(Editor's note: Ron Lambert is our artist of the month for September. For this post, he's written about the three artists he thinks everyone should know about. For more on Ron, look here, here and here.)
One artist I have kept coming back to in the last couple of years is Paul Thek, particularly after seeing his retrospective at the Whitney a couple of years ago. I am particularly into his work from the late ’60s and early ’70s. He really found a way of putting ideas together that are visually striking at first, but the longer you look at them the quieter they become. He was an incredible artist — definitely an artist’s artist. He was in and out of popularity with galleries, but always an influence on the artist community. His meat boxes pointed out the fault in minimalism, but instead of making snide, sarcastic reflections on what minimalism was, he made amazing pieces that showed another possibility.
I really believed in minimalism. I still love the work of Richard Serra, Donald Judd and that crew. I always felt like it was a somewhat optimistic movement. It asks a lot from the viewer. It’s not easy to go into a gallery and become invested — either emotionally or intellectually — in a plywood box. At one point, I think I felt that if the world had the patience to understand the subtlety of that work, we would have a much more sophisticated society. Tom Williams informed me that Judd actually has ideas about how to reshape society. I really found that optimism — the potential for change — in the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. I have never seen another artist be so minimal and come off as so sincere at the same time. He really used the aesthetic as a way to express loss, as most of his work was about being a gay man during the AIDS epidemic. He reminded the world how deeply people could love other people. His work operated under a veneer of sweetness, but underneath you see how angry he was. A friend of mine went to an exhibit of his work just after he died. She said several people were in the space crying. Maybe they knew him and missed him as a person, but I believe that everyone who believed in his work felt like they knew him and felt a true loss when he was gone. I keep one of his prints in my studio to this day.
I think the minimalist movement answered a lot of questions that the medium of sculpture needed to have answered, and I still see contemporary sculptors drawing from it. A younger sculptor I have been looking at is Carol Bove. I love the way she uses materials. Super simple and super elegant. I think I am interested in her work because of the clarity of her forms — they feel effortless, but when I try to put objects together the way she does I struggle with it forever. Her work reminds me to try to complicate my work. I got to see her work in the Unmonumental show, and at Maccarone Gallery in New York. She recalls the lessons of minimalism while addressing the conditions of our time. She is about my age, and I assume she was told the same thing as I was in school: that there was nothing new we could do with art. Her work is a wonderful middle finger to that comment. She proudly waves her influences like a flag, both in her minimal aesthetic, and by just presenting books and magazines with pictures of what she wants you to think about. In one piece she had a book open to a picture of Twiggy. It’s brilliant. She could have sculpted Twiggy, or had someone do that for her, but the picture asks the viewer to acknowledge our reliance on these icons of the past.
I have been thinking about these artists and their connection to minimalism, mostly due to my own reliance on that aesthetic and a feeling that what I saw as optimism is out of step with the culture of today. Our highly polarized society is messy and doesn’t present a path to a better organization. Some of my students can’t remember when we weren’t at war. It makes me wonder what effect that will have on them. Maybe they will be even more grateful to not have their country in conflict, or maybe they will be so accustomed to it they won’t see an issue with it continuing. I am working on ideas that show complexity and failure, with a certain cleanness in the aesthetic. To me it feels like an accurate reflection of what I see these days: It’s like putting a polish on something that is crumbling underneath.