Cady Noland’s 2018 MMK Frankfurt retrospective never traveled to the US, and still to this day, I rue the possibility that I will likely never get anything like it. I’ll settle, though, for her excellent show now on view at Gagosian in New York, which feels like the long-awaited Noland sampler that has yet to be mounted stateside. (Unless, of course, you count the unauthorized 2006 Noland survey at Triple Candie, but that’s a different story.)
This is not a mini-retrospective, since it features mostly new work, but it has the vibe of one. It’s rife with many of Noland’s signatures: distinctly American objects that tell decidedly unpatriotic stories, and a flair for unconventional installation tactics. Many of these works are marked out with strips of tape crudely stuck to the floor. The show is tinier than past Noland outings, but its impact is maximal.
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What makes a show this small this exciting? It has a lot to do with the fact that Noland, a cult favorite with a reputation for being secretive, rarely produces new work. This show is full of it.
Before her 2021 show at Galerie Buchholz, there was a two-decade interval in which she exhibited no freshly made sculptures. Instead, we got more of her works formed from Budweiser cans and chains, rather than kinky Americana for a new millennium. But at Gagosian, a batch of 2023 sculptures, all of them untitled, continue Noland’s project of mining of objects that hint at upheaval, from police badges to bashed-in aluminum trash cans.
Once again, Noland roots that violence in American history. There’s an oversized replica of a Kennedy half dollar—a coin that was produced in 1964, the year after JFK was assassinated. It’s cutely presented on a little pedestal, like a tiny toy ready to be played with. There’s a figurine of what looks like a general from a prior century, housed in a vitrine on the floor. He faces a horse, seemingly oblivious to the glass cage in which Noland has imprisoned him and his equine companion.
These objects are shown alongside bullets, a grenade, and crushed Coke cans encased in glass. They recall specimens preserved in amber, and are so pristine as to appear touched by a human hand. They’re beautiful, too, even as they are clearly capable of causing harm.
In this show, what’s new is actually quite old. The kind of Budweiser cans that she used in these 2023 sculptures—some are arranged in a style recalling Jasper Johns’s Ballantine ales—are no longer in circulation. A jar of Maxwell House coffee sits atop a crate in one piece; it has the brand’s old logo, and while I failed to locate an expiration date, I expected that its contents would now be too stale to consume. One cart holds a tangle of wiring and phone receivers—some cordless, some not. Few would use these landlines to make calls these days.
Hidden amid all this new work, there is one old piece—a 1986 sculpture that consists of a metal walker, along with a holster, leather gloves, a denim band, and more. There’s also a sculpture, begun in 2008 and completed this year, featuring a metal basket and a plate with an Op art–like swirl of red. (And there you have it: she was making new work while she quit the art world!)
These preexisting pieces seem virtually interchangeable with the ones making their debut, and that seems like Noland’s point. After all, the US she addressed back in the ’80s, when she first became famous, is plagued by many of the same kinds of violence and inequality that she’s addressing today.