IN 1975, WHEN CURATOR MARCIA TUCKER decided to fill the Whitney Museum of American Art's second-floor galleries with a retrospective of Richard Tuttle's then largely unknown art, the American press had a veritable field day. "Seldom has so little art been assembled in such ample space," David Bourdon declared in the Village Voice, further deadpanning that the entire exhibition "would almost certainly fit into a single piece of carry-on flight luggage." Hilton Kramer, predictably, went beyond twee snarkiness to outright scorn: "To Mies van der Rohe's famous dictum that less is more, the art of Richard Tuttle offers definitive refutation," he opined in the New York Times. "For in Mr. Tuttle's work, less is unmistakably less. It is, indeed, remorselessly and irredeemably less." "Lessness" (to borrow from Kramer's lexicon of excoriation) was doubtless at issue, but it was also precisely the point. When Tuttle affixed a short length of rope to a mammoth white wall, he meant to challenge normative perception and to redirect attention from the discrete thing to its contingent preserve, where such unremarkable visual incidents as scuffs on flat white paint came uncannily into focus. Maybe it is because this passage of ontological modernism into phenomenological Minimalism is an old story now that Tuttle's return to the Whitney last year was an anticipated (and then confirmed) coup; however modest in scale or whimsical in material the work may have been, it was also flat-out gorgeous, with the artist looking like nothing so much as an accredited formalist.
Fast-forward a few months to the 2006 Whitney Biennial, where New York-based artist Gedi Sibony's sculptures were on view, and the terms of the Tuttle account vertiginously returned. Comprising industrial floor covering, a hollow-core door, fiberboard, a garbage bag, vinyl, and plywood, the works on view exhumed the specter of lessness in the best possible sense. Their impoverished fragments of the built environment--selected with careful attention to color, texture, and visual weight, and then worked, reworked, and reworked some more, and then sited, resited, and finally, provisionally, left alone--enacted a series of quietly vulnerable interactions. The garbage bag, draped over a spindly wooden frame, graced the ground and cast a long, attenuated shadow (Their Proper Places the Entities from Which Partial Aspects Emerge, 2006); the door buttressed a carpet nestled between it and the wall (Untitled, 2006); and some forlorn remnants were poised, kissing, corner to corner (Neither Attentive Nor Inattentive, 2006). The almost accidental appearance of these interventions belies the fastidiousness of Sibony's approach, the innumerable dress rehearsals that precede the main event. When successful, the exhibited sculpture stands just on the edge of failure--precipitously close to being mere junk in a room--the better to stage Sibony's own skepticism about his ability (or desire) to transcend the obdurate properties of materials, much less to redeem them.
Each facet of Sibony's installations depends, in ways both obvious and subtle, on the other works with which it will interact and on the architecture. Like a kind of semiotic game, the production of meaning relies not on the objects but on their relations. (Titles like "The Qualities Depend upon Other Qualities," deployed for Sibony's first solo show, at Canada in New York in 2004, yet equally applicable for most of his others, admit this, too.) This logic of ambient recombination as instantiated meaning is especially consequential because certain components transmogrify over the span of years, appearing in differing guises from show to show: A flat-weave gray mat that Sibony used in his contribution to the 2005 SculptureCenter exhibition "Make It Now" was mailed back to him in a cardboard box, and, for the time being at least, the artist considers both objects--the box and the rug still crumpled within it--a freestanding, untitled sculpture. …