The last time I walked through an exhibition was February 25, when I attended the press preview for the Donald Judd retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
When I think back to that morning, what has stayed with me is not the introspective monumentality of the larger works — the six austere plywood units from 1973 that swept across an entire wall of the third room, or the colorful, enameled aluminum structure, measuring 24 feet, 7 1/4 inches across, in the adjacent room. (All of the works are untitled.)
For me, the representative piece from that majestic show was a relatively small rectangular object (20 by 45 3/8 by 31 inches) made from orange pebbled Plexiglas and hot-rolled steel. Sitting on the floor near the entrance to the second gallery, it signals Judd’s decision in 1964 to abandon the handmade and enlist a nearby shop, Bernstein Brothers Sheet Metal Specialties, to help him realize his ideas.
Clad in translucent amber with endplates of gray steel, the work’s method of construction — interior wires tightened by turnbuckles — establishes an interdependence between the Plexiglas’s incorporeal glow and the dark weight of the metal. Through its restrained, oppositional elegance, its synthesis of the inangible and the industrial, it lodges in memory as an idea incarnate, a kernel of pure reason. Two and a half weeks later, the museum shut down.
The only review I wrote this year was on a three-minute, 40-second video, “Abandoned” (2020) by Serbian artist Sanja Latinović, which was presented by Catinca Tabacaru Gallery as part of its online exhibition, The Far Away Is Here (April 17-May 31, 2020).
The video, which Latinović made in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, consists of the artist’s face in closeup as she repeatedly crams her mouth with sugar cubes the size of dominoes tiles. Her agitation mounting with every handful, her eyes glistening with tears, the sugar cubes protruding from “her mouth like dislodged, oversize teeth, she forces sounds from her throat in guttural bursts.”
The sounds, according to the gallery website, are words — “I am abandoned” — most likely in Serbian, but unintelligible in any language. Still, the unspoken articulation is clear:
At the 1:40 mark, her frustration flares into outrage, brimming with waves of hopelessness and bewilderment, before ebbing into fear, supplication, and silence.
There is a universality to Latinović’s rage — a “vehemence [that] could erupt from any trauma” — but there is a terrible, impossible-to-define specificity as well, “an emotional lucidity that pierces our self-protective veil with a glimpse of the pandemic’s raw truth, in all its random horror.”
I wrote the review in the middle of May, when there was a mirage of hope that COVID’s grip might be loosening. Seven months later, the horror grinds on, and our mortal shadows, no longer consigned to abstraction, edge in. Every individual loss, each body that falters and fails, whether from the coronavirus or another, more concentratedly lethal disease, carries the resonance of collective loss, the ripple of disappearance.
The artist Matt Freedman passed away in October, eight years after undergoing a 35-day course of treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital for adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare form of cancer that began in his tongue and spread to his neck and lungs. The word “treatment,” however, is risibly benign. As he wrote in Relatively Indolent but Relentless: A Cancer Treatment Journal (Seven Stories Press, 2014), by day 28 of the ordeal:
All I have left in my head is literally the pain in my tongue. I want to get a bigger picture, more perspective, but I cannot. All I can do is dwell on the pain and the limitations the drugs in my system have placed on my imagination and my ability to reason. I’m pretty much shot.
But Matt wasn’t “pretty much shot,” and he went on to defy the odds with unstated, implacable courage. He didn’t allow his illness to define him.
The word “protean” is ascribed too loosely and too often, but there’s no more suitable descriptor for Matt’s overbrimming, interconnected practice of living and working. As an artist, writer, researcher, and performer, everything he made was inseparable from everything else — words and images compounded into clear, compelling, raucously funny, seemingly effortless hybrid forms unreeling out of the dazzling complexity of his imagination.
The panoramic scope of Matt’s projects — multimedia installations like The Golem of Ridgewood (2012), whose points of reference flit from the Garden of Eden to Diogenes and the Cynics, Richard the Lionhearted, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Leni Riefenstahl, and Rudy Perez, inventor of the Pillsbury Dough Boy, or the years-long performance series, Endless Broken Time, in collaboration with artist/drummer Tim Spelios — speaks to a larger vision of history, community, and the role of the artist, which is to pull together enough hidden threads, skewed angles, uncharted parallels, and pungent innuendoes for life to suddenly make sense, at least for a few moments.
The breadth of Matt’s practice mirrors the vacuum exposed by his death — the synapses left unfired, the loose ends left to dangle, the hole in kinship’s fabric. The sculpture, text, and film that made up The Golem of Ridgewood were installed at Valentine, the Ridgewood studio/gallery of Fred Valentine, in the winter of 2012, and Endless Broken Time (2015-20) was presented at Larry Greenberg’s Studio 10. These venues, together with Paul D’Agostino’s Centotto and Michael David’s Life on Mars, formed a hub for Bushwick at its most vibrant.
The echoes of that arena, the traveling conversations and creative frictions, are what come to mind when I think about what’s missing from this year without art. In my review of Matt’s Relatively Indolent but Relentless, I wrote, “It is tempting to invoke magical thinking and conclude that Freedman’s pain will never be our pain — it’s too rare a disease, too draconian a treatment — but we’re only forestalling an acknowledgment of some other calamity-in-waiting, if one hasn’t struck already.”
The calamity has struck; whether it has encompassed the past ten months, the past four years, or extends farther back in time is your call. But as it rolls into the future, the “obsessive, prickly, slapstick, exasperating way” that Matt handled his ordeal will continue, “in its flawed humanness,” to console us in his absence.