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“Wolfgang Laib:

A Retrospective”

At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to Jan. 22

Anybody who writes about art invests no small faith in the power of words to assist visual perception. I became an aesthetic middleman because other writers’ verbal going-between had improved my viewing life. I saw things I wouldn’t have seen, thought things I wouldn’t have thought. My reading altered my looking for the better.

But there are times when a critic should step back—for a while, at least—and let art be. The experience of certain works leads writers to understand that our presence isn’t required. If you haven’t yet seen the Hirshhorn’s Wolfgang Laib show and if, better still, you know little about him, perhaps having only seen his effulgent fields of pollen and placid, marmoreal milkstones (slightly hollowed slabs of rock capped by a layer of milk restrained at the edges by surface tension) dimly reflected in magazine illustrations, you owe it to yourself—and to him—to make your first tour an unguided one.

If you’re like me, your experience will be astonishingly direct, so intense that afterward you’re temporarily spoiled for other things. Even if you don’t know that Laib and his curators posit his work as ahistorical, lying outside contemporary trends, you’ll probably find yourself too immediately possessed by the sight of it to play the usual game of connect-the-dots. But not only by the sight of it. There’s also the sweet, organic smell of it, as particles of the beeswax that panels his towering ziggurats and lines his bare-bulb-lit, one-person chamber invisibly cloud the air. And the sound of it—which is silence. Much visual art is soundless, but Laib’s sculptures seem to exude quiet.

Alas, you don’t get to taste Laib’s art, and you don’t get to touch it. Notwithstanding ’90s talk of hapticity, you rarely get to touch anything. You just have to accept noli me tangere as one of the penalties of civilized sharing. Ideally, however, you shouldn’t feel as though you’re sharing a Laib with anyone. As befits objects that inspire meditative states, all communication in the Laib show is between beholder and beheld, not among beholders. The times I had to leave the wax-lined room of Somewhere Else—La Chambre des certitudes to allow in other viewers, both of whom lacked the time or the inclination to immerse themselves in the piece for more than a few moments, I was a little sore about it. Removing yourself as an obstacle between viewers and an artwork in no way guarantees that they’ll get out of it what you did.

What you should carry away (yes, now I’m getting in the way again) is a warm, pure aura of the spiritual, unparalleled in contemporary art—an apprehension of transcendence that fully squelches the noise of the everyday. Laib’s best work is uncluttered by heroism, striving, and hubris—or even by symbol, incident, and narrative. The latter qualities start to creep back into his oil-pastel-and-pencil drawings and into such work as You Will Go Somewhere Else, whose beeswax-covered boat forms stretch the length of a gallery, elevated on a wooden frame, as well as into the rice houses, which are either long, low forms of marble or wood-framed metal surrounded by small heaps of rice and sometimes pollen, or small wooden structures that encase the now-invisible grain and are themselves enrobed in various hues of sealing wax, each of which could be said to be blood-colored. But all partake of a welcoming otherness, material but not worldly.

Being exquisitely unfreighted, Laib’s is an ungodded spirituality, one which requires no obeisance. There is, however, humility in his labors. His work is designed to require care. Laib spends months collecting pollen of various species of plants around his home near Biberach, in southern Germany; when making a pollen piece, he must spend several hours sifting the fine powder onto the gallery floor, and when the show is complete, he must brush the pollen into a heap and resift it to remove any dust that has contaminated it. Laib’s milkstones, which he insists on carving himself, must be cleaned every evening and repoured every morning; when his ziggurats are moved and reinstalled, he has to rejoin their beeswax treads into continuous strips with a household iron. Laib’s process recalls ritual offering, but there is no clear recipient of his gestures—unless you consider that supplicant and recipient are one.

Laib’s physical and mental exertions may hover conceptually behind his art, but they don’t insert themselves into the experience of it. The effect of the pollen pieces derives from the direct communication of their materials rather than from the idea of labor. Similarly, even though nature provides Laib with his materials, it doesn’t linger as his subject. Thoughts of thronged flowers and bees coexist uneasily with his yellow squares and amber rectangles, which distill from nature the supernatural. The blooming, buzzing confusion of life has been removed from nature’s products, while their essential vitality has been maintained.

You may find yourself pursuing a deliberately altered visual experience of Laib—an extravisual one, even. Once acclimated to the shape of the space around me, I preferred to position myself in the middle of Somewhere Else—La Chambre des certitudes with my eyes shut, breathing in its scent, feeling its walls holding me in place. Standing before the large, roughly square Pollen From Hazelnut, I examined the frozen clouds of its wispy edges, then removed my glasses, so I could gaze into its bright blur. Then, again, I shut my eyes—and felt yellowness on my cheeks and eyelids.

Laib doesn’t come by his supernal yes without saying no to many of the things of this world. He has lived in a house and maintained a studio devoid of furniture. He has long been a vegetarian. And at his most uncharacteristically crabbed and renunciatory, he has denounced the stupidity of television sex and violence. He follows the careers of other artists, but he lives largely out of step with Western modernity, preferring the Eastern modes that he has investigated since he was a boy.

Laib has immersed himself in the natural cycles of birth, death (which is soft-pedaled, appearing chiefly in his most overtly referential works, the sculptures involving boat and house forms), and rebirth. He has honored circular time by crafting an oeuvre to which chronology and history must appear as absurdities, with new works recapitulating forms introduced years earlier. Yet his sculptures represent interruptions of nature’s flow, hinging as they do on displacements of natural substances. They are known for their “purity” in part because they desexualize and de-nature: Pollen is no longer passed from stamen to pistil; milk doesn’t flow from mother to child; rice doesn’t serve as food but is housed in wood and wax, neither of which serves its original purpose. Materials are made less animal, less vegetable, more mineral, more precious.

Rather than traducing nature, Laib elevates it, with us, to a spiritual plane. Laib’s transubstantiation of the stuff of nature calls to mind the manipulation of another organic substance obtained with great effort: diamond. Mined and cut, its fragments are recontextualized not by a museum’s galleries but by a jeweler’s velvet square.

They may be stones, but we see stars.CP