For artist Walead Beshty, a chair is not just a chair, and a desk, not just a desk—even if it belongs to gallery owner Friedrich Petzel. The artist recently organized an exhibition, “A Machinery for Living,” opening July 2 at Petzel’s Chelsea gallery, which hijacks the dealer’s desk out of his office and into the gallery’s 18th Street space.
With artworks that span the last hundred years, by artists as diverse as Liam Gillick, Franz West, Helen Pashgian, Josiah McElheny, Claire Fontaine, Lewis Baltz, Kelley Walker, Jan Groover, Lee Lozano, and Superstudio, Beshty has curated a show that’s at times conceptual and serious, at others visceral and quirky, and at once retrospective but forward-thinking.
In addition to commandeering Petzel’s desk (which will serve as a stand for mannequins clothed by Atelier EB) for the exhibition, the show is saturated with images from daily life, from clocks to clothes to cars, which now appear alien and absurd rather than familiar. By manipulating how we look at these objects, the artists in “A Machine for Living” create a new awareness of “the structure of the everyday,” as Beshty calls it—the underlying grids and systems our lives run on that mostly remain invisible to us.
Le Corbusier (the exhibition title riffs on a famous quote of his), Duchamp, and the Dadaists are obvious influences on the artists collected here, but the works look forward rather than back, obsessed with new technologies, machines replacing man, and the future as it eclipses the present. Below is a selection of the artworks from “A Machinery for Living” that transform the commonplace and mundane into the fabulous, futuristic, and fantastic.
This early work of Light and Space artist Craig Kauffman combines recurring themes from the exhibition, like commercial fashion, machine imagery, and the fetishism of everyday objects. Like the crazy-creepy machines of Duchamp and Picabia, Kauffman’s meditation on the female anatomy is zany and sensual. His painting In-Up scrutinizes a women’s bustier until it becomes bizarre and mechanical rather than seductive. A pioneer of sleek printed vinyl as a painting support, Kauffman is part of a large group California artists and technological innovators included by Beshty.
Dan Flavin’s untititled (monument for V. Tatlin) series riffs on the Russian Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin, whose utopian aim for a unity between art and technology is embraced here. Flavin’s 1967 fluorescent light sculpture will be used to illuminate a whole room of the show, throwing shadows and a chilly, electric glare over other works in the room by Raymond Pettibon, Stephen Prina, Barbara T. Smith, Josiah McElheny, Larry Johnson, and Henry Wessel Jr.
Beshty is curious how gallery-goers will react to a room lit only by Flavin’s cool radiance. “Whether people are drawn to the room or they ignore it because it looks dim, either way, they’re interacting with the work,” Beshty said. “The room might just look closed to people, and that would be fine too, but in perceiving the effect the work has on the space, one is experiencing the work as well.”
Barbara T. Smith is known primarily for her performance art during the early 1970s with artists like Nancy Buchanan and Chris Burden on the West Coast, but Beshty includes an earlier Xeroxed work by Smith in the exhibit. The 1965–66 Clocks—made with a color photocopier, a new technology for the time—breaks down a household clock into its component parts and spreads them on a field of glossy yellow. Part data visualization and part abstraction, Smith’s work deconstructs the common clock until nothing remains but the simplest shapes dissolving into flat color.
A group of noirish Raymond Pettibon drawings sits in another corner of the Flavin-lit room, their shadows and murkiness further obscured by the diffused light. Pettibon’s 1986 pen-and-ink No Title (Los Angeles spread) features two hardboiled detectives and dialogue that reads like the beginning of a Raymond Chandler story, “Los Angeles spread itself out before me. I used a gun to get in.”
The photography of Henry Wessel Jr. also paints the West Coast in a sinister, poetic light, with shadows swallowing up the California suburbs. Dramatic and sparse, these works revel in the beauty and danger of Los Angeles on a Night Walk.
Beshty, born and raised in London, has lived and worked in Los Angeles for the past decade. But it wasn’t physical proximity alone that attracted Beshty to the West Coast and its artists; Beshty saw it as a final frontier, a place and time that has so far been under-explored. “I think the West Coast narrative is less stable and a lot less entrenched than that of New York,” Beshty said. “This allows for more flexibility for how it can be seen and understood.”
Beshty found himself drawn to figures outside the art-world mainstream, artists with “more space to create a narrative around.” Beshty gravitated toward artists like Jay DeFeo, Helen Pashgian, and Barbara T. Smith when curating the show, postwar visionaries (many of them women) who have been partially forgotten or not given their fair due.
Work in the exhibition by DeFeo, a Beat-era artist based in San Francisco who is best known for her monumental painting “The Rose,” includes sculptures, jewelry, drawings, and photography. Her Untitled color photocopy from 1979 uses technology to reach the sublime, with the layers of Xeroxes merging hands, jewelry, and colored bands of light into an image that recalls robots as well as the Hamsa.
Christopher Williams, who has a retrospective at MoMA this summer, uses the structure of advertising and then turns it on its side—literally. Williams’s 2005 Brochure for Dacia 1300I creates a fake ad full of speed and glamour, evoking Futurism and the glory of Mad Men–era print ads through its abstracted and stylized sports car. But Williams distorts his grid by rotating it 90 degrees, revealing the design and conceptual thinking that goes into any advertisement.
Beshty searched far and wide in his interests, with an eye toward pieces that were outside the gallery world. The monokini, a topless swimsuit designed by Rudi Gernreich, is included through vintage advertisements. Shocking when they were created in 1964, Gernreich’s swimsuit designs became a cultural touchstone and started a conversation about how people could show their bodies in the ’60s; the swimsuits still turn heads today, and the conversation hasn’t ended.
Nathalie Du Pasquier, who recently collaborated with American Apparel on a textile-heavy clothing line, contributes a 2009 ink-on-paper work that looks at times like a sewing machine, at others like an architectural plan, but always reflects the Dada legacy that inspires it. It was this ambiguity in Du Pasquier’s art that interested Beshty. “They recall the diagram or architectural plans in their use of isometric drawing,” he said, “but are leaning into becoming still lifes, filled with ambiguous devices and machines.”
Dada artist Francis Picabia, perhaps an even more obvious predecessor than Duchamp, has the oldest work, a group of 1915 drawings from a 291 magazine. Diagrammatic, sinister, and self-referential, Picabia’s machines appear timeless, fitting seamlessly with works they have inspired over the past century.