of Hall Full and Half Empty.
Lined out is a site-specific installation that recalls and rethinks the installation by the same name presented simultaneously at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey and adapted to the gallery space in Turin. This work illustrates the potential of a geometry made of colored metal modules that takes possession of a wall through an organic approach, adding fullness and void through distance to suggest depth. It is a deliberately unfinished grid, intended to represent the evolution of an invisible city that is made perceivable and detectable through the elements of its own construction and that provides an expression of its self-generating energy.
Concerning his work and his timeless, kaleidoscopic art, a return to high quality in making art, visionary interpretations of a future that maintains a strong connection to the past, Larsen says: […] I make my work. While I use contemporary approaches to materials and production techniques, I want the work to show that it was hand-made, that it is crafted. We live in a world of re-use, up-cycling, and recycling. While I am not terribly interested in the possible didactic instruction resulting from my use of reclaimed materials, I am not blind to it. In many ways, we live in a world with declining resources, and one of these resources are aesthetics. The current pluralism which is embraced by the art world means that anything goes and while that opens all sorts of possibilities, it also means there is no overriding structure by which we can measure the success of work. There are no longer standards. I like structure and standards. I look back historically to a period of time in the art world when these kinds of issues mattered. Knowing one's history and one's roots offers the trajectory towards the future. The future and past are always in dialogue. Living in the present means we are determined by both.
Paola Stroppiana, Independent Curator, Torino, Italy