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Journey Through the Past: Stephen Kaltenbach, a Forgotten Conceptual Master, Makes a Comeback in New York

Installation View, Stephen Kaltenbach at Marlborough Chelsea MARLBOROUGH CHELSEA

Installation view of Stephen Kaltenbach’s solo show at Marlborough Chelsea.

MARLBOROUGH CHELSEA

In the late ’60s, the artist Stephen Kaltenbach spent three manic, productive years in New York City before decamping to California, where he still lives and operates as a “regional artist” of sorts. In his three New York years, Kaltenbach produced a diverse body of work that traced the contours of the city’s emerging Conceptual and Post-Minimalist art movements, all carried out with an enigmatic prankster spirit that has continued to govern his practice. Until June 18, Marlborough Chelsea’s small Viewing Room sub-gallery is exhibiting a mini-retrospective from the artist, focusing primarily on the work he made during his concentrated time in the city. The day before the show’s opening, Kaltenbach gave me a tour of the exhibition alongside the space’s director, the artist and actor Leo Fitzpatrick.

“I had a number of issues when I came to New York that I wanted to investigate, one them was Minimalism, and I had been doing simple objects pretty much like Donald Judd and felt that I could go a lot further than that,” Kaltenbach told me. A text written by the artist called A Short Article on Expression 1969–2016 could be a seen as a centerpiece of the exhibition. The writing contains a series of abstract proclamations and questions, things like “the manipulation of perception is a valid goal of art expression” and “is it important for an artist to be able to distinguish between manipulation of perception as a means for art expression from its manipulation as a result?”

A sprightly 76, Kaltenbach has short hair and a gray beard. He wore a light-blue hoodie with a shirt under it that was an even lighter shade of blue. He took me through a thorny, conceptual body of work that at times yielded more questions than answers. At one point he told me that he had converted to Christianity from Buddhism, telling me it was “one of the most counterintuitive things that can happen to a person. I was a Zen Buddhist because I didn’t have to deal with the God reality at all, that’s not what they do. So, I’m in the position of saying things that people don’t believe and I think it’s a logical extension of my work.” I asked him if he expected people to take him at face value. “Some do, some don’t. It’s all interesting to me,” he said. “I’m not your boss, you are.”

The exhibition weaves through a variety of materials and approaches, many of which were pioneering for the era (Kaltenbach was included in the renowned 1968 show “Nine” at Leo Castelli alongside artists including Richard Serra and Bruce Nauman. He also staged a solo show at the Whitney in 1969). There’s some early stencil graffiti and a series of starkly conceptual ads taken out in Artforum that include statements like “Perpetuate a Hoax.” There is the blueprint for a “wall painting” whose trace was so subtle that although it was shown at the San Francisco Art Institute for over two decades, art was frequently hung over it. There is a number of bronze text works that are only fully completed when inserted into nature. There are Minimalist time capsules intended to be sawed open, though few actually get that treatment. “I think it would be quite a bit of fun, yeah,” Kaltenbach responded when I asked if he would want collectors to do so. “I’ve been very interested in losing track of art,” he said. “It started with having things stolen, and I was thinking that those people were my first collectors. I had a work stolen before I sold anything.” Kaltenbach told me he hoped his art could be found in junk shops.

Viewing Room director Fitzpatrick discovered Kaltenbach through secondhand sources of a different nature. “I find a lot of my shows more through reading than through anything else,” he said. “I’m constantly reading and doing research and a lot of what I was reading, Steven’s name kept popping up. And so I slowly started doing research and looking into it, but it was this kind of Pandora’s box or Russian doll or whatever you want to call it, where there were these layers and layers and layers, and for me that’s intriguing.”

Over the years, Kaltenbach has had several art alter egos, many of which were represented at his Viewing Room show. One was Es Que, who made bad paintings initially intended for a Lord and Taylor department store. Kaltenbach donned a suit and fake mustache to become the sculptor Clyde Dillon, who initially traded in gaudy bronze abstractions. Then there’s Kaltenbach the author (his book The End is on display here in a glass case alongside, among other things, the artist’s own blood) and Kaltenbach the regional artist, known in Sacramento for accessible works like Portrait of My Father, which displays a painterly command that deviates wildly from his more conceptual pieces.

Looking at the show—its contents run far beyond what can simply be contained in this article—within a larger context, Fitzpatrick told me he is interested in “this idea of overnight success as opposed to a slow burn, especially in this day of the Internet and people are Instagram famous and then they’re gallery famous and then they’re rich and then they’re forgotten. I think with the Internet an artist’s career turns over so much faster nowadays, just because there’s more information out there, there’s more art out there.”

With the exhibition, Fitzpatrick wanted to “show people that it’s OK to take your time. People have to do this the rest of their lives; they signed up for a lifelong commitment to be an artist, so why rush to get all the success.”

“He understood that I decided on the long game,” Kaltenbach interjected.

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