Tony Feher: It didn’t turn out the way I expected (Brilliant Yellow Green), 2010–16, acrylic and mussel shells on plywood, 22 by 22½ inches; at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Tony Feher, who died of cancer last June at age sixty, was a master of an uplifting type of abject sculpture and installation employing mundane found objects and industrial materials. The Texas-born, New York–based Feher, like Richard Tuttle and Gabriel Orozco, had the rare ability to transform detritus into riveting artwork by means of just a few subtle manipulations. In a piece from 1998, empty brown beer bottles become witty and dynamic sculptures through the placement of a colorful marble atop the mouth of each vessel. In another evocative work, from 2002, a row of clear plastic containers half-filled with blue liquid and suspended from the ceiling by strings suggests a kind of radiant bottled sky. 

Feher’s career blossomed during the mid- to late 1980s, when he was a member of ACT UP and deeply engaged with fighting for AIDS victims. His spare assemblage pieces of the period—handfuls of coins or marbles collected in small glass jars, for instance—often appeared as makeshift shrines in exhibitions focused on AIDS or queer identity. 

This history seemed particularly significant when viewing Feher’s most recent exhibition, “It Didn’t Turn Out the Way I Expected,” which featured works that preoccupied the artist in the last months of his life, along with a retrospective presentation of informal sketches and preparatory drawings for sculptures and installations. The show was curated by five of Feher’s friends—artists Andrea Blum, Nancy Brooks Brody, Joy Episalla, Zoe Leonard, and Carrie Yamaoka—who aimed to underscore his versatility and experimental approach by including these latter, never-before-shown pieces. 

Most prominent, and appealing, among Feher’s last works is a series of eight brightly colored monochrome relief paintings on plywood. The surfaces of the panels are covered with oyster, clam, mussel, and cockle shells painted in hues like hot pink, gaudy blue, and searing yellow. Feher began collecting shells in 2010, first as remnants of seafood dinners, and later from various North Atlantic beaches. A number of panels covered in mussel shells recall works by Marcel Broodthaers, but Feher’s pieces are far more extroverted and Pop-inflected than the Belgian artist’s muted and quixotic constructions. Feher’s reliefs imply a conflict between nature and artifice. In a particularly successful composition, It didn’t turn out the way I expected (Brilliant Yellow Green), 2010–16, the dense arrangement of green shells emanating from the center conjures the rhythmic movement of leaves or grass in the wind. Also on view was a group of four plywood panels. In staining the panels, Feher emphasized the patterning of the wood grain, whose long bands and concentric forms evoke forlorn, meditative landscapes in the finished pieces. 

The survey component of the show, representing nearly three decades of work, consisted of over seven hundred small notebook sketches. They covered a number of walls in the back gallery and were displayed in the plastic storage sleeves Feher used to archive his working drawings. This diaristic approach to a retrospective offered a satisfyingly intimate look at a gifted artist committed to the unmonumental.