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Paul McCarthy’s Low Life Slow Life: Part 1

CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, USA


Paul McCarthy, Platform (2007)

When Oedipa Maas, the heroine of Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), comes across the mattress of an old sailor she sees it as the archetype of remembrance, and it opens up a whole world of safely stored yet distorted memories. The stuffing of the mattress kept ‘vestiges of every nightmare sweat, helpless overflowing bladder, viciously, tearfully consummated wet dream, like the memory bank to a computer of the lost.’ The first chapter of a two-part exhibition, in ‘Low Life Slow Life: Part 1’ Paul McCarthy embarks on a similarly complex time travel project. The show focuses on the recollection of his student years at the University of Utah and at the San Francisco Art Institute; the second part, which will open in March 2009, will concentrate on the period between 1970 and now.

The exhibition’s brand of remembrance bears less the taste of a madeleine and more of a strenuous effort to remember on McCarthy’s part, a search for discarded physical clues to his own past. He has assembled a seemingly random yet intrinsically linked collection of art works, reproductions and ephemera, including well-known figures (like Allan Kaprow, Joseph Beuys, and Bruce Nauman) alongside artists like Robert Mallary, Al Payne, and Doyle Strong who have sadly more or less dropped of the map.


In foreground: Robert Mallary, Little Hans (1962); in background: Mike Henderson, Nonviolence and Castration (both 1968), Henry Moore, Henry Moore: Complete Sculpture, Volumes 1–6 (1944–99)

McCarthy found Mallary’s work in the state of decay, untouched for more than 20 years in the artist’s former studio in Massachusetts. Included in ‘Low Life…’ is Untitled (1960), a distorted map of the US made from cardboard coated in resin and gravel, and Little Hans (1962), a tuxedo covered in drips of polyester resin. Mallary was an important figure for McCarthy in the 1960s, and his fragile yet disturbing works seem to have foreseen their current state of disintegration already in the process of their making.

Alongside a selection of personal material – newspaper articles, magazines, artist books, letters, and photographs gathered from McCarthy’s own archive – McCarthy produced the conglomerate sculpture Platform (2007) for the show. Built up from the stand of his grandson’s model train set, and vaguely shaped like the Matterhorn, the sculpture reveals McCarthy’s obsession with Christmas, sprouting two dried-up Christmas tree skeletons from its midst.

McCarthy investigates how memory can be manipulated via the works of Yves Klein, Andy Warhol, and Marcel Duchamp, artist-tricksters who relied on the mystifying qualities of time. Newspaper cutouts detailing the appearance of a Warhol impostor, hired by Warhol himself, are displayed next to photographs of both the original and remade versions of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913/1961). For Klein’s spectacular Leap into the Void (1960), McCarthy was able to track down two photographs that show the disillusioning landing of Klein in a safety blanket in addition to the well-publicized photographs of his jump out of the window.

Lined up like tombs outside of the exhibition space are two big woodsheds containing the majority of the paintings produced by the painter Al Payne between the years 1976 and 2005. The sheds were carefully sealed and transported by McCarthy from Bolinas (in Marin County) to San Francisco and are exhibited as Payne’s final piece. Without granting visitors access to the locked-up paintings inside, the sheds rest peacefully like a mute memorial to the forgotten painter. They guard the neglected paintings that have been forgotten for so long while ensuring that they remain inaccessible for the public.

Through turning his own process of remembering into the theme of the exhibition, McCarthy has created a show that is so much more than just a clean chronology of influences. It succeeds through tracing a personal history through the work of his companions while simultaneously commenting on the universal effect that time bears on material and memory. ‘Low Life…’ is a puzzle made of vestiges and remnants that ultimately can only be solved by McCarthy himself – nevertheless, the visitor ‘is meant to remember.’ Through pasting together the visceral clues of someone else’s life, one is reminded that remembering always also means reshaping.

Anna Gritz


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About this review

Published on 08/04/08
by Anna Gritz

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