The outsize legacy of Minimalism is so imposing that it is often difficult to talk about any contemporary artist’s work without referencing it (either as influence or counter tendency). Yet this pervasiveness can result in watery generalities about what actually constituted Minimalism in its heyday, and how its legacy manifests itself today. Thus, Kilian Rüthemann’s recent exhibition was instructive, as its five, mostly site-specific works embodied ways in which Minimalist ideas about space, form, process and material are still being quoted, updated and expanded.
The exhibition featured works crafted from a range of industrial materials—steel, polyurethane foam, stucco, cement-based plaster. Though the materials connote Post-Minimalism and Arte Povera, which immediately followed the Minimalism of Judd and friends, Rüthemann’s work hews closer to the earlier movement, for example in the architecturally sensitive geometric forms into which the materials have been shaped: eye-pleasing rectangles, crosses and horizontal bars. The exhibition (all works 2010) was mounted on the museum’s large, irregularly shaped top floor, where three gigantic gray Xs, each occupying a wall, immediately demanded attention. Made from sprayed cement-based plaster, the marks rose from the walls like welts. If the Xs conjured other contemporary artworks that employ the symbol—Wade Guyton’s monochromatic inkjet paintings come to mind—they are also gorgeous throwbacks, reveling in the minimal, architectural and performative grand gesture that has fascinated artists from Kasimir Malevich to Ronald Bladen and Robert Mangold.
Rüthemann’s Xs set the stage for the works to come. Attacca, Italian for “attacks” or “attaches” and the exhibition’s titular work, was a lovely and surprisingly painterly gray rectangle of sprayed concrete that folded around the outer corner of a wall. For an untitled work, a row of horizontal steel bars was bolted onto a wall and extended 15 feet into the room at approximately waist level. There was also a slightly protruding ridge of stucco that ran unevenly along another wall for about 15 feet. Against these monochromatic pieces, Untitled (Sarkophag)—a group of large rectangular yellow-foam sculptures—stood out like canaries in a shipyard. Rüthemann carved out the solid foam rectangles by hand, creating simplified renditions of sarcophagi, and wittily quoting John Chamberlain’s lesser-known ’60s-era foam sculptures in the process. Seeking to duplicate the aging of Chamberlain’s works, Rüthemann left one foam piece outside for months, and its dark and dank surface stands in contrast to the pallor of the others.
If Rüthemann’s show at first seemed insistently retro, with reflection it took on a more contemporary coloration and attitude. Attacca began to seem more attached than attacking, its gestural, blanketlike folds of concrete almost lovingly sprayed on the wall, framed casually by concrete drips. So too with the stucco ridge, which falters and slips from the perfect horizon the eye expects, acknowledging its own imperfection. Uninterested in mimetic rehashings of Minimalism, the artist, who trained as a traditional sculptor, seems to aim for an idealized imitation not of nature but of the industrial-architectural spaces in which we live. That his ideaof “perfection” eschews the flawless finish and gloss of so much High Minimalism might be one of the ways he is moving the legacy forward.
Photo: View of Kilian Rüthemann’s exhibition “Attaca,” 2010; at the Museum for Contemporary Art.