Marc Mayer

MICHEL VERJUX : LIGHT CONNECTION

After experimenting with various means of expression, Michel Verjux began to explore the sculptural effects of light in the early 1980s.  "It dawned on me that, after all, light is the most essential element in the visual arts. We can reduce our means no further. "Verjux's mature work began in earnest around 1987,  when he limited his practice to standardized arrangements of projected circles - and occasionally squares or rectangles -of intense white light.  It is for the circles, however,  that he is best known.  These are shown in a variety of ways, singly and flat against a wall, in pairs or in series, split in two or more parts, but always in response to a given architectural situation.

Verjux's practice is related to that of an older generation of French artists, notably Daniel Buren, François Morellet, Claude Rutault, and Niele Toroni.  Buren's signature stripes have been shown in every imaginable circumstance over the last three decades while,  for about as long, Toroni has covered all manner of surfaces with regularly spaced and identical brushmarks.  Besides a formal participation in the history of abstraction, Buren and Toroni's works have always been understood as a politically motivated renunciation of both craft and commodity.  Ironically,  although Verjux professes no such social agenda for his work, his interventions in a given setting place him even further away from direct evidence of skill, creativeness, or the production of goods.  His simple and deceptively banal arrangements exhibit more modesty and restraint than Buren, who is a prodigious inventor.  Verjux's projections are also more ephemeral and appear physically effortless compared to Toroni's, an artist who has produced a quantifiable and permanent record of his own labor.

And yet, despite what would appear as the more aloof attitude toward fulfilling his role as an artist, Verjux's approach is also more spectacular, even theatrical, given his materials.  In fact, if the art-historical point of his large projected circles may elude the average viewer, they are clearly intended to please, even enthrall, in precisely the manner that Buren, Morellet, Rutault, and Toroni - as well as several American artists of that generation and sensibility, Andre, Kawara, LeWitt, Sandback, Serra, and Weiner for example - resisted in their work.  As a further distinction, Verjux's projections are explicit in their attempt to inform the viewer.

Light Connection superimposes five projected circles from, or onto, two buildings of different period and style.  One is shown inside the museum during the day in an exhibition gallery devoted to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's famous collection of large New York School abstractions.  It fills the center of a long wall from floor to ceiling and surrounds the room's single, narrow window.  At night, two projections shine against the exterior of this same wall, the south facade of E. B. Green's Greek Revival building of 1905.  These lights are trained between the bottom of the wall and the cornice, and they are pushed right to the inside edge of either wall, overlapping pilasters that frame the long central colonnade.  Were one to see the interior projection shine through the colonnade, the three circles that affect this building would appear evenly distributed across the whole facade, one circle width apart.

Another pair of projections illuminate the "black box" auditorium that crowns Gordon Bunshaft's 1962 addition.  They are placed at the center and shine outward from the east and west glass walls.  The curtains normally kept drawn in this space are gathered to one side of either projection while the other side is open, affording the passerby the rare chance to see the room from the outside.  We can thereby admire its volume and its interior details of ceiling, stage, piers, and curtains from a new vantage point.

Taken together and experienced over time, as one does architecture, the five elements ofLight Connection expose hidden differences and similarities between the two buildings.  Verjux has taken the opportunity presented by the architectural specificity of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery to reiterate the antagonistic relationship between historicism and "International Style" modernism, exposing differences that go beyond aesthetics and delve into the practical concerns that affect architectural form.  But, Verjux also reveals a paradoxical affinity between traditional opponents.  A result of Gordon Bunshaft's tactful aesthetic, this affinity was won - as Verjux also shows _ at the cost of an occasional stylistic conceit or physical inconsistency.

While contemplating this work, we might be led to appreciate the complementarity of scale from the older Greek temple to the newer building.  We may even notice that a single stilobate or base is shared by both structures and that the rhythm of mullions in the black glass box echoes the regularity of the Ionic columns opposite.  We might be reminded that, unlike churches, Greek temples were sanctuaries where the faithful worshipped outside, which accounts for the scarcity of windows in strict imitations of the style.  On the other hand, Verjux shows that the modern building, with its great transparent glass walls, visually opens the interior to the exterior space, making the difference between them ambiguous.  Whereas only a fraction of the light that fills the middle of the wall inside the 1905 gallery can escape through its narrow window, the same arrangement in the modern building results in large white circles visible from both sides.  Indeed, these projections permit one to see right through this room, where two bright circles appear to overlap and to cross each other as we move past the building.

Strangely, despite its rigorous symmetry, its uniformity, and its consistent use of circular lighting fixtures, it is the modern building that gave Verjux's equally rigorous geometry the most difficulty.  The interior proportions of the auditorium are not exactly echoed in its exterior.  The ceiling is two feet lower, notably to accommodate Bunshaft's signature lighting grid of recessed "cans."  Consequently, it is not possible to fill two central bays with one circle of light and show how they form a square.  The projections are slightly smaller and lower than the ideal response to Bunshaft's geometry.  Ironically, the glass wall is left with an imaginary frieze to match the real frieze of the Greek temple.

Although Verjux's superimposed geometry was also a test of E. B. Green's sense of proportion and consistency, the classical building fares perfectly.  Even though Verjux scarcely acknowledges its surface details, the volumes of Green's building are compositionally sound and accommodate the projections without compromise.

Light Connection facilitates one more polemical volley from one style to the next.  If, unlike historicism, modernism in architecture is more concerned with function and rationality than with aesthetics, why then would an auditorium need to be surrounded by windows, especially here with all the arresting views of Frederick Law Olmsted's Delaware Park?  It forces this building to take the concept of a curtain wall literally.

Nevertheless, such negligible incongruities do not long distract from the beauty of Gordon Bunshaft's auditorium, refreshed by Michel Verjux.  Because of its materials and shape, this modern building is, stylistically, the more appropriate support for an intervention such as this and is easily the more dramatic.  The black box has become a lighthouse.

Michel Verjux is a surprising artist.  He has chosen an unusual artistic path by continuing the idiom of an earlier generation, just when it seems to have waned.  Unlike what one would expect from a second- or third-generation minimalist, however, Verjux's approach moves the logic of reductivist abstraction along without irony, without duplicating the accomplishments of others, and without betraying the sensibility's ideals:  fidelity to the integrity of materials, to the essentials of a given medium, and to a spatial context.  Despite the rigorous modernist logic of his form, he brings an encouraging pragmatism to its deployment.  Most importantly, the history of abstraction is pursued in Verjux's lucid work without suffering extinction.  On the contrary.
 
Marc Mayer
Curator
Albright-Knox Art Gallery

"In conversation with the author, December 1996"

 

 

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