Alice Aycock

New York, Watermill

at Grey Art Gallery and Parrish Art Museum


A charismatic presence in the New York avant-garde since the early 1970s, Alice Aycock, who studied with Robert Morris and Tony Smith at Hunter College, is well known for her monumental, architectonic and often outlandish public sculptures, such as East River Roundabout (1995) in midtown Manhattan. Towering above the FDR Drive, this whitewashed aluminum structure with several arcing trellises resembles a disused rollercoaster. Studies for this and other major sculptures were recently featured in “Alice Aycock Drawings: Some Stories Are Worth Repeating,” a two-venue show constituting the artist’s first-ever museum survey.

It may seem odd to focus her retrospective on works on paper rather than sculpture, but drawing has always been central to Aycock’s process. Among the 104 pieces on view, spanning over four decades, there were a wide variety of drawings—from quick sketches to computer-generated pieces—as well as a number of maquettes for large-scale sculptures and installations, plus photos and other documentary material. Organized by Parrish adjunct curator Jonathan Fineberg, the exhibition, though inconveniently divided chronologically and geographically in two parts, offered an in-depth and ultimately satisfying exploration of Aycock’s achievement.

Sober and cerebral, the Grey Art Gallery presentation focused on works from the 1970s and early ’80s. Aycock’s Earth art pieces and site-specific structures—such as Maze, a circular wood labyrinth 32 feet in diameter, temporarily installed on a Pennsylvania farm in 1972 and documented here with photos and drawings—demonstrate a preoccupation with the body’s movement through space and time. Along with her peers and mentors, including Robert Smithson, Gordon Matta-Clark, Mary Miss, George Trakas and Dennis Oppenheim (to whom she was married in the early 1980s), Aycock initially focused on creating open-ended situations in the landscape, to be completed by the viewer. By the late 1970s, she began to incorporate machine imagery into her work, especially forms that suggest the circular motion of fan blades, waterwheels and windmills. The maquette and studies for The Savage Sparkler (1981), a large-scale sheet-metal sculpture that closely resembles a turbine complete with a revolving drum, were among the highlights at the Grey.

The Parrish segment of the show was more colorful and playful. Complex and mesmerizing, the works of the later 1980s, such as the large watercolors The Celestial City Game and Navajo Whirling Rainbow Game (both 1988), are standouts, reflecting Aycock’s interest in devising complex systems. The former consists of a receding red-and-yellow checkerboard surrounded by a band of keyhole shapes in blue and white, evoking game board as much as city plan. 

Aycock embraced computer-aided design in the early ’90s, which amplified and accelerated her steady stream of public sculpture commissions, such as The Star Sifter (1998), recently reinstalled in Terminal One at New York’s JFK International Airport and represented by several studies in the show. Digital technology assisted in the production of some of her best recent two-dimensional pieces, including one of the Parrish’s high points, Rock, Paper, Scissors (India ’07), 2010, a hallucinatory image showing a tower based on the 1799 palace Hawa Mahal in Jaipur, set against a flaming red background filled with small pinwheels and turbine blades. Throughout her oeuvre, Aycock returns again and again to architecture and machinery, and she has kept these themes evolving in a remarkable way.

[The exhibition travels to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Art, Design & Architecture Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara, Jan. 25-Apr. 19, 2014.]