A Bit of the Old Ultra-Violence

Twenty years after quitting the art world, Cady Noland pops up with a retrospective in Frankfurt.

Cady Noland, Deep Social Space, 1989. Collection Udo and Anette Brandhorst, Munich. Photo: Axel Schneider.

“The really crazy thing about Cady Noland is that she is so mysterious and so confrontational at one and the same time,” said a close friend of mine in a chat we’ve been running about the American artist for months. In fact, it’s been going on ever since I attended the press preview of her retrospective at the MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt in late October. At this point, more and more people have seen it, so there are more people to talk about it with. But even now, the exhibition continues to spin in my head. Because, I was simply blown away that October morning in Frankfurt.

The basic ingredients of Noland’s works are quite simple, really. They usually consist of one or more pieces of everyday Americana, incorporating many references to the entrepreneurial American man equipped to various degrees (Budweiser cans, barbecues, basketballs, baseball bats, saddles, crash helmets, starter cables, car tyres, pistols, and heavy belts for tools or weapons). As a kind of leitmotif anchoring her diagnosis of society, the American flag is also featured in many of the works – ably backed by images of villains and victims from American celebrity culture (President Nixon, Patty Hearst, Lee Harvey Oswald, Betty Ford, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, The Manson Girls, and so on). The totality is supplemented by artefacts made out of aluminium or galvanised steel: shopping carts, walkers, chains, baskets, handcuffs, hubcaps, and so on. These latter elements usually shine a little too brightly, contributing a silvery touch that I can’t help but see as a somewhat ironic celebration of American industry, including masculine go-getter attitudes and entrepreneurship. 

In a sense, the whole thing is spelled out, insistently overt, concrete, and straightforward. And yet, the constellation of elements causes something that prompts the ball to turn in the air, and lends the works a cool, almost floating feel. Like a kind of Pop art hologram that makes the entire museum shimmer and shiver at a point of intersection, poised between something aesthetically nonchalant and something almost a little too cool, bordering on evil. A Kubrick-like place where ultra-aesthetics meet ultra-violence.  

Visitors get their first taste of Noland’s cool approach in the museum lobby: in front of the white circular staircase leading up to the first gallery stands a perfectly ordinary walker, the basket of which contains a rolled-up American flag, a pair of metal chains, and some metal mesh – a classic Nolandesque palette of shiny aluminium and the Stars and Stripes. Very simple, and when itemized as I’ve done here, it may even sound banal. But some things you simply have to see for yourself, i.e. in a museum. Because, set inside the clinically white surroundings of Hans Hollein’s hysterically postmodern architecture, with its finely pointed triangular galleries and razor-sharp concrete stairs, the work enters into a violent pas de deux with the building.

It is all too easy to see glimpses of a horrific scene play out before one’s inner eye: blood spilled by an elderly citizen with impaired mobility who, in his hopeless perambulation of public spaces, has tried and failed to climb the stairs. Or, perhaps, he never even gets to fail. Because in public space, the agile, the powerful, the famous, the strong, and the beautiful play the main roles, while those who perform poorly (those with Zimmer frames, crutches, and canes – recurring features in several of Noland’s works) are left out before they even enter the race, an exclusion suggested by the chilling title: Objectification Process (1989).

Cady Noland, The Mirror Device, 1987. Collection Larry Gagosian. Photo: Axel Schneider.

Noland has been shrouded in mythologising mists ever since, having become quite a successful artist, she suddenly withdrew from the art scene in the late 1990s. Apart from a few presentations in a couple of American collections, the last time I stood in front of one of her works was actually in Copenhagen – a series of simple plastic barricades cutting through the gallery space of Nikolaj Kunsthal. This was back in 2001 at the group exhibition New Settlements, curated by Jacob Fabricius, of course.

Several variations of these elements can be found in the exhibition in Frankfurt: plastic barriers, aluminium enclosures, and other movable equipment used to separate crowds – e.g. protesters from the president, excited fans from Hollywood stars – or simply divide people into separate groups, such as ‘US Citizens’ and ‘Others’ in airports.

At MMK, visitors will also find one instance where access is denied altogether. Dead Space (1989) consists of shiny steel bars reaching from floor to ceiling, blocking access to a room in which hang works by other specially selected artists: one by Noland’s famous father, Kenneth, and one by Steven Parrino. Have they been locked in or out? Maybe put in jail? Whatever the case may be, this offers a humorous spin on the theme while also marking one of the rare instances where Noland allows a sliver of autobiographical content to slip through.

Unusually for a retrospective, this show also includes works by a number of Noland’s fellow artists. Hand-picked works by Sturtevant, Charlotte Poseneske, Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Michael Asher, Bill Bollinger, and Claes Oldenburg appear throughout the exhibition as a kind of mock reconstruction of the otherwise empty museum, while also forming an amplifier for Noland’s practice. For example, an entire gallery full of Parrino’s pierced and smashed canvases enhances the ‘hole’ theme that also runs through Noland’s oeuvre: the large bullet holes in a photostat of Lee Harvey Oswald, Oozewald (1989); or the perfectly neck-sized holes in the sculpture Gibbet (1993–94), a kind of updated pillory done in glossy aluminium and patriotically draped in an American flag, equally riddled with holes.

Cady Noland, Oozewald, 1989. Photo: Axel Schneider.

Similarly unusual for a retrospective, it’s clear that MMK set out to limit the biographical information to an absolute minimum. “Born in 1956 in Washington, D. C., lives in New York City,” is just about all the biographical info conveyed by the press kit, which also omits the artist’s retreat from the art world and overall life story. Moreover, it became apparent during the preview that the artist wasn’t even in Frankfurt, nor had she been during the installation of what must be her biggest exhibition ever. Instead, models and pictures were emailed back and forth in an ongoing dialogue between artist and curator.

The press conference didn’t offer any tidbits about how MMK curator Susanne Pfeffer convinced this drop-out artist to stage such an extensive retrospective. It probably helped that Pfeffer possesses perfect Noland pitch, understanding, for example, that all three floors of the museum had to be emptied so that the total of eighty-four works, created between 1989 and 1999 (plus one from 2005 and one from 2008) could take over the entire building. When did you last see anything like that happen in a major museum?

While the museum’s downplaying of all biographical elements may spark curiosity in visitors, it ties in perfectly with the artist’s oeuvre, which is generally keen to eliminate all traces of  subjectivity. Once you’ve read Noland’s 1987 essay ‘Towards a Metalanguage of Evil,’ you can’t help but see the works as expressions of the diagnosis presented in this text, which could be regarded as a manifesto for Noland’s work – even though it was actually written for an academic conference in Atlanta on ‘evil’, at which Noland seems to have appeared mainly on the merits of her sociology studies. The text opens with these words: 

“There is a meta-game available for use in the United States. The rules of the game, or even that there is a game at all, are hidden to some. The uninitiated are called naïve or provincial, liars or suckers. To those unabused by an awareness of back door maneuvering, a whole world of deceit remains opaque.” 

Cady Noland, Publyck Sculpture, 1994. Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland. Photo: Fabian Frinzel.

An associatively meandering essay follows, permeated by the same kind of half-dopey, half-confrontational attitude that also characterises Noland’s works. The essay presents the American dream as a repressive game, and the entrepreneurial male as sharing many common features with the psychopath; it’s about a society bristling with suppressed violence, dulling itself with canned beer and getting its fix from celebrity culture. The text’s reference to 1980s popular culture (the TV shows Dallas and Dynasty) can easily be replaced with contemporary examples, while the references to Machiavelli’s The Prince and sociology classics (Émile Durkheim, Erving Goffman) remain as incisive and relevant as ever.  

It feels strangely obvious to see the retrospective in Frankfurt as playing out this meta-game that Noland described almost thirty years ago, and which these days – when a megalomaniacal entrepreneur occupies the White House, the celebrity president – has become reality to a degree that still seems so unreal that you have to pinch yourself regularly.

Disbelief notwithstanding, things have turned out exactly as Noland predicted in 1987 – the works in the evil triangular building are just as telling today. Things are just as banal, just as blunt, just as ‘Trump’, just as cool as the whole thing is true and fundamentally scary. Perhaps that’s why Noland, on the twentieth anniversary of her retreat, thought it was time to put the pieces back on the board. And the fact that her return is set on German soil makes it easier to view the meta-game from the outside. Presumably, the choice of venue also indicates that today, this pathological behaviour is a globalised phenomenon that reaches far beyond the borders of the United States.

All in all, I have only one complaint to make against Cady Noland’s retrospective: the fact that based on past experience, five or seven, or maybe even ten years will go by before I see another exhibition so well executed, well installed, and well curated – so humorous, cool, and shrewd. It’s almost too much.

Cady Noland, Gibbet, 1993-94. Photo: Fabian Frinzel.