View of Karin Schneider’s exhibition “Situational Diagram,” 2016, showing her “Obstruction(als),” 2016, at Dominique Lévy.

For her first exhibition at Dominique Lévy, “Situational Diagram,” Karin Schneider filled both floors of the gallery’s Upper East Side town house with variations on the theme of the black monochrome. For these works (all 2016), Schneider employed a set of specific processes—splitting, cancelling, obstructing, monochroming, extracting, and naming—that conjoined historical forms of abstraction to structuralist theories of power and subjectivity, as elaborated in an eighteen-page exhibition guide containing dense exegeses by the artist on each category. Here, Schneider inverted the conventional relationship between the artwork and its explanatory supplements: the works were not self-sufficient aesthetic objects but rather pointed the viewer to the concepts described in the texts. As a result, the exhibition functioned less like an installation of discrete works than like a system comprising interrelated parts. 

An installation of sixteen paintings titled “Obstruction(als)” dominated the gallery’s first floor. These black-on-black canvases inspired by the work of Ad Reinhardt were arranged within a rectilinear black metal scaffold. While the gridded architectural frame intentionally echoed the forms of Reinhardt’s paintings, it also suggested the relational network in which the paintings would be embedded once they left the gallery: each was offered for sale with the provision that the purchaser would allow another artist of Schneider’s choosing (not revealed in advance) to alter the canvas at a future date. Projected on the opposite wall was a black-and-white 16mm film of the Adriatic Sea, titled M(AdSea), that adopts the characteristics of an abstract monochrome, with vast expanses of sea and sky reduced to hazy, flickering fields of gray. 

Upstairs, other paintings took their cues from the stylistic signatures of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. On the floor at the center of the room, Schneider placed a large, rectangular work, made from oil paint, petroleum, and coal, whose composition was inspired by the somber canvases in the Rothko Chapel in Houston. The room also contained two “Splits”—each a pair of narrow, rectangular canvases in oil paint and coal that reference the vertical “zips” of Newman’s Onement I and Stations of the Cross. Schneider stipulates that potential collectors may acquire only one painting from a pair, ensuring that the works will be permanently divided. 

Each of Schneider’s “Cancellations” combines two artistic programs into a single piece in order to tease out points of comparison and contradiction. AR(BP)+TA(AP) joins the aesthetic logic of Reinhardt’s black-on-black canvases with silhouettes of a man, a cactus, and the sun borrowed from Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral’s colorful 1928 painting Abaporu. The man from Abaporu makes another appearance, in the form of a small black steel sculpture, placed on the floor, that serves as an “extraction” of the figure.

Another “Extraction” work is the two-page spread that advertised the exhibition in Artforum; displayed in a copy of the magazine haphazardly placed on the floor in a small back room, the ad consists of a black page facing a news agency photograph of a child in a refugee camp. Hung on the surrounding walls were three “Naming” paintings: small black-on-black canvases bearing the abbreviations for Syria, Poland, and Serbia. As Schneider’s text describes, these paintings suggest the relationship between the act of naming and the imposition of borders, both means of assigning entities a role within a given system. If there is something uncomfortably glib about Schneider’s invocation of the migrant crisis via its signifiers, the incongruous photo of a refugee camp in an art magazine still serves as a pointed reminder that contemporary art is structurally reliant on the ability to move freely across borders, a privilege denied to those who need it most. These pieces hint at the broader stakes of Schneider’s project in their insistence that artworks can’t be bracketed off from the forces affecting the world at large and should be viewed as constituent parts of discursive, economic, and social systems.