Each installment features a writer, artist, or curator discussing an underrated artist, artwork, movement, or museum.
Today we’re with Presca Ahn, the Director of M WOODS, a private not-for-profit contemporary art museum in Beijing. For Deep Cuts, she’s chosen to talk about the artist Cady Noland, a postmodern conceptual sculptor. Her work explores, in her own words, “The American Nightmare”. How did you first come upon Noland’s work?
I first learned about Cady Noland’s work when I was at Yale as an undergraduate, taking a class on aesthetics, but the first time I encountered it in person was when I visited the Rubell Collection in 2012 and saw a work of hers that’s permanently installed there. It’s a work from 1989 called This Piece Has No Title Yet, and it’s a room-sized installation with the walls lined with Budweiser beer cans and metal scaffolding, and American flags, boxes, and other objects on the floor within the room.
What attracted you to Noland’s work? What makes her output exceptional?
What is powerful about Cady Noland as an artist is that she has so completely created her own lexicon. Great artists do this. She has articulated a language so legible and yet so particular to herself. Her subjects are violence, terror, deceit, delusion in American history and American life, and she’s focused on them relentlessly. No distraction.
You can see the measure of Noland’s power in the fact that most of the components and materials she uses are the everyday objects of American life: industrial materials and utility objects like metal rods and panels, fencing, doors, tires, racks, crates, and also manufactured objects like helmets, bungees, beer cans, American flags. Anyone could locate and use these materials and objects. They’re available. But their relation to each other when they are pulled into Noland’s work is highly distinct and they take on a special charge. By the way, she’s not abstracting these objects. Their formal qualities are not the subject. When she uses a fence in her work, it’s still a fence.
How and why do you think Noland has been underrepresented?
Purely based on the work, Cady Noland should be one of the most famous artists in the world. She should be a household name. But that’s not the case. I guess it’s because she hasn’t played nicely by the rules of the game, hasn’t gotten cozy with the art market or even its purer-seeming sibling, the institutional world of museums and big galleries. As is well known, she has disavowed works and insisted that people exhibiting her work without consulting her post signs next to the exhibit that say as much. There have been so many articles about her being “crazy” or “difficult,” just because she avails herself of the few rights at an artist’s disposal to control her works. I find it to be fair play.
So she’s 60 now. Among her contemporaries are Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, Christopher Wool—allegedly radical, game-changing artists. But next to Noland, they only seem radical. They’ve stayed within the bounds of the game. In her essay “The Metalanguage of Evil,” there’s a part where she writes about death and she contrasts involuntary death, like by illness or accident or someone else’s violence, with what she calls “personal designer death,” which is death by choice. She describes the latter as the honorable type of death. And I think about that when I think about the lengths to which she’s gone, refusing to let her work be handled by anyone. Maybe she’d rather kill herself than let anybody else kill her. Nobody’s seen any new work she’s made in many years. She might not be making any.
Do you find hints of her work in more emerging artists? How large is her sphere of influence?
Immense. Anyone working on locating the basic sentiments and forces behind American iconography has to think about her, and any artists doing relentless and necessarily political work with assemblage have felt her influence, whether or not they even realize it. I’d rather not call people out. Maybe Bozidar Brazda, maybe some of Helen Marten’s work but not all of it. I’m sure artists such as Nate Lowman and Seth Price would love to be compared with her. I don’t compare them with her, however. The connections are relatively superficial.
Can you think of anyone else who has similar traits to Noland, or who’s producing work on a similar level?
My short answer is no! Noland herself has identified some artists she sees as working in a similar direction. She once wrote this short, perfect essay about Andy Warhol in Artforum. It’s one of my favorite pieces of writing by one artist about another and it’s probably my favorite piece of writing about Warhol, though he would have hated it. I was rereading it the other day because I’m curating a Warhol show at M WOODS, one that’s focusing on his time-based media. So in this essay Noland talks about Warhol’s enthusiasm for the machine, for mechanical means of producing art, and this tendency of his to almost impersonate a machine. She’s mostly referring to his technique, but it’s also obviously there in the personal elusiveness, the quips and one-liners, the conscious styling of himself as a brand rather than an individual. Anyway, in this essay Noland says she relates to post-Warhol artists like Dara Birnbaum and Gilbert & George, ones who don’t just use technology to make their work, but push spectators to think actively about the machinery that helped make the work. Rather than, you know, just getting lost in the image.