This blog reaches back to Rehberger’s show at Friedrich Petzel (NY) in March-April of this year for the large scale sculpture American Traitor Bitch (2006) and just as much for the subsequent review in Art in America (September 06) where it shares an inspired spread with New York’s sculpture ‘heavies’ – Richard Serra, Tony Smith and Mark di Suvero. Nothing could position American Traitor Bitch better than comparison with the imposing appeal to raw materials, sheer bulk and ‘pure’ abstraction.
Rehberger belongs to an international wave of artists including Franz West, Andrea Zittel, Carsten Holler and Jorge Pardo that make work that conspicuously refers to or displays aspects of architecture, interior and industrial design. Whether the works are actually architecture and design as well, is tricky and largely determines their success as works of reference rather than some other application, or as art rather than life. But this larger question apart, Rehberger’s work is noted for its commission of skills or outsourcing, to third world fabrication and site specific arrangements. To some extent the work is about the institutional power and prestige the artist accesses in the process (see also Post 7). In American Traitor Bitch several aspects take on more political and topical meaning, quite apart from the (perhaps deliberately) clumsy wording of the title and where one imagines an accent somewhere between Pope Benedict XVI and Colonel Klink.
The work is firstly discrete or monolithic by Rehberger’s standards and barely squeezes into the gallery, accentuating its imposition. In this it takes up a familiar minimalist challenge by standard New York figures noted above. Yet secondly the work is not quite abstract, but actually a kind of mock-up or proto-type of a power launch, and while initially suggesting enormous weight and the literal intimidation of a minimalist work, is in fact hollow and constructed of light timbers. The slick geometry serves what one presumes will be some (perhaps covert) policing duty, is an impressive shape or volume but at the service of state enforcement. Thirdly the sleek set of straight planes and matt black finish quickly suggest the design of the stealth bomber, its geometry dedicated to eluding radar while conducting hostilities. The concern with America’s industrial-military complex in matters of design and fabrication is shared by the work of someone like Julian Laverdiere. The title only reinforces a complex allusion to the corruption of America’s role in the art world and beyond. Minimalist abstraction bleeds into menacing applications, or abstract menace precedes more concrete demonstrations.
It is amusing to watch the Art in America critic tiptoe around this point (Brian Boucher, p159) and to stress the influence of Joseph Beuys, and the role of ritual in these difficult issues. But surely a more pointed precedent lies in the convergence of fine art with applied design. The drive to integrate them was a powerful influence throughout Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. The Bauhaus was perhaps the best known institution for this, and while it supported painting and sculpture, unquestionably the emphasis was upon assimilation with other arts and their trade or craft applications. The artist was urged to engage with the world through industry and so make art more useful and the world more artistic.
The Bauhaus was always a fragile alliance, but more recently we see the uneasy boundaries between art and craft revisited. Now however the impetus is reversed, it is the designer and industry that are enlisted by fine art, but the aim is really not so different. Now the designer assumes the role of artist, where the work exchanges mere application for reference to the application. The Bauhaus was finally swept aside by politics and war; it would be ironic if these proved the circumstances of a return to the project.