Carol Bove: Between Art and Design

This article was first published online by Apollo Magazine on 23 Apr 2015

Carol Bove’s work is curious in that it seems to inhabit two worlds at once. Her careful arrangements of sculptures and found objects cry out to be interpreted as conceptual art. Yet, aesthetically speaking, the objects themselves have much in common with contemporary design.

Bove uses the same components again and again – small structures of brass cubes and concrete, driftwood bolted to I-beams, peacock feathers, hanging metal nets, giant ‘noodles’ of curling steel with a polished white finish. These, along with some original additions, are all involved in her latest exhibition, ‘The Plastic Unit’, which occupies five rooms at David Zwirner in London. Each of these objects has its own minimalist, tactile charm, but displaying them together in a gallery also poses the question of how they relate to one another.

At the show’s opening, Bove herself suggested there are two ways to approach her work: a ‘gestalt’ (or formal) approach, and a ‘psychedelic’ one. The latter she describes as ‘bridging the membrane into the subjective experience’ – or put more simply, ‘you can get lost in it’.

Carol Bove, I, quartz pyx, who fling muck beds (2015), Concrete and brass. © the artist, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London

The gallery space is crafted to suggest the interaction of objects. You’re invited to look through them at other objects, or past them into another room. Bove is a ventriloquist, using her components to assume different voices from visual culture – the ornamental, the industrial, bric-a-brac, the artefact – and contrasting them with each other. Her detached, almost scientific placement of the objects rather cleverly gives them the aura of a museum display, or a show room for cars or antiques.

Bove’s work implies that it is meaningful, and moreover can be imbued with all manner of meaning, but it never goes so far as to confirm or deny anything in particular. I suspect this relaxed ambiguity is a reason why Bove’s short career has been packed with impressive solo exhibitions. While her work acts as a lightning rod for the aggressive interpretations of an art world audience, it also makes no demand of the viewer who would rather read nothing between the lines, and merely enjoy the strange buzz of these objects-turned-artefacts or commodities. In other words, the conceptual part of Bove’s work is optional.

Carol Bove, detail from Mussel Shell (2014), Peacock feather, seashell, found steel object, concrete, and brass. © the artist, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London

This can be seen as part of Bove’s ongoing interest in context, for the obvious conclusion must be that conceptual depth stems purely from her work’s gallery setting. If Marcel Duchamp’s famous breakthrough was to show that anything placed in a gallery is art, Bove’s response is to show that contemporary art now depends on the gallery for its very existence.

What makes the dualism of Bove’s work all the more apparent is that her objects so easily slide into the category of interior design. That this is little commented on is perhaps a reflection of how deftly Bove uses the implications of the gallery space. Yet, her angular brass frames and knotted dark wood sculptures would look entirely at home in the window of Andrew Martin or the Conran Shop. This connection is made explicit by another exhibition currently taking place at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, which puts Bove alongside legendary architect and designer Carlo Scarpa. The aesthetic similarities are uncanny (though according to Bove, coincidental).

The traditional boundary between art and design is functionality. Designers like Carlo Scarpa, who shared Bove’s interest in the psychic life of objects and space, test that boundary. Bove does the same from the other side: with her knack for exposing the mechanics of interpretation and display, it is not unreasonable to think of her as a designer whose function is to provide contemporary art exhibitions.

Installation view from the 2015 solo exhibition ‘Carol Bove: The Plastic Unit’ at David Zwirner, London. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London
Carol Bove, Self Talk (2015), installation view from the 2015 solo exhibition ‘Carol Bove: The Plastic Unit’ at David Zwirner, London. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

The Abstract White Relief

This article was first published online by Apollo Magazine on Feb 10 2015

‘Abstract white relief’ is not an easy term to get your head around. It can sound highly technical, or positively poetic: three slight and airy words that threaten to float away like a balloon as soon as they are said. Yet this simple sensation of transcendence was precisely the intention of many of the artists who used abstraction and whiteness to transform the ancient medium of relief sculpture during the 20th century. They sought to turn an object in the physical world into a window through it.

A new exhibition at the Dominique Lévy Gallery in London charts the ghostly progress of the abstract white relief through the work of 18 different artists, from the 1930s to the ‘70s and beyond. The show is titled ‘Sotto Voce’, although there is not so much a voice in these works as a sort of visual static – impersonal, monotonous and often unsettling textures and rhythms, with the occasional burst of violence. And they are all white: one cold white artwork after another, set against walls of pigeon grey to amplify their subtle three-dimensionality.


Ben Nicholson, 1936 (white relief), (1936)
Ben Nicholson, 1936 (white relief), (1936)


You could, if you were so minded, construct a narrative here, and that would be more or less the narrative of 20th-century art. Two bookends present themselves. On one side is the earliest piece, Henri Laurens’s plaster relief Deux Femmes (1930): here we see the last refuge of the human figure en route to abstraction, its body spread into angular forms and its head, literally, effaced. On the other side, Mira Schendel’s Untitled (XII) from 1986: two white planes and a thin strip of black acrylic paint – all that remains of the relief is a shadow, an idea.

In between the two is a dense web of iconic gestures and interconnected artistic movements, so characteristic of modernism. After Laurens the human figure disappears from the exhibition. In the work of Jean Arp it is dispersed into an arrangement of vaguely organic shapes, like Cubist body parts spread on a table. The early reliefs of Ben Nicholson, on the other hand, replace nature altogether with circles, squares and rectangles.

Aesthetically speaking, the different approaches of Arp and Nicholson to the abstract white relief can be traced like parallel paths into the heart of the century. Arp’s curvaceous approach, still suggestive of life, can be felt in the Achromes of Piero Manzoni – tactile patterns made by the action of kaolin on canvas – or in the furtive curling of wire in Pol Bury’s Erectile (1959). The colder geometric lines of Nicholson can be traced to Günther Uecker’s prickly square of white nails (Untitled, 1967), or the angular monoliths of Sergio de Camargo.

Piero Manzoni, Achrome (1958)
Piero Manzoni, Achrome (1958)

But ‘Sotto Voce’ itself does not suggest any such narrative, nor does it privilege any great works. In fact, there is no information at all on the walls, no chronological order, and where there are two works by the same artist they are separated from each other. This is mischievous curation, since in many instances works from different generations, continents and artistic backgrounds appear similar enough to be mistaken for each other.

But paradoxically this lack of organisation reflects more honestly the history of the abstract white relief. The medium did not progress along simple lines of influence, but acted instead as a gravitational force that achieved critical mass in the middle of the century, attracting artists to the power and simplicity of this aesthetic gesture. Abstract white reliefs cropped up across Western Europe in avant-garde groups such as Nul and Group Zero, who cross-pollinated and formed an extended network with artists in North and South America, eventually laying the ground for Minimalism and, to an extent, Conceptualism.

Yet, it remains tempting to say that this exhibition has a centre, and that is the yawning abyss ofLucio Fontana’s slashed canvases from the seminal ‘Concetto spaziale’ series, made during the 1960s. Not only was Fontana’s stark new dimension symbolic of the movement away from the picture and towards the mental act, his accompanying discourse of ‘the void’ – which he spread personally across continents and generations – describes the appeal of the abstract white relief.

That was an appeal of escape, from the daunting questions of post-figurative art, and from the brutality of mid 20th-century history more generally. Its essence is vagueness and distilled optimism: Fontana spoke of man as ‘pure spirit’, and of a ‘philosophy of nothing’, which was, however, ‘a creative rather than a destructive nothing.’ This language makes itself broad enough to capture the anxiety of the contemporary zeitgeist, while simultaneously offering the sense of a blank state, a fresh start.

Whiteness and abstraction were tools for the ritual scrubbing away of a complicated and compromised physical world, leaving a medium whose raised, textured or punctured surfaces invited the consideration of something – anything – more pure beyond.