Odd Couples: Frank Benson/Peter Fischli and David Weiss at Andrew Kreps, Al Taylor and James Welling at David Zwirner

  • In these days of endlessly proliferating biennials, triennials and mega-exhibitions, contemporary art curatorship tends to be equated almost exclusively with the ability to gather works by dozens of artists under one roof while maintaining at least the illusion of a convincing theme or thesis. And while this skill is nothing to be sniffed at—it implies administrative mastery if nothing else—there is perhaps just as much to admire in the successful juxtaposition of two artists not generally associated with one another, or even with a particular approach or sensibility. Two current Chelsea exhibitions make a convincing case for the satisfactions of such pairings.

    Up until Swiss artist David Weiss’s death in April, he’d been making artworks with his longtime collaborator, Peter Fischli. As the influential and prolific duo Fischli/Weiss, they translated outwardly banal images and ideas into extended series that reveal the extraordinary in the everyday. Their photographs of airports from around the world, taken between 1989 and 2000 and currently on view at Andrew Kreps Gallery, are no exception. On display are six large color shots—a hefty tome at the gallery’s front desk documents some eight hundred others. Titles aside, there are few clues to the location of any given view—it might be Zürich or Paris, Amsterdam or Rio de Janeiro—but while their subjects are, pointedly, almost interchangeable, the images themselves vary in composition, color and a thousand incidental details. Taken through the windows of waiting rooms and lounges, the reflections of which are layered over scenes of shuttling baggage trucks and rain-streaked tarmac, they evoke a litany of daydream-like, transitional moments.

    Accompanying the Fischli/Weiss photographs is a set of small sculptures by Frank Benson, displayed on simple pedestals. They are not outwardly connected to Messrs. Fischli and Weiss’s project, but nevertheless complement it nicely. Mr. Benson, a young Brooklyn-based artist, has taken time out from a practice that typically revolves around intricately detailed naturalism to produce a set of abstract forms. The seven works from his “Extrusions” series on view at Kreps are all short strips of unglazed ceramic that slump endearingly this way and that like wayward ribbons of cake frosting (albeit in earthy gray as opposed to candy pink). Like the photographs that surround them, these variations on a theme make the most of very little by pinpointing moments of accidental beauty. Incorporating the element of chance into what would otherwise have been a mechanistic-minimalistic exercise, Mr. Benson’s unassuming sculptures parallel the tight focus and chance poetry of the airport photos.

    At David Zwirner, two exhibitions interact in a looser manner. The late Al Taylor’s quirky “Pass the Peas” and “Can Studys” and James Welling’s subtly investigative “Overflow” have an intriguing correspondence. Again, the pairing involves photographs by one artist (here Mr. Welling) and sculptural works by another (Taylor, from whom there are also numerous works on paper). And again, the recognizable subjects of the photographer are (mis)matched with entries from an extended run of tweaks on a basic formalist model.

    Mr. Welling’s show also constitutes a kind of internal pairing, in that the strongest and most extensive of its three parts is based around a response to another artist’s oeuvre, that of the American painter Andrew Wyeth, who died in 2009.

    For his series Wyeth, Los Angeles-based Mr. Welling traveled to Maine and Pennsylvania to track down sites associated with his late subject. In the process of finding and shooting locations painted by Wyeth, Mr. Welling aimed in part to reassess his own creative development, not simply following in his hero’s footsteps but identifying lessons learned and borrowings made. The task was not always straightforward, and the photographer often strayed from the path he had laid down for himself—to poke around the painter’s disused studio, for instance, or explore other elements of his storied rural milieu. Distinctions between the historical and the projected (or purely imagined) quickly become muddied as everything begins to take on the look and feel of a picture by the creator of Christina’s World. And the iconic Olson House is, of course, depicted repeatedly, its richly weathered textures detailed with a loving, even painterly eye.

    Mr. Welling’s Fluid Dynamics series, a set of large, splashy abstract photograms made using colors selected from the Wyeth photographs, is substantially less compelling, but the generous viewer might still find it a passable bridge to Taylor’s more experimental show. Taylor, who died in 1999, was something of a maverick, an artist who looked to other disciplines as much as to art for his themes and methods, and gradually moved from a straightforward painterly practice to an active fusion of drawing and assemblage. A winningly eccentric group of sculptures from the early ’90s titled Pass the Peas features a sequence of loops, coils and circles fashioned from various kinds of tubing. These are studded with plastic bottle cap rings positioned as if following spiraling trajectories around them, and accompanied by lively drawings that look a bit like Brice Marden’s from the same period.

    Can Studys, the other major series represented here, is a related grouping from 1993 that incorporates constructions made from tin cans, wire, wood and steel bands. Wall-mounted (though just barely) these precarious arrangements are also matched with drawings; the attempt to extend line engagingly into space is strikingly successful in both. Concerned with the fundamental operations of light and shade, gravity and balance, the graphic and the solid, these playful, agile, deceptively casual works made from everyday materials look almost subversive in Zwirner’s sleek headquarters. They put me in mind of the wonderful B. Wurtz retrospective that Matthew Higgs curated for Metro Pictures last summer—still further evidence of the power of a good pairing.

    editorial@observer.com