Mel Kendrick: “Seeing Things in Things” at the Parrish Art Museum


The Parrish Art Museum, created by international architects Herzog & de Meuron, Is located in Southampton, a town located in the Hamptons in eastern Long Island. Recently, the space was the home to a remarkable exhibition of sculpture, called “Seeing Things in Things,” by Mel Kendrick, an artist whose house and studio are in New York City. The show, which presented his art from the 1980s until now, included three-dimensional work in a broad spectrum of sizes, as well as low reliefs and a small group of large, unframed photos. The bias of Kendrick’s work is both physical and conceptual. The outstanding exhibition, extensive in its coverage of the artist’s output, gave viewers a chance to see work of a formalist nature. The show also reflects the improvisatory, experimental temper of the time when the work was made. Many times the pieces consisted of components cut from a single block of wood; thy are then positioned in ways that emphasize both rounded and geometric forms. This way of working results in complex volumes and tight spaces that enhance the surfaces we encounter.  Thus, Kendrick’s stylistic decisions cover both the geometric and the organic.

Kendrick is a serious, highly focused artist whose beginnings took place in the 1970s, when downtown New York was a hotbed of exploratory art. Conceptually oriented sculptors such as Gordon Matta-Clark were active, cutting out walls of abandoned buildings on the city’s Hudson River waterfront; performance art was becoming an established genre. But Kendrick’s show demonstrated that pluralism in sculpture, allowing manifold demonstration of expression, enabled the artist to work in the same milieu with the avant-garde, which tended to reject an overt formalism in favor of a more open, process-oriented approach to image-making. The artist points out that formalism developed in direct contrast to modernism, but modernism also developed a formal tack of its own over time. The results were twofold: work that was experimental and oriented toward experience at once.

In addition to following the avant-garde of his time, Kendrick’s esthetic was a continuation of a point of view already established. But that in no way pushes his intelligence into the category of a moribund creativity; instead, it shows that the formalist approach, aligned to a modernist viewpoint, is very much alive–and capable of esthetic expansion. At the same time, it must be recognized that the artist is entirely contemporary, being someone who is very much of this time.

This meant that today, when interest in the sculptural establishment of space seems to have been taken over by the provocative assertions of social practice, an art based on recognizable continuity (but not inevitably on convention) would find only limited space for an inventive practice, not to mention public support. Yet Kendrick has made work as original and assertively new as we can find during the length of his career. Kendrick has fashioned a body of work that maintains ties with the past even as its originality moves his creative intelligence beyond the present. Today, when art of so many different kinds, and from so many different backgrounds, is being used and borrowed by everyone from everywhere, surely a formalist position has a validity equal to the avant-garde (whatever that might mean today). His work derives from the conversation he had with other artists in the New York City community.

sWhile the ties to earlier art give strength to Kendrick’s production, we should ask what this might mean–especially in light of much of today’s art, which regularly shows a bias in favor of social and political commentary. Kendrick’s art is resolutely abstract, which makes it hard to politicize (today we see abstraction as political only when it is closely associated with a period of great change, for example, the work of Malevich and Tatlin, active during the great changes of the Russian revolution). One need not overemphasize social change too greatly, and in Kendrick’s art messages of a political orientation are not to be found, even if he came of age in the 1970s, a time of confrontation and challenge in America.

It makes sense, then, to understand Kendrick’s art as evidencing an inspired formalism rather than the sweeping overview of politics so popular today. In light of the achievement of his retrospective at the museum, it appears that Kendrick’s long fascination for the vagaries of form translates the insights of early modernism into contemporary use. His work is hardly a throwback–we know from the artist that his work exists within the milieu of art made by his contemporaries. But some of his work’s strength derives from the past. As a result, his idiom, which can be likened to a continuation of interest in structures originating as early as the Cubist period, neither supports nor critiques our current penchant for social design. The work simply presents itself as the consequence of very intelligent thinking: structures suggestive of a long period of development are made new by an interest in intricate presentations of volume and space. Often, as described. Kendrick will create different elements taken from the sane single block of wood.  The totality of the parts and their derivation from one mass determines a sense of close connection, although this is not immediately visible. Yet the closeness of the connection is there.

But while Kendrick has incorporated art historical precedents –sculpture that stands freely opposed to installational art of the present–into his work, this does not mean that his work is dominated by the past. Not at all. Instead, his efforts bring into awareness the necessity of both borrowing from and moving beyond what preceded him. It is this combination of the previous and the not-yet-experienced claims of the unknown that makes Kendrick a gifted artist. Only when the present collides with the past do we get work of considerable consequence; modernism is now more than a century old, and its impact leaves an important message of continuation, even should such a recognition of the past be rejected by many current artists.

The implicit debate brings into focus the demand today for thematic, formal, and social originality. We still must make it new.  But that is by now a dated obligation, perhaps made antiquated by the length of time the demand for the new was made by the poet Ezra Pound in the first half of the 20th century. It looks like we are in a position to question the efficacy of a constant advance in art; at this point. how can we proceed as if the experimental innovations we currently rely on were achieved generations ago? There is some evidence that even artists presently working in New York, notorious for its emphasis on original processes, may be turning away from Pound’s dictum by reconnecting again to figurative art. This is of course not the case in Kendrick’s work, which remains strictly non-representational. But his alliance with what has taken place in sculptural art before him has enabled the artist to strengthen his search for a current vernacular.

The search for originality via historical awareness may sound counterintuitive, but it is not. The search for originality regularly demands historical awareness. It is a piece of thinking that acknowledges the century before us as a site of essential discoveries, of such meaningfulness that its esthetic intelligence can be gleaned and made use of, even now. Invention is usually the child of memory, especially currently when the formal investigations of the past produced a language that we are truly familiar with–to the point where our knowledge may refuse the well-known intuitions of past creativity. But surely this is a mistake. Kendrick is likely not speculating on the bias of a stylistic legacy in his work; like any committed sculptor, he uses what is available. He also participates, inevitably,  in the esthetic of his time.  To call him a traditional artist would be absurd–yet we must acknowledge the presence of earlier determinations as part of his achievement. As a sculptor who, in conversation at the museum, sees his work in dialogue with the efforts of other  recent artists, the presence of historical continuity is not a small thing. A preoccupation with the conceptual and formal underpinnings of the past may not be part of his daily musings, yet they form the aura out of which the work is made. Art tends to happen rather than being consciously determined.

Indeed, this is evident in Kendrick’s work from the start. The overall impression in the group of rooms and broad hallway of the Parrish Art Museum is that of a consistent preoccupation with formalities in sculptural art. His notion of art recognizes that contour and volume are sufficiently interesting in their own right; they need not be burdened by the requirement that the shapes describe a recognizable realism.  Art does not have to be redeemed by the determination to make something that already exists in the world. But neither is it required to create pieces of obsessively driven originality. And this awareness likely lies behind the force and vigor of Kendrick’s sensibility; it merely turns out that Kendrick needs to revisit the past to be a vehicle for the requirements of his art. It makes him a bit of a historian, by distant implication, but this would be a writer’s characterization. Kendrick is best understood as a sculptor searching for independence, made possible by the internalization of previous lessons. Only when both the sculptor and his audience recognize that art is an ongoing perception, made available in the present by recollection, can we develop something genuinely original. In the long run, then, the past counts as a pedestal for an intelligence sensitive to what the future may hold. After modernism, it is very hard to work out a genuinely imaginative style; but it is also likely that art history’s achievements are strong enough to continue serving the present-day artist. At the same time, we must not forget the contemporaneity of  Kendrick’s outlook; he is an artist working now, among a group of sculptors well known for their originality and experimentation. My point, that he uses the history that precedes him, should not overwhelm the recognition that he is a very original, and new, artist.

In Kendrick’s art, his creativity takes place in a highly original manner; his work moves in the direction in which the totality is greater than the sum of its parts. In the show, the art both stood alone and gained strength by conversing with other works on exhibit; this leads to a double understanding of the artist’s creativity, in single evidence and as a  body of work. Each individual sculpture is eloquent alone, but en masse the pieces marvelously restate the notion that the imagination is made clearer by considering the consequences of his efforts as a group, as well as by pieces in isolation.

In  Behind the Cross  (1982), the earliest piece in the show, we see a beautifully intricate construction of wooden beams made on a fairly small scale. The piece, with its crisscrossing wood sticks and complex overlaps (showing considerable wall space through them), can be construed as a construction of elegance and unusual craft–the sense of considered skill, in detail and overall, is a hallmark of Kendrick’s sensibility. Despite the title, one hesitates strongly to ascribe any devotional feeling to the work.  It is completely an abstraction. Certainly, Kendrick’s art is inherently modernist. The tangled straight-edge branches of Behind the Cross suggest a close affinity to late modernity, but the form is thoroughly contemporary. Only the historical intimations of the title place it in the past.

It makes more sense to see the piece not as a cultural artifact, but as an independent statement in discussion with the art of other contemporary artists. Even the sculpture’s name, evocative as it may be, must be thought of in terms that limit its metaphorical (religious) suggestiveness. Yet sculpture is the most embodied of the arts, so the title needs to be understood as imaginatively idiosyncratic–more so than piously evocative. More than painting, sculpture survives on its own terms, being a physical thing whose eschewal of surface in isolation is inevitable in light of its objecthood.  The visual construction of this work, via its active presentation of multiple spaces made by open relations between the wooden planes, begins to assume a nearly architectural purpose, and not a symbolic one.

Likely, the most effective art, at least today, moves away from symbolism and identifiable cultural meaning toward a more purely conceptual treatment of form–that is, unless political art is being made, which usually relies on literalism to make its point. The inherent inference of a metaphor is much better suited to the abstract and conceptual bias of our time. It is true that representation has returned more than a little in contemporary art, but it remains at least partly indebted to the still effective lessons addressing representational art historically. Kendrick, who is outstanding in working this style, uses form for its own sake, without embellishment, to advance an imagery beyond the pale of recognizable things. This happens from the start, as we see in his highly coherent, but equally lyric, vision.

Another piece, from 1982, untitled, is made of light wood. It stands as a column and bends forward slightly, as if it were a figure, albeit an abstract one. In its middle are deep grooves, cut across what we could describe as the figure’s chest. This work conveys the idea, if not the detail, of a person; yet its presence also seems abstract. Mostly, Kendrick’s art is about form independent of a resemblance to a recognizable object. But in this case the sculpture appears to offer a double vision: the representational and the abstract at once. It bears a distant kinship to Brancusi’s art, which may be more of an influence than we realize. Regularly in this show, smaller works are raised to eye level by simple pedestals. The simplicity of their outlines, equal in importance to the linear cuts, can be seen as central to his style. The shapes are used to balance the works in their weight, in their overall measure and restraint.

Not all of the artist’s work is sculptural in this show. There is a remarkable black-and-white woodblock print (1992). Of elegant design, with a black background and shapes created by a variety of variegated forms–rounded on the left, vertically stacked and squarish in the middle, and angular on the right. The black backdrop is covered with specks of white: it is a night sky covered with stars. It is not wrong to see this image as idealized, just as it is not wrong to see it full in keeping with Kendrick’s abstract strengths. One of the stranger things about abstraction is its ability to convey an intellectual idealism–even if the associations remain outside realist access.

How do we explain the intimation of idealism in Kendrick’s print? Most probably because of its suggestion to the night sky. At the same time, the triple array of simple shapes, constructed in vertical fashion, could be said to mimic an ascension. This is not necessarily a far reach. The suggestion can work–if the non-objective image is understood properly. It remains a hard point to prove. I am in no way tying Kendrick’s abstraction to any outlook beyond his accomplished craft. Instead, I am asking a question: Can abstraction approximate feeling, or is it only about form?

The question, which has conceptual importance, is of small use in considering Kendrick’s art. His art does not attempt the portrayal of emotion, yet a feeling of measure and restraint is conveyed. As speculation, the notion that abstract work can suggest feeling is of interest. So it is not mistaken to see abstract art as conducive to indirect emotion, even transcendence.

Round Stump  (1991-2008) is exemplary of Kendrick’s output. It is the result of changed form over years, consisting of a tree stump, lead pipe, and Japan color. It is a large assemblage, with a wooden stump and two legs supporting an off-green length of pipe divided in two parts. The overall effect, vertical but hardly narrow, shows how good Kendrick is at constructing sculpture out of low materials: wood, iron, lead pipe. Still, this is not Arte Povera; instead, is a formalist approach conveyed with demotic materials–much like the best of modern and also much post-modern sculpture. While the artist arrived in New York City some fifty years ago, shortly after the start of minimalism and conceptually based art, that does not mean he did not learn from them. But his strengths are neither reductive nor idea-oriented. Rather, he transforms materials of a lower station into works that reject such origins for a fine artistry–even as they evoke an exemplary elegance. Such artistry requires the rejection of a simple or populist view for something more unusual, more visually extravagant than the materials the object is made of.

What can we make of an art that results in a language that is exceptional but, for generations now, has borrowed from the idiom of the street? This is not a new question. It is one Kendrick would have inherited without comment. In light of the way art has been made for more than a century, and given our sharp turn toward cultural populism, rough materials make sense. The question is what to do with them. Kendrick has always committed himself to a formalism that is composed of inexpensive materials, which seem to reflect both art history and a personal preference for directness of facture. This in no way makes his work proletarian; instead, it involves it with an appreciation of the forgotten, the discarded.

This is a lyric calculation, not an analytic one–despite the fact that in many cases, Kendrick uses what might be called an analytic method: first, he cuts blocks apart and numbers them, so he can position the components in the same way he did originally. Such careful design demonstrates a bias toward rational structure just as much as a poetics of form. We can only comment on this decision as a predilection including both rational and irrational form. Beyond the matter of honesty to materials, as well as the presentation of a deeply felt esthetic, we must take on the work as a demonstration of both artisanry and what lies beyond it.

L450 (2019), a beautiful work standing on a black and white pedestal, is made of curling ribbons of walnut, some of them painted white. The work is another example of Kendrick’s skill and originality.  The thin loops of wood rise and twist and interweave with each other. They result in an airy structure that allows space to move through the piece, as much a line drawing as it is a three-dimensional object. Unlike much of Kendrick’s work, this piece concentrates on the interpenetration of space as much as solid form. In a number of ways, it is as close to a drawing as it is to a sculpture. By straddling both kinds of expression, Fendrick chooses to occupy a middle space–a decision that creates both complexity and the compelling imagery of a hybrid. As this piece demonstrates, Kendrick is very much a sculptor taken with the exploratory aspects of his medium–even if his general tendency directs him toward work determined by solid volumes, masses carrying weight–three-dimensional effects active many years ago.

Determining the extent of the artist’s accomplishment must be guided by the warmth–the affirmation–in which formalism is now received. As we well know, the bias of contemporary art has moved strongly toward a democratic inclusion, in which even the shape of things, or their materials,  can be treated as the means of social debate. This is strange–a style of material is not necessarily beholden to an attitude associated with class, gender, ethnicity, etc. But it is quite possible, and likely necessary, to discuss the duration of a particular style. Is the work too attached to historical modes of expression? I don’t think that makes sense. In a time of extreme pluralism in image-making, all directions are equally valid

Kendrick’s imagination is involved with the shapes of things. Remarkably, he has been able to transform a well-established legacy into something original, authentically new. His efforts can be seen in light of a search for balance, in a formal sense and as part of a long historical dialogue. His innovations are subtle rather than dramatic; they show how an artist might work among visual traditions difficult to follow because of their longevity (the individual components in Kendrick’s are numbered, so that they can be reassembled easily, a result of the artist’s interest in construction). The art inevitably presents a familiarity with the past–unlike much art made now. Yet Kendrric’s research carries a larger import. Things that are new owe their contemporaneity to a skillful adaptation of the past. But if the work is to succeed, it must move beyond art historial quotation. It is necessary always to remain in the present.

The other side of the logic of reason is an oblivion only suggestion can communicate. Even though we are not sure of Kendrick’s specific purpose, we can speculate that, at least in the photographs, intuition takes on considerable importance–perhaps the result of a conflation of media.  Working this way gives the artist a freedom he probably would not have otherwise. Whatever his motives, Kendrick shows a competency not only in working with different forms and themes, he also establishes a compelling, various language of differing mediums.

Sculpture No. 3 (1991), the last piece to be discussed, is composed of flat, shifting planes of poplar painted black and, sometimes, white. The column developed by these planes rises upward some three or four feet, supported from beneath by four steel legs of various configurations. Two planks rise above the general mass; their isolation from the main body of the construction causes both a shift in perception and results in an unfinished frame holding the lower straight pieces of wood in check. As always with Kendrick’s work, the piece is self-sufficient–as if the audience existed entirely outside the world of the artist’s interior.

The shifting balance and complexities of this work, like so many of the artist’s pieces, depends on a small number of materials, mostly wood and steel. They occur in ways that seem to stem pretty clearly from a perspective devoted to process and substances, as well as from the indigent lyricism of arte povera. The way the work is made is important, for it embodies a way of seeing, in which the eyes drift from here to there, often without resting on a single point. These actions and motions are suggested, even though the works themselves are inevitably motionless. Motion can be implied even if it is not actually taking place.

The stopped movements in the show, caught as they are within the artist’s choices, lend an air in which the shifting planes offer a motionless choreography that looks like it has been caught in the moment. The illusion is not especially deliberate: it is not as openly defined as Marcel Duchamp’s nude descending a staircase, which can be described as an identifiable image, despite its heavily abstract imagery. This quality in Kendrick’s art, but it adds to the tacit intricacies of the piece. Perhaps the main point to be made is that abstraction, usually comprehended as a stilled form, can sometimes can intimate motion. Movement, developed via the relations between individual components and completed by the travel of the viewer’s gaze, is not impossible in three-dimensional art. Ir is as if these works have been stopped in mid-air, suddenly losing the will to move. This is speculation, but it allows the work to take on possibilities we don’t normally associate with sculptural art.

If it is true that  sculptural art can intimate motion, then it can also be stated that it silently captures time. Duration can be seen as an important part of a sculpture’s experience. Kendrick spent two hours speaking on the show to me and two artist friends. He feels, likely correctly, that writers Timpose a different reading from that of artists. Yet writing may be the best medium to describe and explain abstraction, whose strengths result in attributes open to exploration with words, which make sense of ideas. This would include materials, formal decisions, and examples of cognitive play. Kendrick is a highly  committed artist,  serious in his investigation but also, to some extent, interested in play.  The measured but free use of a formal imagination defines the achievement of most good art.. The works make it clear that Kemdrick is showing us how to balance the past with the present, and how to transform interior realizations into external ones. This is done by both objective analysis and unbridled visions, in which enjoyment vies with investigation. When the two impulses merge, as they do in Kendrick’s art, the consequences are highly achieved, likely to last beyond the present.

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