art review

Big Little Things

Sarah Sze’s interstitial worlds take over the Guggenheim.

“Sarah Sze: Timelapse” is open until September 10 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York
“Sarah Sze: Timelapse” is open until September 10 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

It’s always wondrous when an artist is allowed to play with the idiosyncrasies of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, a spaceship laboratory whose interior is all spiraling ramps, sloping floors, and secret stairwells, topped with a Cyclops-like oculus. It is also a huge void, an empty vessel for filling with meaning and looking inside ourselves. In 2002, Matthew Barney scaled its parapets dressed in a tartan kilt. In 2013, James Turrell turned it into a chapel where viewers peered up at spectral colors that echoed the northern lights. Now, using only a fraction of the building, Sarah Sze has given its swooping white curves something like a consciousness.

Sze, a 54-year-old winner of the MacArthur “genius” grant, has taken over the top floor of the museum with large-scale paintings adorned with torn printouts and photographs, which stand alongside ephemeral sculptures composed of bamboo sticks, stainless steel, Morton’s salt canisters, cardboard boxes, potted plants, electric fans, thread, and quite likely a thousand other materials. These strange accretions look like termite mounds climbing the walls or the guts of an exploded hardware store. Sze also projects images on the façade of Wright’s grand encircling vision on Fifth Avenue, while a hanging installation is poised over the fountain on the ground floor and a separate piece from the Guggenheim’s collection, Timekeeper, occupies the uppermost gallery off the top floor. Together, these elements are a single organism that crawls over the building’s exterior and into its crevices.

Timelapse,” as the exhibition is called, contains the seeds of Sze’s earlier work. One day, when she was a graduate student at the School of Visual Arts in 1996 (and I was her adviser), an abandoned studio space near the elevators started filling up with wee things, as if gremlins had been working there overnight. It turned into a ramshackle network of miniature minarets, turrets, and bridges, replete with toilet-paper shapes made with her saliva, carved-soap figures, and what looked like paving stones made of saltine crackers. She was like a new breed of bowerbird. Two years later, just steps from the Brandenburg Gate, in the cold, abandoned studio of Albert Speer, she made a beautiful tower of found objects that rose like a beanstalk from the floor up through a small skylight. It felt like history was trying to escape this building’s gravity.

“Sarah Sze: Timelapse,” March 31–September 10, 2023, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Sze has talked about using mass-produced items “with little individual identity” to create larger systems that change the experience of a room or building. This is what happens at the Guggenheim. She has a great feel for the micro, making her objects act in conjunction like shoals of fish. So instead of sticks and stepladders and desk lamps, we see cities, civilizations, whole eco- and solar systems; instead of a museum, we are inside and part of a whirring machine that is ceaselessly making and remaking.

Inside, “Timelapse” begins on the ground floor with a hammocklike form suspended over the pool, its blue threads seemingly plucked from some celestial loom. You then ascend the spiral, through an excellent Gego retrospective occupying the museum’s first five floors, almost forgetting the ethereal loom thing at the bottom, before you reach the sixth floor and encounter another one. On it are torn photos of a sun in the sky and chips of paint. The cord that suspends this hammock connects to a network of cords, one of which extends all the way across the oculus, then drops into the barrel of the Guggenheim void, at the end of which is a gently blowing pendulum hanging directly over the first hammock-loom. Sze casts these sorts of internal spells easily and often.

The cords similarly connect the series of bays that run along the sixth floor, each of which is host to Sze’s vertiginous paintings and teeming sculptures. Each bay is also full of projectors transposing an array of images on the walls and the floor but are also embedded into the sculptures themselves, perched on the steps of ladders and tucked under fronds, casting moving images onto scraps of paper that act as tiny screens. Hands doing card tricks, lightning flashes, flocks of birds, a chimney falling, a sleeping girl, and a sleeping man — the images can change but are also repeated, as if they form some secret lexicon. The show flows from material to digital and back again. In one bay, projectors beam their light into a kind of spherical bird’s nest that has been cracked open and filled with dangling paper screens — a planet revealing its luminous innards.

The paintings are abundant wellsprings. In one bay, there is a painting that from a distance looks abstract, a hallucinogenic, juddering swirl, but up close it turns out to be mostly collage. There is a picture of a young girl asleep. Near her are ten Muybridge images of a horse running. Scattered around are images of hands forming clay, a falcon, a line being drawn, fire burning a hole into paper, and several Hiroshige landscapes. All these ideas of permutation and change. In front of the painting, there’s a kind of Japanese sculptural garden of plants and sticks and other things. I put my face on the floor and peered through the gate that leads into the garden, and it became a miniature Stonehenge.

“Sarah Sze: Timelapse,” March 31–September 10, 2023, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Time and its passage — whether it’s over the course of eons or the blink of an eye it takes light to go from projector to screen — is an abiding concern. On the sixth floor, there is another pendulum hanging from a ladder, its point just touching a tiny salt plateau. Around this is a circle of strings and images of hands, a Neolithic timekeeper that might mark the hours of an imaginary day or Sze’s own zodiac.

Some will see this as obsessive-compulsive magpie art — a mere accumulation of bits and pieces, fluff and scraps. The paintings may strike some as Rauschenberg-like combines run amok. But seeing Sze commandeer a big space is to experience her at her full powers. In the tower gallery is “Timekeeper,” an installation that looks like a giant work desk. It’s overflowing with stuff: power tools, papers, monitors, plants, anything you can think of — common materials with which you might make a rattletrap mechanism or a universe and its many interstitial worlds. All that was missing was the maker, though she was also everywhere.

Sarah Sze’s Big Little Things