On View at the Jones Center
“I just keep thinking that these rooms, as different as all of them are, all have something to do with perspective.”1 —Robert Therrien
Robert Therrien (American, born 1947 in Chicago, Illinois) is an artist with an exceptional ability to contemplate and derive meaning from his interior world. If, to paraphrase Pascal, society’s miseries come from not being able to sit quietly alone in a room and think, then Therrien is the welcome antithesis, harking from a dwindling breed for whom observation and solitary thought represent time well spent. The rooms in which he does this are the backdrop to his art and life. He is perpetually surrounded by a well-constructed, familiar space: his studio, built to his specifications, where he both lives and works. He has also imagined and exhibited many variations of constructed rooms as components in his art over the past several decades. Likewise, Therrien’s artistic output, while varied, consistently reflects the subdued intensity of his person: one who contemplates, then produces, unique and exquisite objects and installations, always with great attention to color, form, and detail, and prone to catalyzing shifts in a viewer’s experience of scale, perspective, and time. For his first solo museum exhibition in Austin, the artist has selected variations on rooms to be his primary theme, and the trajectory and progression of rooms in Therrien’s life and work is the focus of this essay.
But as rooms represent only one lens through which this artist’s work can be viewed, it might first be helpful to illuminate the broader context in brief. Born in Chicago, the artist moved to California for art school and in 1971 found his way to Los Angeles, where he continues to live and work. For more than forty years, Therrien has been an integral part of the art production emerging from Los Angeles. But he is deliberately and unassumingly reclusive, living and working in his studio and keeping more than an arm’s length away from the “art world.” As a result, Therrien’s body of work demonstrates aspects of important tendencies that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century—most evidently Minimalism, Conceptualism, Pop, and colorism—but stands apart, resisting categorization and perpetually hovering under the radar. All of his objects are, to some degree, representational, as the artist culls much of his imagery from daily and domestic life. Yet here the line of representation inevitably blurs, as the artist nudges his forms toward abstraction and surrealism through softened edges, shifts in scale, lush but strange colors, manipulated perspective, and shapes and imagery that repeat but become altered over time.
Therrien’s early work from the 1970s and 1980s was inspired by memories from the artist’s childhood, manifested as recurring images such as a chapel, a keyhole, a snowman, a coffin, a cap on a stand, and a bird. These were either drawn on paper or found objects, or hand-crafted into sculpted shapes of modest scale with mottled and worked surfaces. Photography, painting, and drawing have all made appearances throughout his career, but sculpture has represented the largest area of the artist’s focus. It was, however, a renewed attention to photography, while Therrien was still making three-dimensional objects, that catalyzed a mid-career shift in his work. In the early 1990s, the artist took Polaroids of the underside of a table and chairs in his kitchen and was struck by the expansive and immersive world they conveyed.2 He sought to re-create this experience in the round, and beginning in 1992 his work turned from handmade to industrially fabricated, from modestly scaled to nearly four times life-size, and from somewhat abstracted to more directly representational. Sculpture over the next twenty years included vertiginous stacks of dinner plates, a smooth silver oil can the size of a Christmas tree, a bulbous black cloud with faucets coming out of its puffs, a spiral-shaped bed, and the immense folding tables and chairs seen here. All the while, Therrien maintained an intimate drawing practice comprising minimalist works on paper of simple, elegant, and playful forms.
This brings us to the present day, in which Therrien has moved away from the large-scale, industrially fabricated objects of the past two decades. Beyond potential practical reasons, the turn toward the real might suggest a rekindling of the handmade and modest scale that defined the artist’s early career and perhaps was always present, if not evident on the surface—although, characteristically, Therrien’s “real” is not quite real but instead a gently ruptured or distorted version that causes a subtle dislocation from daily perspective. And if the first few decades of his work looked to childhood memories for inspiration, as those memories receded in time, his current work reflects what might be termed his artistic childhood: specifically, the 5084 Pico Boulevard studio, located on the thoroughfare connecting the ocean and the Santa Monica shoreline with downtown Los Angeles, where Therrien began his career and first formed the ideas that would become central to his work. The artist lived and worked in this one-room studio from 1972 to 1989.3 As rent skyrocketed, he was eventually forced to move, building a new studio for himself—this time two floors, multiple rooms—in an undeveloped neighborhood of Los Angeles. This move, in the artist’s retelling, was traumatic, as the original studio was a beloved and familiar space.4 As a result, each room in this new studio, where Therrien still lives and works, was built to the original specifications (including the staircase and ceiling heights) of the single-room space in his Pico location, repeated multiple times. In this way, the Pico studio has left an indelible physical and psychological imprint on the artist’s life, functioning as both the underlying plan for his workspace and a psychic current driving the work and rooms that have emerged from his studio walls.
If the studio is the meta-room in Therrien’s daily operations, a lineage of rooms constructed for exhibitions can also be traced throughout the artist’s history. The first exhibition of stand-alone rooms appeared in 1984, in the infancy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (MoCA), an institution first conceived in 1979. Therrien’s work was exhibited in an interim museum space opened in 1983 called the Temporary Contemporary (now the Geffen Contemporary). The exhibition space had a cavernous, undivided gallery, and Therrien simply re-created the measurements of his studio six times and installed those six rooms, containing the work inside his actual studio, within MoCA’s large gallery. Following this, the artist made a series of changing rooms based again on his Pico studio in Leo Castelli’s galleries on Greene Street and 420 West Broadway in New York City from 1986 to 1987; a cardboard room filled with “three tiny blue paper cutout birds”5 in an attic of the Fridericianum museum at documenta IX, in Kassel, Germany, in 1992; the transformative Red Room, from 2000 to 2007, an installation resembling a janitor’s storeroom of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, exclusively in orange-to-deep-red colors; and Transparent Room, 2010, a mysterious and immensely heavy translucent structure with clear items to house and clothe a person, including a sink, bed, shirts, and shoes. All of these rooms were built one after another, connected but separate, emerging directly from the studio into the outside world and presenting various interpretations of the domestic environment.
Interpretation of perspective and environment is central to the work on both floors of this exhibition, occupying the entirety of The Contemporary Austin’s downtown Jones Center building. On the first floor, the artist exhibits a new series of rooms: minimalist, surreal, refined constructions that draw the viewer into their strange worlds. These consist of several large-scale, freestanding constructed boxes with one side open, into which the viewer can peer and see a particular image, sculpture, or assemblage placed at the far end. Each construction has a basic format, scaled to the feel of a large walk-in closet or small bedroom. The interiors are painted and polished in varying colors, depending on the room. Exposed light bulbs hang down to illuminate the objects. The artist has deliberately allowed the construction materials on the exterior walls to remain visible, operating as a “tell” indicating the manipulated nature of the rooms, their object-ness, and their separation from the actual room in which the viewer stands. This is further emphasized by the fact that each construction is raised just off the floor, imparting a mild feeling of floating.
Inside, each room presents an image, here suggesting an expanded definition of the term whereby each picture has multiple dimensions and operates with divergent intent. The first room, containing a hand-crafted sculpture of tambourines on the floor and a pair of painted brown pants on board on the back wall, gives the effect of a drawing in space: namely, a flat image popped into three dimensions. In fact, the tambourines are exact replications of those from a set of drawings by the artist from 2001, No title (tambourines) and No title (coffin and tambourines).6 Legs and feet have also appeared in Therrien’s works on paper, though the legs alluded to in this arrangement seem to recall the artist’s own regular uniform. Overall, the impression is of a precisely cropped composition that recedes toward a single vanishing point somewhere in the distance, and the perspectival commentary points to classic Renaissance lineage with a Surrealist twist, in which the drawing has “come to life,” so to speak, and merges with the world of the viewer.
In a second room, the image presented is one of a bulletin board area in Therrien’s kitchen, referred to as the “Other Room” by the artist, which has been replicated—down to the pinholes and folded edges of particular papers—in his studio, on the literal other side of his kitchen wall. Both walls (the original and the replicated) have been transported and reinstalled on mirror sides of one of the rooms in this exhibition, suggesting a double take or artistic déjà vu as the viewer passes around the object. Yet a third room suggests a frozen gesture: a set of double doors from the artist’s studio, referred to as “panic doors” for the thick cross bar used to open them in an emergency, replicated in sculptural form and installed at the end wall of one of the constructions, visible from both the outside and inside. The experience draws the viewer in, as in the pants and tambourines composition, but in this case further evokes a childlike compulsion to crash through the doors—a desire ultimately left frustrated and unfulfilled, as the viewer cannot touch the work.
Possibly the most spectacular and well-known of all Therrien’s “rooms,” the installation on the second floor consists of a set of rusted green folding chairs and two tables from 2008, all scaled nearly four times life-size. Recalling the Polaroid snapshot taken beneath the artist’s kitchen table, the concept for this large-scale furniture emerged when Therrien was struck by the fascinating perspective and vantage of a view not usually seen, wondering, “What if people could walk into an environment like that?”7 And in fact they can: massive chairs skew across the room in different directions, inviting visitors to walk beneath them, and one table is overturned on top of the other as if, in the artist’s words, “someone was mopping the floor.”8 The sensation might be one of entering a giant’s kitchen, where large legs and feet loom nearby. As with all of Therrien’s rooms and work, perspective is at play: ascending the gallery stairs, the viewer encounters an uncertainty of scale in the tables against the far wall. Their immense size becomes apparent only upon approaching. Between these massive tables and chairs and the constructed boxes with images on the first floor, all of Therrien’s rooms share a singular impulse: the transformative experience of entering another world.
- Robert Therrien, in discussion with the author, March 2, 2015.
- Lynn Zelevansky, “No Title: The Work of Robert Therrien,” in Thomas Frick and Lynn Zelevansky, Robert Therrien, 53.
- Robert Therrien, in discussion with the author, March 2, 2015.
- Robert Therrien, e-mail message to author, March 3, 2015.
- See plates 38 and 39 in Christian Müller, ed., Robert Therrien: Works on Paper (Scheidegger and Spiess, 2008).
- Blake Gopnik, “If Gulliver Were a Conceptualist…Robert Therrien Gets a Solo Show at the Albright-Knox,” The New York Times, July 14, 2013, AR20.
- Robert Therrien, in discussion with the author, February 3, 2015.
This exhibition is organized by Heather Pesanti, Senior Curator, with essay "Robert Therrien: Rooms within Rooms" also by Pesanti.
Robert Therrien Exhibition Support: Linda L. Brown, MaddocksBrown Foundation, Amanda and Glenn Fuhrman, Gagosian Gallery
Robert Therrien was born in Chicago in 1947, and lives and works in Los Angeles. Selected solo museum exhibitions include Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1984); Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (1991–92); Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati (1997); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2000, SITE Santa Fe, New Mexico); Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (2007); Kunstmuseum Basel Kupferstichkabinett (2008); Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh (2010); De Pont Museum, Tilburg, Netherlands (2011); Tate Liverpool (2011); The Broad Contemporary Art Museum at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2011); and Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY (2013). Public collections include MoMA and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY; MCA, Chicago; LACMA, MoCA, and Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Tate Gallery, London; and Centre Pompidou, Paris. Since 2009, Therrien’s work has toured with the “ARTIST ROOMS” collection of international contemporary art.