Steve Wolfe’s best-known works nod to painting, in that many of them sit on the wall, and to sculpture, in that they’re three-dimensional objects, which you might think either solid or hollow except that as exacting trompe l’oeil copies of classic books they imply that sealed inside them are composite, flexible physical structures and infinite worlds of verbal content. As artworks, of course, they’re strictly do not touch, and once you understand what each one is—not a much-thumbed copy of a favorite art book or novel but its simulacrum, dog ears, grime, and all, painstakingly modeled in materials like metal and wood, and printed, painted, and drawn in oils and inks—you may actually pull away a little, not wanting to fingerprint or even breathe on so careful a surface. The result is a simultaneous push/pull between the attraction of something apparently used and loved, something emitting the illusion of having fascinated, and the realization that handling this object would probably damage it and that in any case, since it’s not a book but a mute polyhedron, it won’t respond as a book will to touch. Indeed, far from opening a world to its “reader,” it cannot be opened in even the literal sense.
The Whitney’s recent exhibition “Steve Wolfe on Paper” broke from this type in that most of its works were drawings, and therefore flat. Since their titles usually involved the phrase “study for”—as in Untitled (Study for Nine Stories), 1992, for example, a picture of J. D. Salinger’s famous story collection of 1953—one often assumed that they had been preparations for sculptural works, except that a few of them enigmatically showed both the front and back covers of their chosen volumes, which would be a lot of trouble for Wolfe to have gone to if he planned to mount the finished object with its back to the wall. (One is reminded of Erich von Stroheim’s insistence that the actors in some of his films wear period underwear, in invisible support of their authenticity.) These works, though—and in fact the drawings generally,
framed and conventionally hung—had the effect of reinforcing the role of the book covers as images. The rendering was as precise as in the objects, so that it was often almost believable that a cover had been deftly detached from its source, matted, and framed; yet overall the defining quality of Wolfe’s work, the impression of something absolutely real, fell away a little. The interesting thing was that this didn’t feel like a loss. Rather, the replacement of one visual discourse with another—of the discourse of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, say, or of Jasper Johns’s ale cans (which, however, are marked as art by their pedestal-like base), with the older and more entrenched habits of examining pictures on a gallery wall—complexified one’s sense of what Wolfe was doing. The strange, psychic push/pull of the objects was more strikingly complemented by the visual push/pull of advance and recession in a flat surface, and so by a placement within a long pictorial and intellectual tradition.
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