Douglas Huebler

New York

at Paula Cooper

View of the exhibition “Douglas Huebler: Works from the 1960s,” 2017, showing (left) Untitled, ca. 1965–66, Formica on plywood, 14½ by 15½ by 15½ inches, and (right) Bradford Series 3, 1966, Formica on plywood, 17 by 14½ by 14½ inches, at Paula Cooper.

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Douglas Huebler (1924–1997) is best known for his Conceptual, often photo-based work, such as Variable Piece #70 (In Process) Global—his impossible project, begun in 1971, to document all living people. Paula Cooper’s recent exhibition of his early sculptures conveyed the three-dimensional origins of his Conceptual practice, as well as that practice’s relationship to Minimalist concerns. In the sculptures, which are from the early to mid-1960s, planes of colored Formica extend, twist, and multiply in angular geometric arrangements. These sometimes confounding forms lead viewers to question what they see, anticipating Huebler’s later analyses of knowledge-generating systems like maps, diagrams, and documentary photography.

Viewed from the side, the floor-bound Truro Series 1 (1966) appears to be a lavender-colored, S-shaped piece. As one walks around it, the work opens up, as it were, revealing itself to be a doubled form in which the two halves enclose a pale yellow interior. Finally, as one crosses to the other side, the sculpture shifts back to appearing as the recognizable letter, having returned from asignification to signification. Two sculptures shown on pedestals likewise have a changeable quality. One of them, Bradford Series 3 (1966), resembles an open cube with two sides ridged with jagged teeth. The work—with its symmetry, modest scale, and placement on a pedestal—encourages viewers to move around it and consider it from multiple angles and even to rotate the piece in their minds, to see it from still more sides and to imagine it displayed in different orientations.

At the gallery’s entrance were a handful of works on paper from 1967 and 1968 that hint at Huebler’s shift to his dematerialized Conceptual practice. These works are marked by a witty relationship to object-making. In one, for instance, he offers a schematic plan for an ephemeral installation in the snow. The drawings help us see the humor in the three-dimensional sculptures, whose spatial and formal play can be read as a send-up of the seriousness of classic Minimalism.

Indeed, the exhibition made clear that Huebler’s was never a Minimalist project, at least not in the orthodox sense. The sculptures’ seeming openness to reorientation (or at least their tendency to evoke such manipulation) stands in contrast to the specificity of placement essential to, say, Donald Judd’s work. Further, Huebler’s use of the same Formica that viewers will have seen in countless kitchens and bathrooms makes the sculptures accessible and familiar (rather than cold and alienating, like many fabricated works of the time), as does his color scheme of mauves and beiges, which reads as an interior decorator’s palette.

In recent years, select galleries have been undertaking revisionist projects, a task typically carried out by museums and art historians. Certainly this move has economic impulses as much as intellectual and political ones; nonetheless, many previously passed-over or under-recognized careers are being highlighted, enabling us to judge what strands of art history need reconsideration. This exhibition demonstrated how Huebler’s work can encourage a more expansive and nuanced reading of the perceptual and phenomenological concerns of both Minimal and Conceptual art.