Reflections on the Significance of Glass Avant-Gardist Josiah McElheny's Elegant Art-Historical Vessels

Josiah McElheney's "Models for an abstract body (after Delaunay, Rodchenko, and Vialov)," 2012
(Photo © Kyle Chayka)

Josiah Mcelheny is a rarity among contemporary artists in that he makes work in a medium requiring an extraordinary level of technical skill, glassblowing, and that he seems to have retained his faith in the fundamental promise of modernism and its belief in art’s ability to lift the human spirit. His latest exhibition at Andrea Rosen gallery, one of a number of recent and upcoming showcases for the artist everywhere from London’s Whitechapel gallery to the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, puts this faith on display in a series of graceful, vase-like abstractions enclosed in austere vitrines (making up composite sculptures) that harken back to visual art's fundamental duty of representing the human body. 

Though the striated glass forms that are the focus of “Some thoughts about the abstract body” have a striking visual beauty on their own, it’s their titles that suggest the works are more than just pretty faces. “Models for an abstract body (after Fontana)” exhibits glass volumes with slashes cut through them while “Models for an abstract body (after McQueen)” reduces the fashion designer’s form-fitting corsets and sweeping dresses into minimialist icons. “Models for an abstract body (after Delaunay, Rodchenko, and Vialov)” similarly examines the Orphist and two Constructivists in transparent vases shot through with gray in a rectangular case. 

The effect could be satirical, but its strength is its subtlety. McElheny is a student and a scholar as much as an artist, as his numerous research-driven curatorial endeavors, like delving into the mind of writer Paul Scheerbart and organizing a Bard exhibition responding to Blinky Palermo, have shown, and these sculptures come across chiefly as case studies of how different artists chose to confront the body, how they idealized it and how they allowed its individuality to persist. For McElheny, abstraction has the power to universalize and empower; in viewing the vitrines, it’s hard not to come away with a heightened sense of space and a feeling for the specific outlines of your own shape, with its simultaneous structural similarity to that of every other human being. 

To transcend individuality while embracing its possibilities was the dream of modernist abstraction, and it’s a dream McElheny continues. My own first brush with art history as a teenager came through a book tracing the development of modernism, and the first work that got stuck in my head was Oskar Schlemmer’s 1932 “Bauhaus Stairway.” The perfectly geometrical forms of Bauhaus students floating up the staircase seemed to exist in perfect space, as crystalline and lucid as it was possible to be on canvas. In another series of works at the gallery, McElheny turns Schlemmer’s figures into instantly recognizable silhouettes cut out of sheets of glass and mounted directly on the wall. They are reflective enough that the viewer is caught inside them for an instant, an imperfect body inside a sublime one.

The four Schlemmer-derived wall sculptures, each with their own unique outline, are quietly ecstatic. They revel in their abstract perfection while informing us that we share in it. For those tired of contemporary art’s cynicism and the market and spectacle-driven antics that dominate the circus, McElheny’s exhibition is a welcome respite and a reiteration of what visual art could possibly mean, and has meant in the past, for its audience.

Josiah Mcelheny’s “Some thoughts about the abstract body” runs through June 30 at Andrea Rosen gallery. To see highlights from the exhibition, click on the slide show