Photo: Courtesy Sternberg Press

A New Look at Carol Bove

Unfold This Moment by Martin Herbert (Sternberg Press, $26.)

Reading Unfold This Moment, the Berlin-based critic Martin Herbert’s compact history of Carol Bove’s two-decade career, it struck me that I’ve seen a lot more of Bove’s work first-hand than I’d perhaps realized. In fact, prompted by Herbert’s calm historicizing, memories resurfaced: the shells, peacock feathers, rock, and concrete of The Foamy Saliva of a Horse at the 2011 Venice Biennale; an avenue of outdoor sculptures at 2012’s Documenta 13 in Kassel; her Giacometti-referencing presentation for the 2017 Venice Biennale at the Swiss Pavilion (the New York-based artist was born in Geneva); pristinely crumpled steel sculptures as part of the Ralph Rugoff-curated 2019 Venice exhibition, “May You Live In Interesting Times.” Other shows not mentioned by Herbert spring to mind, too, including in my home city of Glasgow in 2013, when The Common Guild reconfigured The Foamy Saliva across its two floors.

Bove, then, has been a high-profile name in contemporary art for over a decade, and with each new, carefully configured international showing, her art-world standing seems to increase. And yet, while the preciseness and pristine production values of her work convey a material solidness and rigor, there’s a floaty temporality to her conceptual sculptures that belies the materials and processes that often bring them into being. Consequently, they can seem strangely contradictory: weighty but slight, firm and yet inconsequential, all there and not there at all.

Herbert, who writes as both unequivocal fan and long-time friend of Bove, enthusiastically acknowledges this slipperiness. In fact, the introduction frames Unfold This Moment as, in part, an opportunity to address a slip of sorts, correcting a 2014 essay that Herbert now says “seemed to miss the mark.” How so? He explains: “Bove’s work, I had written, was about [Herbert’s italics] various things: nonlinear time, the commodification of the counterculture, and parallels between commercializing forces in the ’60s and the present, which she highlighted by using ‘display strategies’ to suggest how meaning is constructed and audiences are manipulated. Even where it maneuvered to place a viewer in the moment, I argued, her art embodied a position. It was, primarily, critique.”

Now though, and prompted in particular by seeing Bove’s 2015 exhibition, “The Plastic Unit” at David Zwirner in London, Herbert has settled on a different view. Rather than critique, the artist’s intention with her work is, he believes, “to transmit something in the direction of a meditative experience, and the somatic benefits of the same, through the syntax of contemporary art, through compound equivocation.” Bove’s art, he suggests in the nine short chapters that follow—the book is a little over 120 pages—is primarily concerned with creating a context for exploring and being in the moment. Spirituality, Buddhism, meditation, an openness to practices and ideas associated with ritual rather than reason—Herbert brings all of this and more into the orbit of Bove’s practice.

Beginning with Bove’s early life and influences in ’70s and ’80s Berkeley, California, (she was born in 1971, her parents described as hippies), the book traces her trajectory: marrying young, moving to New York, waitressing, getting divorced, eventually studying painting at NYU (but not making any paintings), graduating in 1998. We are introduced to her early, ink on vellum drawings of 1960s Playboy models; Minimalist sculptural configurations using ’60s Knoll tables, shelving, found objects, and books; her “sculpture on a stick” phase using at first driftwood, then petrified wood; recent steel sculptures, with their slick painted surfaces and precision contortions.

Unfold This Moment covers a lot of ground for a small, almost pocket-size book, the tone and pace as idiosyncratic and purposeful as the artist it documents. Flitting from compelling to indulgent to mystical—a little like Bove’s sculptures, in fact—it works hard at doing what the title proposes, exploring key exhibitions, dissecting intention and execution, describing process and referencing influences, artistic and otherwise. Crucially, though, Herbert’s enthusiastic and thoughtful prose ultimately made me want to be back in front of Bove’s work again, ready to unfold that moment for myself.