Alex Hay's Chicken Wire (1963) is a small rectangular painting whose undifferentiated white ground is criss-crossed by a grid of wire, rendered in metallic acrylic paint. The upper side of the wire appears to glint in the light while its underside is in shade. The blank whiteness of the ground prevents further realism, denying any suggestion of space beyond. Label (1966) is a squashed octagon with curved corners. Two red bands of diminishing thickness follow the border around, leaving the space between them and the centre of the octagon an empty cream. These paintings feel uncannily familiar: Label recalls Daniel Pflumm's lightboxes (based on logos with empty centres where the trademarks should be), while Chicken Wire brings to mind Sarah Morris' Aluminium Fence (1997). The surprise is in the dates. Hay's paintings pre-date these other works by over 30 years.
This is Hay's first solo show in New York since 1969. Since leaving the city for Arizona in the early 1970s, he has never ceased being an artist, but he has virtually stopped making objects. Apart from the reproduction of works in 1960s anthologies on Pop and Minimalism (his inclusion in both is itself quite telling), his work has been forgotten. Perhaps this is because he was better known for his performances with Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham at Judson Church and at events such as Nine Evenings: Theater and Engineering (1966). It was fascinating entering this time capsule of a show to see little-known work from such a famous period, but not only because of its prescient quality. The show was particularly perplexing in view of art-historical arguments about that period, which seem predicted and even articulated by Hay's work but which do his work no favours.
For instance, one assumes Label is playing knowing games with the mid-1960s penchant for the shaped canvas: Hay deliberately bases his shaped canvas on a price label, making a painting of an utterly flat surface, but one that had been found, and found far away from the world of Modernist painting. Even more cannily, perhaps, Hay predicts later criticism (such as Hal Foster's) and makes 1960s abstraction tie into contemporary industrial production, reading Frank Stella's paintings as logos. All of which is tempting but simply not the case, for Hay was far less an ironist of abstraction than a celebrant of the everyday.
Toilet Paper (1965) is a large painting of two flat, unused sheets, stretching almost to the bottom of the support, except for a small section that reads as a kind of background. Just over half-way up the canvas this background is visible through the perforations along the line dividing the sheets. Were the painting contemporary, you would jump to read it as a cleverly ironic debasement of the rhetoric of abstraction - Robert Ryman wiped away by Andrex. Yet in its obsessive exactitude Hay's project is nearer to Ryman's than it would seem. Toilet Paper is not a generic representation but a precise depiction of two actual sheets of paper. Hay took immense care to render imperfections, replicating the areas where two-ply had worn away by painting patches of the canvas with a single coat of white lacquer. In the process of painting, loving attention is paid to a humble, everyday product. It is one of a series of paintings of different kinds of paper: also included here were Cash Register Slip (1966) and the wonderfully yellowed Legal Pad (1965), which was painted so tenderly that the faint watermark is just visible. The enlargement of the various sheets did nothing to spoil the sense of their fragility.
Hay's works on paper also include sculptures such as Paper Bag (1968) and the two-metre-tall Paper Airplane (1968). Although these were somewhat reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg, Hay's attention was more directed to retrieving things that were literally going to be thrown away. The other obvious difference lies in the rigidity of Hay's sculptures, which are coated in fibreglass and epoxy that is just transparent enough to let the lines on the enlarged paper show through. In the process of enlargement the objects were not so much deformed as mummified.
To make Ground Drawing (1968) Hay soaked a sheet of paper and laid it over an uneven surface. Using spirit levels, he proceeded to measure the precise gradients of the bumps, covering the paper in short pencilled lines above each of which he noted the gradient in degrees. The paper was then taken off the surface, re-soaked and flattened, the measurements over its surface recalling in exact detail its former state. The visual similarity to Mel Bochner's Measurement Pieces (1969) makes it tempting to regard this as a new, Conceptual phase in Hay's work, but this is not the case: in the almost obsessive accuracy of process the drawing shares as much with a work like Toilet Paper as it differs from it. All of which just goes to show how pointless terms such as Pop, Abstraction and Conceptual art are when trying to fathom a project as singular and extraordinary as Hay's.