It took an October walk through the Phillips Collection with the artist to convince Phillips Collection Director Dorothy Kosinski that she could spare room for a new permanent installation. Like many small, private museums, the Phillips Collection is landlocked and land-hungry, so every inch counts. But Kosinski decided that Wolfgang Laib’s work merited carving out some space.
Sometime early next year, the Phillips will unveil what is billed as the first permanently installed wax room in an art museum. Created by an artist who has merged minimalist ideas with a deep reverence for nature and an idiosyncratic sense of ritual, Laib’s wax rooms are small, womblike places, covered in beeswax and lit by a single light bulb. They are meant to be earthy and quiet, redolent of organic material yet meditative and enclosing. Other museums have wax rooms made from panels that can be put up or stored away. But Kosinski has invited Laib to apply his wax directly to the walls of the Phillips.
“It is painful, the paucity of real estate for our collection,” says Kosinski, who says she was skeptical at first. “The last thing I want to do is pin down our small space with something permanent and site-specific.”
But as she explored the Phillips galleries with Laib, she became convinced that, like the 1960 Rothko room and the installation of a specially commissioned Ellsworth Kelly sculpture in the museum’s courtyard in 2006, the wax room should become a permanent feature. It was Laib’s sensitivity to the Phillips collection and its purpose, the complicated but obvious affinity between his work and Rothko, and her desire to keep the Phillips “in dialogue with living artists” that convinced her.
Laib, born in 1950, was trained as a physician but turned to art out of a sense of frustration with the limited nurturing power of medical science. Among his most celebrated and disseminated works are the “milkstones,” marble slabs with a subtly carved depression into which milk is poured. The shimmering of white liquid over the solidity of white marble is only part of their appeal; also in play are the contrast between organic and inorganic, the symbolic juxtaposition of life-giving milk with the intransigence of a stone associated with mausoleums, the eternal recurrence of milk with the blunt permanence of stone. The milkstones instigate ritual, with the daily necessity of pouring out the milk and cleaning it up afterward.
For an artist who lives mostly isolated from the world in rural Germany, who collects his own pollen to create signature pollen pieces, who favors Eastern ideas along with a typically German nostalgia for the pre-industrial, the ritual aspect of Laib’s work has had a curious afterlife: You can watch it on YouTube.
Kosinski hopes the new wax room, which will be installed in what is now a storage space on the second floor of the original Phillips house, will be open in time to coincide with the installation of a pollen piece at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in early 2013. Billed as the largest yet of Laib’s pollen pieces, “Pollen From Hazelnut” will display almost 400 square feet of brilliant yellow hazelnut pollen, hand collected by Laib in fields near his home in southern Germany, carefully sprinkled onto the floor of the museum’s main atrium.
For Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, Laib’s pollen piece has the possibility of transforming MoMA’s busy atrium, a marquee space that is a crossroads of the urban art world, “into a place of silence, contemplation and nature.” The pollen itself is “actually the work of art, it is not just the medium with which he makes the work of art.”
“For Duchamp, it was the bicycle wheel; for Laib, it is the jar of pollen,” says Temkin.
The pollen pieces, made of natural materials yet so richly colored they can seem preternatural or artificial in their intensity, have a painterly quality that recalls the washes of color in works by Mark Rothko. The labor-intensive collection of pollen changes the dynamic between the artist and his materials, infusing the latter with a quasi-magical hunter-gatherer richness that stands apart from the capitalistic speculation of the art world. The artist’s work isn’t transforming material into art but gathering material and deploying it in a ritualistic way. It not only complicates the meaning of a work’s value or cost, and what it means to collect it, but the definition of the work itself: Is it the pollen, its display on the floor, or the prehistory of the work, done by the artist out of doors, invisible to the urban art consumer?
“Part of the beauty of his art is the performative aspect,” says Kosinski. “It is not a big, loud, quick action, it’s a thoughtful, meditative process.”
Laib’s work was the subject of a 2000-01 retrospective exhibition that originated at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, organized by Klaus Ottmann, now curator at large at the Phillips, and a scholarly proponent of Laib’s work.
The Phillips will use money donated in memory of a recent trustee, Caroline Macomber, who died in January, money from its acquisitions budget and future funds yet to be raised. The room will accommodate one or two people at a time, and there is a plan to include a door so it can be closed off during social functions.