Heather Pesanti, assistant curator of contemporary art at the Carnegie Museum, opens her exhibition statement for Jonathan Borofsky's Human Structures with a quote from the artist: "I want one or two words to answer all the problems of the world."
With this earnest, audacious declaration, Jonathan Borofsky's career as an installation artist in the public and private domains could not be better defined. Human Structures, though situated in the first-floor Forum 58 gallery space, is actually a glimpse of the artist's latest experiments in modular constructions that are most likely headed for more permanent sites.
The focus here is an accumulation of some 2,000 translucent figures forged of Lexan, an industrial-strength plastic. The figures are male and female icons assuming the posture of just-begun snow angels, their colorful hues suggesting Lifesavers candy. They connect at the hands, feet, and heads with little pins and hinges, interlocking to create a permeable structure that weaves through the gallery space. It is as though the modular concerns of Sol Lewitt met the prefab production aesthetic of IKEA.
Viewers are encouraged to walk through paths in the structure, and the accumulated figures form a kind of static ether. A soft ambient score, composed by Borofsky, emanates from the room's center. On an exterior Forum gallery wall hang a few attractive images created from silkscreened abstractions of the colorful installation.
Outside of the Forum space, meanwhile, sits a small pyramid of geometric human forms, stacked and similarly interconnected, this time in galvanized steel, with sturdy bolts instead of plastic nipples holding them in place. One has the sense that, somewhere, a factory is busy churning out hundreds of these steel building blocks for a permanent public sculpture in the near future.
Iconic, minimal, endlessly reproducible, industrial-strength: Borofsky's work was not always this self-assured, nor this lightweight. Receiving his MFA from Yale in the 1960s and coming of age in a turbulent and experimental New York art world, Borofsky's early exhibitions reflect his joyous immersion in a variety of approaches to expression. He began counting obsessively, methodically building a sequence of pages covered in numbers. He eventually began branding the numbers to his steady stream of drawings, paintings and sculptures, which found their primary inspiration in his own dreams.
The early shows offered brilliant revisions of gallery norms, transforming exhibition spaces into oversaturated visual environments. Borofsky scattered gallery floors with discarded paper scraps that actually contained drawings or writings. He placed a Ping-Pong table in the middle of a gallery and encouraged visitors to play. Meanwhile, his dreams dictated other sculptures and wall drawings -- new creative forms that were confusing, somewhat chaotic and often fascinating. His work synthesized methodical processes and subconscious intuitions, a unique and brave hybrid that characterizes his work to this day.
More recently, the Maine-based artist's focus has been monumental public sculpture, and his often massive outdoor works find permanent residence in cities from Pittsburgh to Tampa, Munich to Tokyo. Best known is his multi-city series of "Hammering Man" sculptures, giant metal silhouettes (each with a moving hammer arm) that pay tribute to labor.
Significantly, this shift from the ephemeral to the permanent brought a parallel shift in conceptualization: A practice once defined by inclusiveness became dedicated to editing, refining and focusing in order to arrive at a single object for industrial fabrication.
From this transition emerged a highly focused iconography: Borofsky aims for an all-inclusive accessibility of form and content. One example is Pittsburgh's own "Walking to the Sky," a year-old outdoor sculpture prominently placed on the Carnegie Mellon University campus, depicting a line of individually unremarkable human figures ascending a pole angled heavenward. As a public artist, Borofsky is concerned with a general audience and cultivates a visual language that can be spoken as widely as possible. As Michael Klein put it in Sculpture Magazine: "Those who choose a Borofsky piece for their site do so with a knowledge that the nature of the work will be mostly understood and accepted by their varied audiences: sightseers, city dwellers, travelers, the curious, art lovers, even dubious politicians and cynical critics."
Borofsky's skill with imagery is understated; it is no small feat to create work that reads so fluidly. But what is curious and possibly paradoxical about the artist's work is his own articulation of its merit and his intentions. In his December lecture at the Carnegie, for instance, Borofsky insisted that his creative efforts are meant to aid in the human experience of the transcendental. The Carnegie's Pesanti, in the exhibition statement, reinforces the idea that Human Structures "convey an optimism about the human condition and put forth a singular notion: Experiencing the energy of the unified whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts."
If there is any vanguard left in Borofsky's work, it is in this blanket optimism about the human condition -- a stance that leaves him mostly alone among his peers in the contemporary art world. His creative output is driven by an almost authoritarian positivity that seems to disdain critical reflection. His refusal to succumb to the familiar defense mechanisms of irony or sarcasm is admirable. He proactively avoids the negative.
So perhaps it is a testament to the nature of our world that Borofsky's sculptures and installations at Forum 58 seem so insubstantial. Borofsky's conceptual and material streamlining is so reductive that it all but dissolves its relationship to a human condition; Human Structures struggles to remain human, and its concerns seem overwhelmingly structural.
Where these figures might sit comfortably in a public space, fitting very well the mold for "inoffensive public art," they feel highly problematic in a museum setting, where the confines for expression are less rigid. The work's mission of transcendence is deeply in need of a dose of self-awareness: Without acknowledging any of the human conditions (like privilege and power) that allow him to view the world with such easy unity, Borofsky's imagery looks profoundly short-sighted in the face of his visionary ambitions. Human Structures is essentially a logo for humanity the way it looks from a distance, from a plane (or from the executive suite in an office building): without context, conflict or identity. As an aesthetic meditation on the human form and geometric structure, it is substantial; as a statement about the human condition, it is utterly vacant.
My criticism, of course, reflects just the sort of thought process that Borofsky consciously excludes from the development of his iconography, and he dismisses the value of such critique. In a 2002 interview with his alma mater Carnegie Mellon's magazine, he says of art critics: "I haven't felt too comfortable with them ... The problem, of course, is the word 'critic.' It's got a built-in negativity to it that's unfortunate. It could be an 'art explainer' or 'art helper' or 'artists' helper.'"
The implication here is telling: Jonathan Borofsky simply doesn't believe that criticism is helpful. But if the artist's intention is to "answer all the problems of the world," it seems that he is at least perceptive enough to acknowledge that the world has problems; this is a critical viewpoint, one that most contemporary art uses as a foundation upon which to build creative strategies. For most artists it seems to follow that to answer a problem, one needs to actually address it.Forum 58: Jonathan Borofsky continues through March 11. Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. 412-622-3131 or www.cmoa.org