Surface Surfeit: Ingrid Calame Traces the World


Since 1996, Ingrid Calame has been tracing things that generally go unnoticed — paint blobs on studio floors, sidewalk splatters, rusted industrial signs — and translating them into paintings and wall drawings. In recent interviews, she has said, “When I started this, the idea was that the whole surface of the world is a potential drawing,” while she has also noted that “my paintings and drawings are not maps at all, but the project itself has to do with a cartographic desire to know the world.”

This brings to mind philosopher Alfred Korzybski’s premise, “A map is not the territory it represents,” and Jorge Luis Borges’s related vision, “In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters.”

These concepts chime with Calame’s enveloping wall drawing of skid marks, which she and a team of assistants traced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Calame employs an ancient technique: pricking holes along her traced lines and then tapping them with pouches filled with powdered pigment in order to transfer the tracings to the wall, similar to the way Renaissance artists prepared frescoes.) From the center of the gallery, Calame’s four-wall composition has the impact of an all-over action painting, while details viewed up close reveal the painstaking application process. Here are lines repeated in both red and purple, the guide paper having shifted between the laying down of different hues, lending a colorful vibration to one contour.

When making her 1:1 scale tracings, Calame uses touch as much as sight to follow the bumpy, uneven markings of her chosen surface, giving the final murals a visceral physicality very different from a topographic map. In a video on the gallery’s website, Calame notes that the marks at the speedway are “kind of a celebration of life and death. It’s more like the gladiator ring where people pay to watch people drive really fast and crash. . . . It’s a dramatization of mortality.” In the gallery, long trails of marks — palimpsests of velocity — slash upward and end abruptly at the ceiling, perhaps ghostly relics of sudden impacts.

As in Warhol’s paintings of car crashes, Calame’s imagery works not simply on a documentary level but transmigrates formal rigor into emotional radiance. Even for a viewer unaware that these shapes and designs derived from burned rubber, the jagged geometries and bits of signage painted onto the Speedway’s grooved asphalt would imply both human organization and the inexorable breakdown of systems over time. Like James Rosenquist’s mural F-111 (1965), which wrapped completely around a gallery and depicted images ranging from a smiling child to a mushroom cloud, Calame’s vivid arena contains both exhilaration and entropy.

Ingrid Calame: ‘Tracks,’ James Cohan Gallery, January – February, 2014

The long process of canonization — choosing the artworks found in museums and art-history books — often begins with a dealer somewhere taking a shot on an emerging artist. Ileana Sonnabend (1914–2007) had a keener eye than most, once saying, “I like what I at first do not understand.”

MOMA’s exhibition of works that passed through Sonnabend’s Paris and New York galleries offers a hit parade of postwar heavyweights — Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Bruce Nauman, Jeff Koons — and some lesser known masters such as David Haxton, whose 1975 video Overlapping Planes creates, through negative film, gorgeously irradiated shadow play.

Sonnabend gave Andy Warhol his first European solo show, though a 10-foot-tall masterpiece from the beginning of the powerful “Disaster” series was too big to fit into the gallery. On view here, 1947 White (1963) features a Life magazine photo, screen-printed 17 times, of a young woman who had leapt from the Empire State Building and landed atop a car. Her face appears shockingly serene, as if floating in a gentle pond rather than amid sinuous curves of caved-in metal. Warhol, the church-going Catholic, comes across in a statement he once made about his catastrophe canvases: “It’s not that I feel sorry for them, it’s just that people go by and it doesn’t really matter to them that someone unknown was killed. So I thought it would be nice for these unknown people to be remembered by those who ordinarily wouldn’t think of them.”

A cheerier empathy emanates from Robert Rauschenberg’s sublime 1959 Combine painting Canyon, which Sonnabend presciently purchased for herself even while there was substantial controversy over the Texas-born artist’s talent; that same year, Hilton Kramer assailed the Combines’ “breakdown in standards” and Rauschenberg’s “window decorator sensibility.” Yet Sonnabend’s European eye saw in the work’s enigmatic force something profoundly American — a celebration of the everyday in such secondhand detritus as a flattened steel drum, a tattered stuffed eagle, frayed fabrics, “and whatever the day would lay out,” as Rauschenberg once put it. There is also, through a cinched pillow recalling uplifted buttocks, a taboo-challenging intimation of homosexual desire that further outraged Eisenhower-era prudery.

Canyon gets at the conundrum of a museum show that might be seen as shilling for a gallery that is still in business. When Sonnabend died, the piece was deemed unsalable because it featured a federally protected species, that pesky eagle. And so, after jousting with the Internal Revenue Service, her family made a gift of it to MOMA.

Just the way Sonnabend liked her art — complicated, and way more than skin deep.

‘Ilena Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New,’ Museum of Modern Art, December 21, 2013–April 21, 2014

The ad in Artforum asked readers to make art on the blank page and send it to the gallery, which would hang all comers. The results are ranged five-deep on the walls, and include some known names — Betty Tompkins, B. Wurtz — among folks you’ve never heard of, but maybe will, someday. We missed the deadline, but happily paste these words upon page 179 of the mind: Democracy / Fluxus / Opportunity / Chance / Bravo.