Michael Gitlin: Compressions
On ViewSean Scully Studio
September 17 – November 12, 2021
Michael Gitlin moved from Israel to New York in 1970. For him, and other Israeli artists such as Joshua Neustein, Benni Efrat, and Buky Schwartz, this was a moment that saw the outset of Post-Minimalism, a movement that opened Minimal art to the possibility of regaining expressive content, while still remaining within the domain of systemic form. The recent sculpture of Michael Gitlin shows the enduring influence of this moment: the best way of coming to terms with it is to experience it directly. His art goes beyond virtual descriptions in favor of tactile sensations that resonate to the core. Gitlin combines raw and painted oak in modest architectonic constructions that appear simple but never evasive. Quite the contrary, they are complex, and, at times, purposely ironic. The artist’s clean-cut edges have a distinct immediacy that allows his forms to come alive in relation to one another. Their spatial definition is often curtailed, pulled back from full resolution, but never entirely. In Gitlin’s work, a sense of completeness is held in abeyance—a key factor that contributes to the work’s conceptual presence.
In the current exhibition, Michael Gitlin: Compressions, we encounter a compilation of 11 relatively small-scale works—wood painted with acrylic—that retain a quiet sense of openness. They reveal a tendency to exist formally despite the critical thinking of decades past. They are works that command our attention—geometric works that raise a deceptively complex question: What exactly is being compressed? Within the dimension of time we discover Gitlin’s sculpture contained within a paradoxical network that is either defined through the rigor of discovery or awakened through the disappearance of form. Although seemingly opposed, these twin impulses reflect one another.
As one enters into the mammoth space where the exhibition is being shown on West 17th Street, a relatively small work, assembled in painted wood and titled Volume Compression 16 (2021), is mounted on the left wall. The unpredictability of this black and white, hardedge work is extraordinary, as it appears isolated from the other works in the show. The construction has a particular kind of reality, in which the parts connect with one another while managing to hold their presence as distinct elements. Immediately, the question is raised as to how the title of the work relates to its making. Here, the concept of “compression” refers to the mechanics of how diverse materials—or in Gitlin’s case, compressed cedar or oak—come to occupy a common interior space that allows them to emit or distribute external energy. Gitlin’s forms emerge into a visual presence that is contingent on the elements employed in their making. Gitlin knows how to do this, or how to make it happen: he works with wood in a constructive manner. Given time, a single small work may take weeks or even months to get right.
The current exhibition includes 11 works that fill a large open space, which occasionally functions as a studio for the painter Sean Scully. Curiously, Gitlin asked his curator, Eric Stark, to install the exhibition without him, thereby suggesting a certain distance between the artist and his work. More specifically, the presence of constructing forms independent of a particular space allows for the intervention of chance to enter into the work. For the artist, this gave the work an additional dimension.
In essence, there are four parts to this exhibition. The first is the entryway, where Volume Compression 16 has been mounted. From the vantage point of this work, one looks northward several meters, towards a large wall straight ahead, where five works are located. Moving from left to right, they begin with Volume Compression 15 (2017): two vertical slabs attached to one another, the right one higher than the left. Adjacent and to the right is Volume Compression 17 (2017): two vertical blocks, the larger in front, one slightly higher than the other, mounted on top. Again to the right, Volume Compression 13 (2020): a horizontal slab in front and to the right of a vertical slab set against a larger block from behind. Once more to the right, Volume Compression 6 (2017): a smaller piece than the others, here a flattened square top is turned 45 degrees with a vertical slab mounted to the left. And again to the right, Volume Compression 10 (2019): a triumvirate of blocks, two squares side by side, one rectangle on top, all façades painted white.
The foregoing “walk through” shows us that simplicity can be complex. What has been described are five separate works separated from one another at equal intervals. The correspondences and spatial chronology of these works is part of the work process, even as Gitlin himself chose to retreat from the installation. This is equally true of the three works on the west wall and the two works on the south wall. There is an accuracy in the collective placement of these 11 sculptures that fills the space, thereby constituting a palpable energy dictated by the sculptures themselves. Compression is not the kind of exhibition where you look and leave. Rather, Gitlin’s work comes to the viewer. It has always functioned that way, even in the 1970s when the artist was trying to decide whether he was a painter or sculptor, whether or not his point of view was two- or three-dimensional. Somehow the beauty of that struggle is embedded in this remarkable show.