Richard Nonas: As Light Through Fog
On ViewFergus McCaffrey
April 28 – July 15, 2022
The sculptor Richard Nonas (b. 1936, Brooklyn; d. 2021, New York City) was a key member of the rebellious, pioneering cohort of artists that put SoHo and Tribeca on the international map. During the 1970s, downtown’s abandoned industrial spaces, notably 112 Greene Street, offered ideal sites for artists such as Jeffrey Lew, Gordon Matta-Clark, Jene Highstein and others, as well as Nonas, who were intent on the creation of a new, more radical kind of art, based on more adventurous and capacious thoughts about what that art could be. For Nonas, whose background was in literature and anthropology instead of studio art, an object existed in a space and was complicit in transforming that space into “a place,” an intervention that became the philosophical bedrock of his practice.
For his seventh show at Fergus McCaffery, As Light Through a Fog, the works on view are divided between wall and floor, wood and steel, between pre-industrial and industrialized materials, nature and culture. It is the first exhibition at McCaffrey that was installed without the artist’s active participation and direction but nonetheless vividly captures the spirit of Nonas’s work in an elegant, carefully considered tribute to the late artist.
Almost all the works in wood here are compactly configured wall pieces, the highlight of the exhibition is a group from 2020–21, some of his last works. Each of these are constructed from three substantial blocks of scuffed-up lumber fortuitously reclaimed from a construction site near the artist’s studio. The larger reliefs are all nine inches thick and vary in size, some extending more than five feet, while the smaller works, measuring a couple of handspans, are only six inches thick. All are bolted together with an economy of means that was Nonas’s trademark. Most are variations of a cross of sorts intersected by a diagonal, their triune composition symbolic—or not, referring to older, more heterodox rituals and belief systems than Christianity. Either way, they pack a punch, radiating an enigmatic, charismatic power which comes, perhaps, from the torque of the boards. It’s a simple gesture but adamant, tightening the individual components’ relationship with each other, stressing their materiality and presentness.
The two large steel floor pieces, one anchoring the lower gallery and the other installed in the upper, are both based on earlier works. Untitled (2014), a large, metal T-shaped floor piece that spans nearly the whole floor, is reminiscent of projects from the 1970s that Nonas often re-interpreted. Hugging the ground, mapping it, taking possession of it, simple as its configuration is, the sculpture forcibly affirms its presence. The current iteration of Hunk (2008), installed on the top floor, consists of nine 6.5-foot steel bars, each propped up on small steel blocks at either end placed parallel to each other at regular intervals. Nonas’s characteristic use of repetition and seriation sets up a visual rhythm that is compelling, but relatively understated here. That said, however, depending on the venue and scale—which can be massive—the repetition can also be panoramic, urgent, suggesting an equivalence to the recurring rhythms of natural phenomena such as waves.
Another highlight, on view upstairs, is the only truly vertically oriented sculpture here. Alternating between the abstract and representational, challenging, questioning, Untitled (2012) might be seen as a roughly cut wooden staircase angled against the wall. Leading nowhere, it suggests a Beckettian image of the absurd or an oneiric trope of frustration, of no exits. Upon reconsideration, however, it might shift to a more totemic emblem, then shift again, becoming a sequence of ascending abstract forms.
Nonas’s work is centered on the stubborn concreteness of objects, of wood, steel, and stone, formed and positioned to counter the forces of an inchoate world. “No idea but in things,” he would say, quoting William Carlos Williams. But what seems straightforward becomes more complex, steeped in argument and dialectic, in ideas in process, other possibilities. He honed in on the imperfect, irregular, the, rough and unpolished and found in them an unsuspected beauty. In his hands, through his treatment, they acquired a curious refinement, a kind of benediction.
The title of the show, As Light Through Fog, is also double-edged, ambiguous. Does that light clarify, as it seems it might, as a figure of speech, or confuse, as it does in reality when beamed into a haze? Again, it might cut both ways.