Hidden Relief, 2001. Mixed media, 168 x 60 x 12 in.

Sarah Sze’s Organized Chaos

Sarah Sze rises on a two-story power lift to the very center of the entryway atrium, where a flexible rod arcs out from a pillar at the top of the escalator. She begins to work on the end of that rod, which has diminished to a flexible wire. The sculptor fixes a stalk of dried yarrow flower to a tiny electrical clamp, attaches it to the wire, and weighs the balance, seeing how its weight changes the height of the arc. She gives the joint a shot with a pink glue gun and moves on to the next dried yarrow, creating a single-file procession of flowers, diminishing in size across the space.

Untitled, 2001. Mixed media, dimensions variable. View of installation at the Asia Society, New York

Sze was installing one of her complex, unique pieces in the Gund Wing of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the second in the museum’s “RSVP” series, which invites artists to create a work outside the usual galleries. At 33, this native Bostonian has an international reputation for astounding, world-class work. Although her style is distinctive, it is difficult to photograph, describe, or categorize. A Sze piece can remind one of the emptied-out contents of a medicine cabinet or a kitchen drawer, except that all the objects come in multiples, or it can resemble something between a Rube Goldberg contraption and a giant Erector Set.

Sze is seldom idle. Just before the Boston MFA installation, she developed three outdoor pieces on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. One of her installations was included in “The Moderns” (2003), a group show at the Castello di Rivoli in Torino, Italy. An outdoor piece that premiered in the summer of 2003 in the sculpture court at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York has been a critical and popular success.

Critics find in Sze’s work a metaphor for today’s dizzying, protean urban fabric, an analogy to the cyberworld, and a commentary on the multiplicity of quotidian objects that constantly pass used but unnoticed through our hands. The curators at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris, where Sze produced a major installation in 1999, wrote, “She offers a world where neither emptiness nor saturation dominates, where chaos is as relevant as order, and where the common is as important as the extraordinary.”

The Letting Go, 2002. Mixed-media installation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (view 1).

For all its complexity, The Letting Go at the MFA is simple in relation to other recent works such as Everything That Rises Must Converge, installed in Paris in 1999, or Things Fall Apart, created at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2001 and now in the permanent collection. At SFMoMA, Sze had a full-sized SUV sawn into sections, painted red, and hoisted to strategic points on the museum’s four-floor exposed staircase. She then filled the components with intricate details and connected them with her signature arrays of string and arching, spiraling rods. In Paris, Sze united Everything That Rises Must Converge with ladders hung and balanced in space.

The Boston atrium offers a bonus Sze has not had before, an escalator. Experiencing a Sze work is a process of discovery: she tantalizes with a glimpse or a simple element and beckons the viewer into the entire assemblage, piece by piece, until one is left dazed trying to comprehend the whole. “The escalator is an interesting opportunity,” she said. “I like to engage the space, so the piece is revealed to you as you move through the space.” The artist dropped a plumb line down through the center of the atrium, ending with a shaped piece of paper (with a hole in it) that can be blown about by random air currents. Directly below it is a water glass (exactly the same size as the hole), sitting in the middle of a pile of flower petals.

“I wanted a quiet entry into the piece,” she explained. “Then it gets more complicated and busier as one ascends. Usually when you’re moving, you have to navigate space physically.” Here, gallery-goers riding the escalator “can move through this piece, without having to look down, and watch it unravel.”

For her commissions, Sze always reconnoiters and reacts to a given space. In Boston, she chose the cavernous, sterile atrium because it would not be “a place where there would be such a shock, a contemporary installation up against Old Masters.” A Sze work is not seen all at once, or even in a few minutes. It demands time. The viewer is initially attracted by the colors and textures of an array of small, identical items. One is impelled to identify and marvel at them minutely, amazed that an artistic sensibility could create an aesthetic mass from such mundane objects. A nearby detail insists that the eye wander through the conglomeration to find that same detail repeated; finally one is caught by a web of strings and catapulted off onto a ride in space through the whole. That done, one is enmeshed in another nest of objects and must halt to repeat the process.

Initially a painter, Sze develops her installations intuitively. She begins with a minimal cardboard model of the space—in this case, her basic design was represented by two spirals of silver wire, the intricate agglomerations at the corners indicated by starbursts of cutout paper. “I make up the details as I go along,” she said. It’s kind of like a painting process. I do an underdrawing; then it’s improvisational.” Sometimes she “erases,” ripping out a batch of elements and installing others.

The Letting Go, 2002. Mixed-media installation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (view 2).

Curators at both the MFA and SFMoMA liken Sze’s work to the Internet, in that it links small bits of discrete information into a complex network. The analogy is valid: like bytes of cyber information, her bits are precisely placed in order to cohere into readable imagery. It makes sense that in San Francisco her installation was part of 010101, an exhibition of cyber art. Yet another influence entirely is ikebana, the rigid, ritualistic Japanese art of flower arranging, which she studied informally during a year-long stint in Japan after her graduation from Yale. In Sze’s installations, as in ikebana, massed foci generate simpler secondary ideas that tail off, in a linear way, into space. Sze says that the Japanese concern for the use and arrangement of all kinds of objects seeped into her practice as a sculptor.

Her father, Chia-Ming Sze, a Boston architect, imparted to her his interest in the manipulation of space; she grew up a regular visitor to the Boston MFA. Sze further pursues the Asian look by using “planes parallel to the earth that seem to float, planes instead of a one-point perspective.” She says, “Frank Lloyd Wright stole this from Asian architecture—and painting—and I stole it from Frank Lloyd Wright.”

For The Letting Go (the title refers to the line from Emily Dickinson), Sze sent into the atrium space two arcs that don’t quite meet. A tiny void is at the center of the piece; the details are on the periphery. “Things that disperse, that disintegrate outward, are central in the Asian aesthetic, in Asian painting,” Sze mused. “Asian art has less of a hierarchy.” While Sze clipped yarrow onto wire, her assistant David Ramirez worked on an assemblage attached to a cement column. A carpenter and a writer, he has “run her installs,” he says, for two years. They have been friends for eight years; he used to be a building contractor. Ramirez explained that the intricate conglomeration was supported by a steel armature and plates fabricated at Sze’s studio and bolted to the wall.

From where Ramirez stood, the stainless steel rod curved up, diminished and ended, leaving a small space before it resumed and grew larger, leading the eye to the other point of interest, a wall corner on the edge of the atrium. The gap in the unifying rod was a point of tension, which Sze decorated minutely with squared-off matchstick forms and springy wire ending in details such as two dead bees, one plastic daisy, and a little electric clamp holding a rectangle of cloth stretched like a canvas on a tiny stretcher. In the end, she camouflaged the gap with another sheet of paper with a hole in it, a whim that lends unity (another cut-out or two can be found at far ends of the piece) but reduces the central tension. The lines were designed to feel weightless, Sze said. “Then they trickle off to different locations, offshoots to places with a lot of activity.”

The Letting Go, 2002. Mixed-media installation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (view 3).

Ramirez was adding bits to a structure that resembled a little bamboo house squashed against one corner of a square concrete column. Closer inspection revealed that the roof and floor of the “house” were specimen drawers, their fronts painted bright blue, their chrome handles still centered on the front. Big square notches were cut out of the drawers so they fit wrapped around the corner. Before she was finished, Sze sliced one drawer-front in half and stuck it to the pillar elsewhere.

Inside the finished structure are, among other things, Styrofoam packing materials shaped like pasta shells, massed and suspended in an illusion of stratocumulus clouds. Other shells, snipped so they morph into calamari rings, trickle out into space. Small clamp-lights shine into and out of the structure, and a white mini-fan blows a strong breeze across artificial daisies. Blue strings fan out to suspend a bamboo arc punctuated by fungi on stick-stems, and the unifying stainless steel rod arches out into the space of the atrium, leading the eye on and on.

“The essential forms are meant to represent the structure beneath the surface—like the framing of a house,” Sze commented. “There’s a tension between the structural and the decorative; the structure becomes the surface. It’s really all decorative, but it looks structural. It makes the piece seem more fragile.”

The Letting Go, 2002. Mixed-media installation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (view 4).

During the installation, various materials waited in boxes for the installers: dried, flat-topped yarrow stalks, clumps of moss, small designer clothespins in blue, red, and gold, plastic ferns and flowers, flat tan fungi. Sze haunts five-and-dime stores, stocking up on the most quotidian materials imaginable to use as her “paints.” She adds hints of autobiography by collecting things she comes across every day, incorporating, for example, a few small pill bottles and an array of hotel sample shampoos.

In other installations, she has relied heavily on Q-Tips, packing peanuts, moss, lichen, aspirin, foam, balsa wood, aluminum siding, plastic spoons, soap dishes complete with soap, wire trash baskets, thimbles, funnels, vacuum cleaner hose, pills in rows, matches, bon-bons still in their wrappers, and measuring tape. Although color and texture determine most of her choices, she selects materials that have practical uses as well. Visual puns result, in which the viewer suddenly realizes that the small forest of mushrooms is made of packing shells stuck atop toothpicks.

The Letting Go, 2002. Mixed-media installation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (view 5).

The Letting Go’s other point of energy and activity, on the wall corner, is built of more drawers, sliced and layered, and such substantial elements as a blue student’s desk lamp, clear clamp-lamps that display their electrical innards, more fans, the filaments of a broken light bulb, and a wealth of smaller bits: tiny orange spirit levels and yellow box cutters, blue plastic bottle caps, blue seal-strips, the kind you pull off when you open a gallon of milk, plastic grass “growing” in some of the small compartments in the drawers (and in an upside-down, grass-planted drawer), and a series of remarkable strata cut from rigid translucent plastic sheets in shapes reminiscent of paleontological skeletons or Hiroshige’s waves. Rather than attempt to hide the mechanisms, Sze looped cords and wires, tacked them to the wall, decorated them with leaves and flowers, and emphasized the brass floor plug with cut-out paper. She also tucked discarded light-bulb boxes into one of the assemblages.

The Letting Go, 2002. Mixed-media installation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (view 6)

A literal edginess, a touch of menace, imbues her works. In San Francisco, the reference to an auto wreck is inescapable. At the Whitney, water in its three forms is the reference point. At the MFA, artists’ cutting tools stand dangerously upright: an X-acto knife is suspended like Damocles’s sword, and each balsa-wood box in one series contains a single-edged razor blade. Natural materials such as moss form a counterpoint to the heavy industrial stuff, as well as flat leaves and lichen-tipped twigs that appear to play a supporting role.

What saves these accumulations from chaos is Sze’s insistence on the individuality of each component. The milk-bottle rings exemplify what she does: each is held up in perfect, matching horizontality. They are all blue, fitting into the color scheme, yet each recurs at a rare but satisfying interval. One can peruse the piece just for milk-bottle seals, or one can look for the tiny erect spear points of leaves.

Things Fall Apart, 2001. Mixed media, dimensions variable. View of installation at SFMoMA.

Sze does in three dimensions what Jackson Pollock did in two. From an initial impression of chaos, she instinctively organizes a composition in which the viewers can lose themselves, tracing the threads of unity. Hidden behind incoherence and ostensible disorder is a classic formality: repetition, color unity, contrast of textures, unifying linear design. To this, she adds two more formal issues, gravity and scale.

Born in Boston in 1969, Sze grew up there, attended Yale University and then the School of Visual Arts in New York. While at Yale, she began stuffing complicated little sculptural installations into the rafters and corners of the sculpture building or out on the grass of the green. “They already had that quality of congregating or sprawling in space,” she recalls. “They were also made up from small objects that accrued into a larger whole.”

Following her debut at the SoHo Annual in 1996, she had solo shows at White Columns in New York (1997), at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London (1998), the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Fondation Cartier in Paris (1999), the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst in Leipzig (1999–2000), Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York (2000), San Francisco MoMA (2001), and Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center (2002). She has participated in numerous group shows, including the Venice Biennale and the Carnegie International. Her pieces have appeared in Avignon, Thessaloniki, Vienna, Luxembourg, and Berlin. For six months in 2002, Sze was the resident artist at the Atelier Calder in Sache, France.

Everything That Rises Must Converge, 1999. Mixed media, dimensions variable. View of installation at the Fondation Cartier, Paris.

Sze says that she still loves the immediate, improvisational process of painting and tries to preserve it in her sculpture. She would rather be termed a sculptor than an installation artist. “I was seduced by sculpture’s ability to bleed out of the frame, play with the line between life and art, and engage with the scale of architecture or landscape.”

Cheryl Brutvan, who oversaw Sze’s installation at the Boston Museum, commented that when viewers “become absorbed in examining the details of her newly created worlds,” they discover that her artistic materials are “the odds and ends which proliferate in our lives. Sarah Sze ignores all boundaries.”

Marty Carlock is a writer living in Boston.