Matthew Higgs’s Economics of Art

Agnes Lux, #91-L, 2012. Graphite on postcards. 82⅝  X 52½ inches. Courtesy the artist.


Currently on view at James Cohan gallery, “Everyday Abstract-Abstract Everyday” features 37 works that New York-based curator Matthew Higgs chose with an agenda based, in part, on changes brought about by the economic downturn. “I’d been noticing that the high production values very much associated with the boom in the art world in the mid-2000s were in decline,” says Higgs. “An awful lot of artists are now working with much more modest materials-perhaps due to the economy.”

The exhibition’s unifying aesthetic is homespun, showing artists less as business-savvy designers and more as workaday tinkerers. The hand of the maker is evident. Higgs historicizes this conceit by including works from artists as generationally disparate as Andy Warhol and Walead Beshty. The former’s entry is an Oxidation Painting (1978), which the artist famously produced by urinating (or having others urinate) on a canvas overlayed with copper. Beshty’s contribution, 20-inch Copper (FedEx® Medium Kraft Box ©2004 FEDEX 155143 REV), Standard Overnight, Los Angeles-New York trk#798399701913, May 15-16, 2012 (2012), is a box sculpture also made of copper. Both works are concerned with the oxidation process of copper, to very different ends. Warhol’s series brings the artist momentarily to earth, to the processes of bodily secretions. Conversely, Beshty’s work—part of the FedEx series, which the artist has been producing since 2005-is about travel and motion: it examines how copper is oxidized, marred and be-stickered when enduring the processes of shipment.

Two works that Higgs calls “guiding forces” for the show are small sculptures by Judith Scott and the Philadelphia Wireman. Scott was a Bay Area artist who Higgs had worked with in the final years of her life. Her small, untitled mixed-medium sculpture from 2004 looks like an amorphously shaped rubber band ball (it is actually made from yarn and other mediums). The artist, who died in 2005, had Down syndrome and was deaf and unable to speak, created deeply formal abstract sculptures with yarn and found materials. In the show, the Philadelphia Wireman’s untitled 1975 sculpture is a near-twin to Scott’s, with colorful wire and rubber bands wrapped around a McDonald’s badge. The Philadelphia Wireman is an anonymous artist whose 1,200-odd works, produced during the 1970s, were collected in an alley on trash night in Philadelphia. “Those two artists worked outside the convention of art,” says Higgs. “They illustrate the desire to create a world for oneself, outside of the existing world.” A world, equally, untied to the fickle demands of economics.

Esthetic pairings are one of the hallmarks of the assemblage. A Bill Jenkins wall piece, Bed with Rope and Fence (2012), consists of the wire frame of a bed adorned with scatterings of rope. Wärmegitter (2011) by Alexandra Bircken is composed of a bed-sized aluminum frame with a hammock-like knitted center. The two works play off each other and invite dialogue. An equally compelling kinship appears in a pairing of gridded wall pieces by Gedi Sibony and Hannah Wilke. Sibony’s The Two Simple Green Threes (2012) is a drop cloth stenciled with a grid of multicolored designs of animals, plants and snowflakes. Wilke’s grid, S.O.S-Starification Object Series #2 (1975), is one of her well-known chewing gum vagina pieces. The series is best known through images of Wilke displaying the tiny sculptures on her naked body—here they are shown on their own, affixed to sheets of paper.

“Both works are about applying structure to things that would rather remain informal–molding chewing gum and stenciling a drop cloth,” says Higgs. “When installing the exhibition, I was interested in narratives that might unfold between the pieces. What remains important, however, is that they have radically different origins and intentions. That’s the pleasure of making a group show—it’s just a temporary gathering, it’s not forever.”

No show can take the temperature of the economic climate, a truism made obvious by the fact that many of the works are from artists who are no longer active. “I wanted to make the show cross-generational, but I also wanted to show artists who made work for very different reasons,” says Higgs. “It’s not an ism or a tendency. It just seems to me that especially among younger artists, there’s a quite humble approach to making, and, equally, a relation of making to everyday life.” By creating an alternate case history to contemporary abstraction—one that refers to economics on a global scale, and not simply those of the art market—Higgs’s exhibition makes an elegantly definitive statement: artists keep making art and the world keeps turning, boom or bust.