Twenty-seven-year-old Jacob Kassay’s monochromes at L&M are functions of science and grace. Using a variation of electroplating, metal particles adhere to the surfaces like fields of glimmering dust. The scientific process, however, is the unobtrusive backdrop to subtle variations of color, dry matte bronzes next to pinks, pinks next to cool whites. The paintings have a light touch, and the impression is that Kassay’s L&M show wants to induce feelings of careful calibration and elegance, existence centered in nuance. The paintings are nice. Simply that.
Most texts on Kassay (there are few) puzzle over his price points and the meteoric rise in demand for his work even though his name remains obscure. My answer to the question of how I feel about the prices of Kassay a couple of weeks back, I admit, was simply, “I have no idea who Jacob Kassay is.” And why should I? Unless you are a fair hopper or happen to know the program at Eleven Rivington in New York, why would you? Approaching the show at L&M, suddenly the thrust into the game of keeping up with a name that is racing out ahead of you is ripe with peril, so stacked is the deck, so deep are the biases.
Depending on your temperament, you might enter the show with an expectation to be either disappointed or impressed, which is not a good stance in looking at art at all. If you are a struggling artist or even an established artist who took your time to get where you are, you could easily be offended by the quick price points. You might look for reasons outside the work for an explanation. If you are critic, you might have the temptation to gun for Kassay because the hype makes him a vulnerable target. If you are collector, you may want to see what the fuss is about, marveling at how last year’s speculation is suddenly this year’s pay off, ending in either coveting ownership or off-handedly dismissing the whole enterprise. All of the stances are weak positions and art goers should be above each of them.
All of these scenarios are so tempting, however, and I admit my reaction to seeing the show had a foot in each stance. However, what ultimately was more interesting was Kassay being bold enough to throw his hat into the ring of the monochrome, a now long, sometimes sordid, and often very distinguished history.
The monochrome, to me, is a test. They can mean nothing or everything, depending on your position and how you stand. They can be a testament to mystical faith, a stubborn reliance on material principles, an affirmation, a refusal. Sometimes they can be political, while other times they define themselves through being apolitical. What’s most interesting, however, is that most artists who employ monochromes are resolute in their practices and often very clear why they do what they do. You will probably disagree with me, but I don’t find the history of the monochrome to be all that enigmatic, though you would expect it to be the opposite. Think of Anne Truitt, Olivier Mosset, Alexander Rodchenko, Kasimir Malevich, Agnes Martin, Elsworth Kelly, and Mary Corse—these are not wishy-washy practices, they are straight ahead, consistent, and resolute.
In this ripe history, can we locate the young Kassay? I agree with the comparisons to Robert Ryman and Yves Klein, though at the moment it’s similar to putting the photos of two parents together and trying to project what the baby is going to look like in twenty years. There is a hint of Ryman’s deadpan interest in materials, his straightforward deployment of configurations. There is also a bit of Klein’s metaphor-making going on, chemical processes at an atomic level corresponding to the hum of music and the elegance of refinement. However, it is difficult to know where Kassay stands— maybe his interest is more in the pretty and the dainty, the cute and clean.
I get the impression that the center of L&M’s show, a large work on paper placed on rough 2 x 4 studs with a ballet barre positioned in front, is Kassay’s attempt at giving us what may be a position, although its orientation towards giving the show a conceptual reading also does a disservice. The work is ineffective, pitching a now typical rough D.I.Y. look that is often misconstrued for sincerity and humility. Work like this is neither sincere nor humble, but instead uses tropes of sincerity and humility as a cop-out for rigorous thinking. I have to admit, that Kassay’s center piece looks grad-school and virtually destroys the mood of refinement and elegance created by the smaller works.
I can’t fault Kassay entirely for this. After all he is young, and perhaps the impulse is to bring a little resolution and a little art history positioning to a practice that is probably more at home in explanation-less experimentation and straight-ahead aesthetics. With the ballet barre, suddenly we are allowed to think of performance, of metaphor, of the history of Rauschenberg, his performative collaborations, and his white paintings, the idea of a monochrome as blank surfaces or "landing strips" for dust, light and shadow. All of this is fine and will probably be developed by Kassay in the future, but you get the impression that he is ahead of himself, as everyone is currently of him.
Despite work so centered, Kassay should be encouraged to slow down even more. There is rich material in his practice, principles to be unpacked, avenues bridging faith and reason, beauty and science, the human and the industrial to be explored. Of course, we’ve been in these discussions many times and they are well trodden. Don’t look to Kassay for originality. However, what's wrong with a little quiet in a world that’s forgotten it, a little slowness in the world that’s too fast, a little refinement in the vulgar hum? I hope Kassay continues down his small paths with low-velocity steps. When the prices go up, when the prices go down, when people are looking, when people are not looking, when people take your picture, and when people don’t even want to find you, the slowness must be resolute, firm, and beautiful.
Images: Installation shots of Jacob Kassay at L&M Arts, Los Angeles. Courtesy the artist and gallery.