Jonathan Borofsky's insistent, moving statues -- implacable as metronomes -- shake their creaking limbs, as if combating sleep. Often they appear where one least expects them -- peeping in through windows or bursting through partition walls or peering down through skylights at the littered floor below. Disobeying gravity, they sometimes float in air. They moan, they sing, they chatter, they will not let you be. The artist's 12-year retrospective, which goes on view today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is symbol-ridden, rushed, fantastical, obsessive. But then so are his dreams.
No exhibit so willful and exuberant has been seen in Washington in years.
If you've ever kept a dream book, recording on awakening the few bits you remember -- that shadowed face, those floating leaps -- you know that bits are not enough. Fragmentation drains them. Torn from the dream fabric, they wither in full light. In dreams, as in Borofsky's art, continuum is all.
If you see his art in snippets, you will not like it much. Group shows do him damage. Not so very long ago one of his odd objects, a canvas coarsely sheathed in bubble-wrap and duct tape, as if it were about to be carried out the door, was included in a survey exhibition at the Hirshhorn, where it threw a sort of tantrum. Leaned against the wall there, howling for attention, it seemed yet another self-indulgent eye-abusing New York art world stunt.
At the Corcoran, however -- where all is topsy-turvy and the thought of art-as-merchandise is happily attacked -- that same wrapped-up canvas seems almost viewer-friendly. It looked ugly at the Hirshhorn. Here it's nearly sweet.
Joyful chaos rules Borofsky's retrospective. This traveling exhibit is as messy as a kid's room. Paintings tilt at angles. The TV set is blaring. Scribbles, notes and drawings, like sheets of half-done homework, have been pushpinned to the walls. The sign that has been posted above the Ping-Pong table says "Feel Free to Play."
Though Borofsky is, at 42, a big-time New York art star, he has never left his childhood. When it serves his purposes, as it often does, he still draws like a kid. Those reclining "Ls" are robbers' pistols; those circles serve as heads. The oldest painting shown was made when he was 8, and it fits right in. His Corcoran exhibit is in many ways juvenile, obstinate, tear-stained and endearing. Again, so are his dreams.
While other artist-entertainers -- a Saul Steinberg, a Red Grooms -- gleefully report on the busy world around them, Borofsky's view is inward. His exhibit, start to finish, is a sort of a self-portrait. Recurring figures fill it. Some are flattened, others fly. A few wear asses' ears. His "Hammering Men" hammer (they are 14 1/2 feet high and tireless as John Henry), his "Molecule Men" are full of holes, his "Man with a Briefcase" dresses for the office. All these men are him.
Much like the Surrealists, Borofsky ransacks dreams. Some of them are Freudian ("I dreamed I asked my father what the matter was and he said his tooth was bleeding"). Some are strange adventures ("I dreamed some Hitler-type person was not allowing everyone to roller skate in public places. I decided to assassinate him . . . "). Some are dreams of childhood. In "Dream #1," a six-panel painting in which a little boy observes gang war in the streets, nobody gets hurt except Buddy Rifkin, who gets it in the neck. Above Rifkin's bleeding figure, Borofsky adds a note: "Buddy Rifkin was such a 'good' boy -- maybe even better than me -- especially in High School -- he won the election." One small drawing here is titled "I Dreamed I was Taller than Picasso." Some are dreams of pride.
"When I say I dreamed these dreams, I did," he says. One might dislike his wildness, the chaos of his hangings or what often seems the crudeness of his painting and his drawing. But one never doubts his honesty. His art is disobedient: It spills out of its frames, it crawls up into corners. But it does not lie.
How does one lasso one's dreams without strangling them with reason?
At 8 he painted still lifes of bananas upon tables. At 18 he was making welded-steel forms. In graduate school, at Yale, he made odd, cast-plaster sculptures. "I was always on my own path. I thought the teachers were there to ask, 'What the hell are you doing, Borofsky?' But I was working night and day."
He was 24 years old when he moved into Manhattan. Though Minimalism was then in vogue, Borofsky was no Minimalist. Ideas teemed in his brain, thoughts rushed through his mind. He might have turned to fight them, but he found another way. Refusing to attack them, he let them chatter-chatter-chatter. In 1969 -- as an exercise, a mantra, a kind of work-in-progress -- he began to count.
He started writing numbers. He began at the beginning -- 1,2,3,4 -- and he did not stop.
"For the first couple of years," he writes, "I stuck to graph paper and BiC pens. I counted either on one side of a piece of paper or on both sides. I also wanted to take my counting in both directions, so I started writing minus 1, minus 2, minus 3 and so on. I only got up to about minus 10,000, and stopped and then went back to the original forward counting . . . I was using the mind, more or less, as a device to exercise daily. It was the clearest, cleanest, most direct exercise that I could do that still had a mind-to-hand-to-pencil-to-paper event occurring. It was very linear and very conceptual. There was no intuition involved, and everything was planned out ahead of time. All I had to do was get up the next day, pick up my pencil, see what number was on and continue."
At last he reached 1 million. But he did not stop. The resulting piece is in his exhibition. Called "Counting from 1 to Infinity, from 1969," it is a stack of sheets of paper, now more than four feet high. One can only read the top sheet. It ends 2941492, 2941493, 2941494. There are lots and lots of numbers in Borofsky's show.
"In 1971, after counting for a couple of years (and doing nothing else), I had the occasional need to scribble on the same sheet of paper as the counting. It was like taking a break. The counting had become a break from my thought process, and scribbling now became a break from the counting."
He had gone the way of emptiness and had come out at the other end. First scribbles, then stick figures, then stick figures doing things, then paintings, sculptures, wall-sized works began arriving freshly in Borofsky's art.
Somehow he embraced them all. The onward rush continued. If he thought about Cambodia, the arms race or Steve Biko, then Biko and Cambodians would appear in his art.
His art, by now, had left the page. It left the canvas to jut out into space or crawl up the wall. Borofsky soon was signing his paintings and his drawings, his sculptures and his wall-works with numbers, not with words. His "Dream #1" is signed 1,944,821. "I dreamed I asked my father what the matter was . . . " is signed 2189449. His talking "Chattering Man" sculpture ("basically it says, 'chatter-chatter-chatter' ") is inscribed 2942774. His work, by now, is open to anything that comes to mind. And the count goes on.
The first object one encounters here (it stands in the Rotunda) is an 11-foot-high figure. Its head is Emmett Kelly's, its legs a ballet dancer's, it is part male and part female, part ecstatic and part sad. It's called "Dancing Clown at 2,845,325." It sings "I Did It My Way." Everything about it -- its willingness to clown around, its hogging of the spotlight, its suffering eyes, its carefree dance -- is connected to the spirt of Borofsky's show.
He is a prisoner who's freed himself. His newest work, a TV tape, stars prisoners less fortunate. Borofsky taped its interviews at San Quentin and at other California prisons. The questions that he asked them -- "How did you come to be like this?" "How did you end up here?" -- are those he asks himself.
And those he asks the rest of us. "Only by throwing out my dreams will I get yours," he says.
Borofsky sometimes draws with astonishing precision, but his art is far more often oddly goofy-crude. "It might look simplistic, but then I am simplistic," Borofsky will admit. His work is often childlike, unguarded, unconstrained. And it risks derisive laughter. But still you have to give him this: His touring retrospective makes those of other artists seem timid, tamed, unfree.
The show was organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with the Whitney Museum of American Art. At the Corcoran it costs $1.50 to get into it, though for that amount you also get to see Richard Avedon's western photographs. It closes Feb. 2.