The Strategy of Sarcasm

Basic geometric forms, truth in materials, the removal of evidence of the artist's hand through industrial fabrication -- these are the hallmarks of the minimalist sculpture that emerged in the 1960s. The movement was an essentially idealistic endeavor that sought to create what Donald Judd called "specific objects," objects that refer to nothing but themselves. Then minimalism met the marketplace. Fitting into the sleekly neutral office lobby decor, the sculptures became the perfect corporate art for big glass skyscrapers. The edgy, avant-garde work was transformed into a signifier of forward-thinking, masculine corporate solidity. The objects were physically unchanged, but the context altered how they were perceived.

The new generation of minimalists may preserve a sense of formal purity, but they present it with a worldly irony that negates the idealism and ego of the movement's early artists. "Space Vehicles: Allusion Objectified," curated by artist Christian Eckart at McClain Gallery, pairs the past with the present -- from Judd to the pop-infused Julian Opie.

Opie's Modern Tower VI (2001) is a wonderfully ironic construction. Two white rectangular pillars -- one nine feet tall, the other seven -- dominate the front gallery. Their surfaces are covered with grids of rectangles in forest-green and deep blue vinyl, indicating windows and entrances. The two minimalist monoliths become the very sort of office buildings that appropriated minimalist sculpture into their commercial interiors.

Julia Mangold's collection of three towers is reminiscent of a skyline as well. And at first glance, she appears to be the member of the "second generation" adhering most closely to minimalism proper. But rather than standing boldly independent, the three rectilinear forms of various heights seem huddled together. And their crisp, manufactured steel surfaces have been laboriously hand-polished to the point of well-worn imperfection.

Gerwald Rockenschaub's four-foot square is made from inflatable vinyl rather than metal -- transforming minimalism's simple slab into a giant cushion. Fabricated in a translucent swimming-pool-blue vinyl, the object holds down the center of the gallery, weighty yet light. The sides of the bloated form are creased and cartoonlike as they strain against the internal pressure. The work is ironic in its scale and weight as well as its materials, which are listed as "plastic, air."

Eckart's Circuit Painting #2805 (2002) is a series of cool circular geometries pinched into loopy, linear forms and mounted on the wall. (Imagine laying a rubber band on your desk and moving it into different shapes.) Instead of a dead, industrial finish, the stainless-steel surfaces of his sculptures have been hand-polished to a mirrorlike sheen. They become animated as they reflect the viewer and their surroundings. The seemingly static wall sculpture is, in fact, constantly changing.

Other works in the show blur the line between painting and sculpture, if those distinctions still matter. European elder statesman Imi Knoebel's wall panels are pieces of aluminum covered with acrylic colors; on closer inspection, the solid areas of paint reveal the hand of the artist through their careful, barely perceptible brush strokes. The paintings of Marc Vaux are crafted from aluminum frames divided into sections and lined with colored anodized aluminum; the vibrant aluminum radiates off the plain white ground, creating a faint halo of color.

The Donald Judd contribution, like others from the "first generation" representatives, is from the latter part of his career and evidences a susceptibility to the world around him. In 1965, Judd said, "Any combining, mixing, adding, diluting, exploiting, vulgarizing or popularizing of abstract art deprives art of its essence and depraves the artist's artistic consciousness." But his 1987 wall sculpture is executed in a designery burnt-orange anodized aluminum. In the middle gallery is another late work by an early pioneer: John McCracken's slender slab leaning against the wall. Speed (2002) is formed from plywood, covered with fiberglass and coated with a tantalizing lacquer of subtly glittering deep blue paint. The surface has the visual depth and sensuous smoothness of custom automotive paint. This quintessential minimalist form possesses the full-on seduction of a consumer object.

All of the posts -- postmodern, post-pop, post-abstract, post-minimal -- are infused with a sense of cynicism. We live in an age when it's nearly impossible to be a true believer. People still make things and live in the world, but they do so cognizant of the failed idealism of the past. In her exhibition catalog essay, Melissa Brookhart Beyer quotes the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk's argument for "sociopolitical 'cheekiness' or irreverence" as a means to "live cynically in a way that celebrates the truth of the reality of life." The strategy of sarcasm, it seems, is as appealing in art as it is in life.