Last week, when I looked at the first image ever made of a black hole — erroneously called a “photograph,” it is in fact a digital composition stitched together from the observations of eight telescopes — I could hardly make it out. The supermassive void at the heart of the Messier 87 galaxy is about as large as our solar system, with a mass outstripping the sun’s more than 6 billion times over, from which no light escapes. What the picture shows is the event horizon that surrounds it, an aureole of blazing fire; but the halo appears blurry and indistinct, and within seconds it had been repurposed for all manner of pathetic digital jokes. Try to capture the infinitude of space and this is what you get: a fall from grace, a descent from the heavens to earth.
Fathoming the unfathomable, bringing the planetary to human scale, is one of the occupations of Alicja Kwade, the Polish-German artist awarded this summer’s commission for the Cantor Roof Garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Precise, spare, elegant (sometimes to an interior-designer-pleasing fault), her sculpture makes use of optical tricks and careful positioning to evoke the instability, and the unknowability, of our place in the world.
The two large sculptures she is presenting here, weighty things made of painted steel and precious marble, suggests a system of planets brought down to Manhattan, afloat on the skyline. Simpler and starker than her earlier work, they constitute the strongest intervention on the Met roof since 2014, when Dan Graham — another artist engaged with the riddle of perception — installed a reflective pavilion up here.
Ms. Kwade, born in 1979, has won international attention in the last few years for her tricky, look-and-look-again sculptures making use of double-sided mirrors, carefully bent copper, and, in one case, a pair of nearly identical Nissan hatchbacks. At the Met, she has limited herself to a narrower palette. Each of the two sculptures consists of three or five rectangular frames of powder-coated black steel, positioned at various angles, soldered together at bottom and rising to staggered heights. On each of these steel armatures lie four or five spheres of colored marble, some sitting on the ground, others balanced on the top of a frame, and a few, bogglingly, suspended in midair.
The works are called “ParaPivot I” and “ParaPivot II,” and they stand independently in the center of the roof garden, inviting you to walk between them and to circumambulate them both. (Alas, you can’t walk inside the frames; though the Met has done what it can to calm the fire marshals, the museum has judged it too dangerous to let visitors get that close, especially with summer cocktails in hand.)
The steel armatures act as picture frames for the skylines of Fifth Avenue, Central Park West, and especially 59th Street — once a street no self-respecting plutocrat would live on, transformed these past few years by an explosion of ultrathin speculators’ condos. Viewed from one angle, the three rectangles of the smaller “ParaPivot II” become parentheses around the El Dorado apartment block on the Upper West Side. The rectangles of the larger “ParaPivot I,” especially while you’re looking south, chop Midtown into morsels of architectural appreciation or financial critique, depending on your view (politically and optically speaking).
Each of the nine spheres balancing on these frameworks — once thought to be the number of planets in our solar system, before Pluto got downgraded in 2006 — is quarried marble from different sites in Europe, Asia and South America. A milky white ball sitting on the floor comes from Carrara, Italy; a gray sphere perched atop one of the frames is sourced from India. There is a red sphere, made of Portuguese marble, that recalls gaseous Jupiter, and another with the bluish-white tinge of Uranus. Each weighs from half a ton up to a ton and a half, and Ms. Kwade doubles down on her planetary balancing act by squeezing two of the balls between pairs of frames. A sphere of green Masi quartzite from Finland, pinched and precipitous between two steel bars, has cloudy whorls of white and recalls the “Blue Marble” photograph of our planet taken in 1972.
These tricks of suspension, pulled off with supports hidden within the steel frames, are as close as Ms. Kwade gets here to the optical tricks that have enlivened but also constricted much of her previous sculpture. At the last Venice Biennale, in 2017, her work “WeltenLinie” showcased both stones and bronze replicas on either side of similar powder-coated steel frames; some frames were empty, while others supported mirrors. (This offered a certain sitcom amusement; you could see jet-lagged biennale visitors step back from the mirrors in confusion, having been certain nothing was there.)
At a concurrent show of her art now up at 303 Gallery, in Chelsea, a new sculpture comprises 11 boulders of different colors and shapes with mirrors interposed between them, so that from different angles the stones seem to become funky hybrids of concrete and sandstone, marble and crystal.
Works like these, I find, are more nifty than profound, and the material elegance of Ms. Kwade’s mirror sculptures — whose handsome stones will inspire anyone planning a six-figure kitchen renovation — can short-circuit the phenomenological complexity to which the artist lays claim. But at the Met, the simplicity of the two “ParaPivots,” and their flawless engagement with the skyline and Central Park, pulls off a much more compelling synthesis of sculpture, city and universe, which slide in and out of registration as you circle them. The frames act like quotation marks for the skyline, and the marble balls perhaps like exclamation points. Yet they also work as celestial signifiers, made of stone quarried from this planet but standing for others, maybe from this solar system, maybe from one millions of light-years away.
I found in Ms. Kwade’s two sculptures a model of how we can accept and admire the unfathomability of things, rather than lose their scale in the structures of modern society and the ceaseless flood of memes. To see the black hole breakthrough instantly inscribed into the stupidity of the social web — shrunk and grafted into cat GIFs and gross-out gags — was to realize how much our capacities for wonder, surprise and gratitude have shrunk since “Blue Marble” was published. Re-establishing those capacities is one urgent function of art, I’d say now, which Ms. Kwade has delivered with an astronomer’s precision and a sculptor’s beauty.
Alicja Kwade: ParaPivot
Through Oct. 27 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.
Alicja Kwade: ParaParticular
Through May 18 at 303 Gallery, 555 West 21st Street, Chelsea; 212-255-1121, 303gallery.com.
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