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Jacob Kassay's maximised minimalism

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Jacob Kassay, sculpture

Jacob Kassay's dialogues with art history are also conversations with the brief history of his own practice.

Work which may surprise or even appear entirely incongruous is generally shaped over time, quietly introduced into a show as the germ of an idea or teased from the artist's existing output and interests in the form of echoes, reflections and overlaps.

Jacob Kassay, drawing

A recent series of watercolours, for example, reprised the blush pink of his 'balletic' monochromes while echoing the uneven, accidental surfaces of his silver-plated canvases (left).

Another, newer series also appears to reference the silver works, but consists of meticulous mark-making and architectonic grids (below).

Jacob Kassay, drawing

Despite clear stylistic differences, both series - like all Kassay's drawings to date - are framed in the untreated oak used to create his painting stretchers, providing a subtle yet tangible link with his wider practice.

One of Kassay's most recent shows at the time of writing - a group appearance curated by Sam Falls & Matt Moravec for Los Angeles' M+B Arts (page top) - featured works so unexpected that they caused one blogger to exclaim:

"Wow. I can't believe those jute sand bags are Jacob Kassey's (sic)! Talk about an about-face."

Jacob Kassay

Yet these are again the result of a carefully conceived evolution, a logical progression from Kassay's well-known minimalist references to something very different indeed.

Kassay, as previously mentioned, has long shown interest in the sculptural potential of fabrics, from early experiments with striped cloth to the juxtaposition of raw canvas with shimmering silver in a work shown mid-2010 at the Maramotti Collection (left).

But his specific interest in jute as a material seems to stem (in terms of exhibited pieces) from late 2010, when a group show at New York's Mitchell-Innes & Nash featured the intriguing sculpture shown below (to right of photo):

Jacob Kassay, sculpture

While its clean, geometric lines and white surfaces chime easily with minimalist readings, the unsmoothed hessian panels are far more difficult to locate within such a tradition, although some precedent is provided by Robert Ryman's experimentation with supports including, from the early '60s, jute sacking (below, left).

Robert Ryman, Jacob Kassay

Variations of Kassay's new sculptural format continued to make largely unremarked appearances in subsequent shows, soon accompanied by works in which jute cloth was draped across highly polished steel (below left).

Here, a direct relationship with the artist's silver-plate 'mirrors' is evident, particularly since the coarsely open-weave cloth diffuses reflection, rather than completely disabling it, much as the silver paintings provide only indistinct records of their surroundings.

Jacob Kassay, steel and jute culpture

In other respects, too, Kassay's jute and steel sculptures reprise established interests and themes. With one of these works exhibited outdoors at the 2011 'Bridgehampton Biennial' (left), the artist's emphasis on interaction became literally elemental, a slight wind ruffling the cloth to provide intermittent glimpses of the garden setting in which it had been installed (Robert Smithson's legendary Mirror Displacements also intermittently spring to mind).

All of which provides a logical evolutionary framework for the consternation-causing 'sandbags' which, besides show-casing a new-favourite material, play expertly with the M+B show's 'Time and Material' theme.

A compact series of resonant metaphorical associations ('sands of time'; sand clocks; hour-glasses) are coupled with striking reflections on materiality that reprise Kassay's fascination with paradoxical movement and stasis. Because despite a heftily solid presence, each sack is essentially mutable, destined, over time, to imperceptibly slump into new form through the inevitable shifting of its sandy innards.

Kassay's acute awareness of his own artistic trajectory can hardly be questioned. But there's no question, either, that despite a startling economy of means, these works are humble rather than minimal, effectively negating the artist's commitment to former tropes.

And indeed, Kassay's branch into burlap evokes entirely new areas of art-historical reference through inevitable association with the Italian Arte Povera movement.

We're presented with yet another polarity. Two movements that characterised the '60s and early '70s, each relevant to Kassay's work, and each, in striking ways, something of an inversion of the other.

Thrust through a looking glass, the contextual isolation sought by minimalism and its recourse to pristine, industrially-inspired materiality emerges as the politically engaged fervour of Arte Povera and its emphasis on a miscellany of organic, haptic, unglamorous materials.

Jacob Kassay and arte povera: Giulio Paolini

Yet there are also stylistic overlaps, if not so much between movements themselves, certainly with regard to the methodologies and interests through which Kassay has tended to animate his quasi-minimalist production.

Both Kassay's silvered canvases and the newer, veiled steel works show conceptual similarities, for example, with Michelangelo Pistoletto's early '60s adoption of the mirror as a platform for viewer-activated painting.

Pistoletto's stance is in turn representative of a general Arte Povera preoccupation with forms of interaction; not only between artwork and viewer, but between works themselves, as in Giulio Paolini's perpetually conversant plaster casts (above left).

Jannis Kounellis' well-known use of jute sacking as a poetic leitmotif not only provides us with the most compelling evidence of Kassay's referential shift (below), it also emphasises the Italian accent on associative and metaphorical subtext which has always been present in Kassay's practice.

Kounellis' long-term interest in installation and site-specificity, likewise a theme common to both artists, is compounded by an emphasis on metamorphosis and renewal, reminding us, perhaps, that Kassay's newest works form the apex of a gradual creative transformation.

Jacob Kassay's Arte Povera referents, Jannis Kounellis: Burlap and Beans, 1969

And finally, 'proto'-Povera artist Lucio Fontana's forcibly expressive disruptions of the monochrome's distanced froideur have been cited by Kassay himself with regard to his silver paintings: "I was just interested in gestures of absolute transformation of surface, like in Lucio Fontana, or work like that..."). Note 5

But knowing the complexity of Kassay's working methods and his delight in half-concealed nuance and word-play, there's probably more to Kassay's adoption of jute and its incontrovertible associations with 'Poor' art than immediately meets the eye.

It's tempting, in fact, to read the artist's latest endeavours as a wryly self-reflective commentary, a bemused yet challenging allusion to his own success and the works that brought him fame.

After all, the much-quoted description of his silver paintings as resembling "damaged luxury goods" turned out to be something of a prophesy, preempting not only their extraordinary appeal, but increasingly exclusive, highly-priced status.

As Jacob Kassay embraces the lowly and substitutes silver for sackcloth, it's easy to imagine he does so with a knowing smile. Challenging, as always, not only the assumptions of art history, but the expectations surrounding his own and others' practice.

Mike Brennan, January 2012


5 Another so-called proto-Arte Povera artist, Alberto Burri (whose 'found' platforms for painting share a material emphasis, if little else, with Robert Ryman) was one of the first artists to make prominent use of sackcloth, regularly using it as a support for painting, as a collage element, or simply mounted on a stretcher.

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