From the Spring 2017 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
American visual artist Robert Grosvenor has an inescapable talent for saying an awful lot with just a little. His body of work is decidedly tangible, bursting with muscularity, yet it is as fluid and abstract as it is distinct. His 50-year career has produced a range of works that seem to resist interpretation, while subtly emphasizing relationships and an interconnectedness that speaks to a larger meaning at play.
Grosvenor’s work is now on display in a new exhibition at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. Like some of the artist's creations, the exhibition itself is spare and minimal. A single sculpture rests in a stark, architecturally serene room on the campus of the "Ren," as the museum is affectionately known. The exhibition, like the artist it honors, says a lot with just a little.
The work, Untitled (1989-1990), is a single sculpture composed of brick, two seemingly incomplete vertical slabs, connected by corrugated steel “grate.” Renaissance Society executive director and chief curator Solveig Øvstebø points out that, while entirely relatable, these materials are also a bit off-putting. “There is something ‘odd’ about them,” she explained. “The concrete blocks are silver…the corrugated steel is really thick and has some blue color to it. Due to this ‘offness’ of very familiar materials, each viewer is given an open space to respond to the work in an individual, way.” And that is really what is key to this exhibition...and to Grosvenor. The response his work solicits is as much part of the experience of Robert Grosvenor as any other element. And for that reason, Øvstebø and her team worked to ensure that the exhibition space was designed in response to Grosvenor’s sculpture. “We worked very closely with (Grosvenor) in order to build out the gallery’s walls specifically in response to the sculpture. This was a very exacting process driven by the artist’s sensibilities around material and space—we wanted the sculpture to occupy the gallery in a very particular way. The walls are not only framing the sculpture but they also function as a bridge between the art work and the spatial architecture at the Ren.”
According to Øvstebø, the stark nature of the exhibition space says as much about the work it showcases as it does about Grosvenor and his strong vision. He clearly drives a context that precludes haste. Open space yields contemplation and exploration. By employing these elements, he generously gives us another lens through which to view, “one that refuses to narrow things down,” says Øvstebø. It does, however, cause us to slow down a bit, examine and explore carefully this work of art that almost instantly entreats interpretation.
Of course, the concept aligns quite seamlessly with the Ren’s focal scope in showing artists whose practices are relevant both for the field of contemporary art and for other artists working today. “Grosvenor represents a counter to the speed that we see in the art world right now,” explained Øvstebø. “It is intriguing to stop for a moment and to look through his lens. I have said before that time is an issue in Grosvenor’s work—not only in the sense that his sculptures invite deep, prolonged looking, but also in that he is willing to wait for the right time to build something, for the right time to show it, and the right time to talk about it. This aligns with our desire to contribute to in-depth thinking around art.”
In fact, everything about this sculpture and exhibition space speaks to the need for close, contemplative examination. The materials, the construction, the physical concept are all open and bare for us to see. And for Øvstebø, giving us all of the details about the work at first blush, placing the work in the middle of the space and opening the doors for audiences to occupy that space with the work encourages the exploration Grosvenor desires and the anonymity his work solicits.
That anonymity gives the work a great freedom in its interpretation, and it perhaps signals a sort of duality representative of Grosvenor’s overall aesthetic: simplicity in the midst of complexity.
The duality inherent in Grosvenor’s work is chief among the reasons Øvstebø gave the artist the call to show at the Renaissance Society. But even more important for her was the opportunity to expose that duality to new audiences. “I invited Robert Grosvenor to show at the Ren because I (had been) interested in his practice of over 50 years. It was really briefly that Grosvenor was connected to the minimalist movement in the first years of his career—he quickly went on his own odyssey, making his very individualistic works over many decades. It was important for me to present his distinct vision and artistic methodology to new audiences...encourage people to really take the time needed to look at his work and also to emphasize the artist’s tremendous influence and how it fits into the broader conversation of contemporary art.”
The new exhibition will do just that and more with the commission of a pivotal publication featuring brilliant writers, including Yve-Alain Bois, Bruce Hainley, Susan Howe and more. In addition, the Ren is inviting artists to respond to Grosvenor’s work in relation to their very own practices; on March 9, artists Geof Oppenheimer and Virginia Overton will present a public dialogue that should open up even more themes and ideas that are particularly relevant to artists working today.
Grosvenor’s work shows us that new exploration is always there for us to indulge. But expanding one’s viewpoint doesn’t always have to mean re-inventing the wheel. Sometimes slowing down the pace and getting back to basics can give you perspectives you never really imagined.
Robert Grosvenor runs at The Renaissance Society through April 9, 2017.
By Isaac Jacobs
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
Robert Grosvenor, Untitled (1989-1990), (photo courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New Yrok).