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A mysterious pole: Dan Flavin's Untitled.

The Four Season
By David Brickman

Form/Structure/Place: Minimalist Art from the Guggenheim Museum Panza Collection
New York State Museum, through March 14

If you’ve ever been to the beach a little out of season, and it was a foggy day, and you perhaps sat on the sand watching the shades of gray and white swirl around you, shifting ever-so-imperceptibly before your eyes, and you didn’t question the value or meaning of this natural display, but merely took it in as an experience worth having—then you’re ready to enjoy the latest exhibition in the New York State Museum’s Fleet Great Art Series.

Form/Structure/Place: Minimalist Art from the Guggenheim Museum Panza Collection is, in itself, a minimal exhibition of just 10 pieces by six artists in four distinct spaces (an additional piece by one of the six, on loan from the Empire State Plaza collection, is mounted near the entrance to the show, making 10 plus one—but it is not, technically, a part of the exhibition). The four rooms of the installation are like four seasons—each with its own atmosphere or temperature, and each worthy of contemplation.

In approaching the first room, one passes the plus-one—a monumental 1968 wall piece by Donald Judd titled Untitled. The stacked vertical array of stainless-steel boxes with amber Plexiglas top and bottom panels shimmers and glows like a waterfall, reflecting light brightly off the brushed steel and casting a warm, yellow glow on the wall behind it. Like a fountain in a public plaza, the sculpture becomes the focal point, causing the space around it to surround it; thanks to its color and energy, this translates as a pleasant, welcome turn of events. It is a very likeable sculpture.

But more challenging experiences beckon: specifically, a ghostly green glow that spills from within the gallery, bathing the security guards at their post in its oddness. And like a carnivalesque haunted house, it pulls us into its orbit as well. The source of the light is a Dan Flavin sculpture from 1963 (titled Untitled) that consists of an 8-foot fluorescent light fixture with a green bulb in it, mounted vertically at the juncture of the floor and the wall. This utterly simple installation transforms the gallery, with its white walls, into Flavin’s green world and spills onto the next piece, a large, shiny square of aluminum girders tilted up from the floor on two legs by Robert Morris. (It, too, is called Untitled, from 1967.)

Morris’s piece reflects the green light (and white light from another Flavin mounted around the corner) and casts purple shadows, feeling remarkably animated for a big, square hunk of industrial metal sitting on the floor of a museum. The second Flavin, titled monument on the survival of Mrs. Reppin, alludes to the balance between gloom and gladness that this room evokes.

The next room, occupied by two Robert Mangold paintings and a Carl Andre floor piece, generates a completely different sensation. Both artists deal directly with geometry and invite interaction. Visitors are encouraged to walk over the Andre, which consists of 100 20-inch squares of copper laid like tile, and which shows the patina of more than 35 years of such exposure—but not without getting into the line of fire between the two Mangolds, which appear to be facing off in an endless argument over the relative merits of the square and the semicircle. I couldn’t help thinking of the Andre as a giant chessboard, and of the room as a battlefield for mathematical theorists.

The next room is a place of rest, of winter. There, 12 nearly identical paintings in white enamel on steel by Robert Ryman are arranged along three walls with a long, low bench in the middle. Titled Standard, this installation brought back the beach memory for me—and the more I looked at the paintings, the more dissimilar they all became from each other.

Finally, there is a smaller space featuring three diverse sculptures by Judd. All titled Untitled, they consist of meticulously fabricated metal boxes; one, painted a flat, UPS brown, sits unprepossessingly on the floor—its mute presence is perhaps a foil for the other two, which are wall-mounted; of those, the first, in fashionable silver and purple, plays with positive and negative spaces determined by a mathematical formula known as a Fibonacci progression; and the other, in copper with sensuous, curving geometry, reflects a corona of warm light not unlike that of the Judd outside the entrance, allowing us to come full-circle into the familiarity of sunlight, and ready to face the mundane world outside the museum.

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