For those who have walked with any regularity through the grand neoclassical galleries of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in recent years, the work of Los Angeles-based sculptor Robert Therrien has been difficult to avoid.
In 2006, the gallery’s light-filled sculpture court hosted one of Therrien’s monumental “Table and Chairs” sculptures. The industrially fabricated version of an otherwise unremarkable dining room set, of the sort one might buy at Target, had been enlarged to many times its original size and towered over visitors’ heads.
The next year, the gallery purchased a metal version of the sculpture, looking exactly like the beige card table and folding chairs currently gathering dust in your garage, which has popped up in a few recent exhibitions. But while those outsized works are surely the ones that stick out in the minds of visitors, there’s much more to Therrien’s work than meets our upward gazes.
On Wednesday, the gallery opened “Robert Therrien,” a compact survey of the artist’s work by former Albright-Knox curator Heather Pesanti that seeks to provide a fuller sense of the artist’s career.
Pesanti, who left her post at the gallery along with former director Louis Grachos earlier this year to work at AMOA-Arthouse in Austin, Texas, also was introduced to Therrien’s work via his mammoth table and chairs when they appeared in the 1996 Carnegie International exhibition in Pittsburgh.
“That’s the work I saw first, the big stuff, and there was a certain impression you can have from that,” Pesanti said in a phone interview as she made her way back to Buffalo for the opening. “It’s really exciting and playful and different, but there’s so much more to him than that. There’s such a studied quietness and perseverance, of time, of form and material.”
Pesanti’s show features a great deal of the artist’s earlier work, including an important series from the 1980s and ’90s that the Albright-Knox acquired from the late Italian collector Giuseppe Panza in 2008. Those pieces include one of his small snowman figures, a painted wood sculpture resembling a chapel, a sculpture of a man’s hat atop a plinth and other elegant pieces that sit in the pregnant sweet spot between abstraction and representation.
Pesanti compared Therrien’s favorite forms – the themes upon which he bases individual pieces, each one subtly different from the last – to the ever-evolving grids of painter Agnes Martin.
“I personally find them so interesting and can stand in front of them forever,” Pesanti said of Martin’s grids. “Something about the repetition of it isn’t repetition, it’s like a form that has enough depth that you can keep exploring it. That’s sort of like what Therrien is to me.”
In the context of this show, it’s tempting to view Therrien’s career as one long crescendo, beginning with small and quiet works and building to his massive fabricated sculptures. But, as Pesanti suggested in her accompanying essay, that might be a little too simplistic.
Each of his objects, whether gigantic or miniscule, is an attempt to take something familiar and make it wonderfully strange by changing its scale, its form or its context. “Such objects seem to alter the surrounding environment,” Pesanti wrote. “The color and tenor of the sky might be slightly shifted; something quotidian tastes different; an alternate route to work becomes appealing.”
The show, which also in some ways grew out of Grachos’ long support of Therrien and his work, will also feature the artist’s collaboration with the late, revered poet and University at Buffalo professor Robert Creeley. The artist and poet worked together on a book, “6 & 7,” with the French author Michael Butor, which will be part of the show. Their collaboration, Pesanti wrote, may lend visitors a more complete understanding of what Therrien is after.
“Poetry is perhaps a more appropriate metaphor for Therrien’s work,” Pesanti wrote, “as both Creeley’s words and Therrien’s objects are open-ended, circling around meaning rather than leading us directly to it.”