One afternoon a few weeks ago, the artist Karla Black was telling me all about toilet paper. “In the ’70s and ’80s there was a fashion for colored toilet paper when people had colored bathroom suites,” Black said, as we stood in one of David Zwirner’s many capacious galleries on West 19th Street. “It died out so it’s hard to get now.” But she has become a connoisseur of the stuff, a seasoned buyer. Her art depends on it.
We were looking at a work that Black had created for her second show at Zwirner, which runs through March 26, and she was just about certain it was finished. It was a sculpture made with low pools of dry powdered paint and plaster—the colors of rich chocolate, wet mud, tan leather, cotton candy—that sprawls across more than 800 square feet of the space. Streams of toilet paper encircle most of those colors.
“The pink comes from Britain,” Black said, walking around the piece, pointing out the paper. “The brown is American. That buff color is American—that’s really ecologically friendly, unbleached.”
Not that it actually looked like that humble bathroom necessity, to be clear. Elegantly crimped, the paper could have been the fringe on a table at a formal reception or the ornamented edge of a very fine cake. Such is Black’s power. She is a master of teasing transcendent effects out of the most quotidian materials, like paper, bath bombs, nail polish, and tape. She pushes Post-Minimalism into a zone that is ethereal, hushed, and mysterious, and that teases other senses. Her work begs to be touched, inhaled, and examined up close.
“I prioritize the material experience over language or symbolism or metaphor or narrative or any of those,” is how Black explained her practice, speaking at a clip.
Black, who is 43, was wearing her black hair fairly long and had a cup of tea in hand. She kept eyeing her expansive sculpture, which shimmered at certain angles, thanks to the glitter she had mixed into some of the powders on the floor. At one point she spotted a tiny opening in the powder, a view of the floor peeking through, and she crouched down to smooth it with her hand.
“I just do what I want to do,” Black told me. “I work purely out of desire. I love oils and gels and pastes and powders, and I’ve just let myself use them.”
The work in question, Includes Use (2016), took about five days to install and began with Black making a quick, spontaneous drawing with chalk on the floor, which her two assistants then filled in, using powders that they had mixed together and shipped over from Glasgow, where Black lives and works.
“I used to do everything myself,” Black said. “But a few years ago it got to the point where it was exhausting. Is it necessary for me to put out every bit of powder? I exhausted myself to the point where I would find that at the end of an install I was so knackered—and that’s the important bit, when you’re trying to do aesthetic detail decisions.” And so she lets her colleagues work, and adds bits with her fingers at the end, as if she were making a cave painting.
“I love cave painting,” Black said when I brought up that comparison. “I am highly influenced by that. I look at that a lot.” She also named as influences Carolee Schneemann, Helen Frankenthaler, Bobby Baker, and Karen Kilmnik (“I love her. She’s amazing. I absolutely love her.”), and “big Abstract Expressionist painting and Color Field painting and just modernist abstraction.”
Ribbons from the ceiling hold other pieces in the show, made with rectangular sheets of paper, some stuffed with cushion fabric and outlined with cotton wool. In Particularly Ready (2016), she has hung thin slices of paper painted with eye shadow. The work is not quite a painting, and not quite architecture. You would call it a sculpture only because no other word will do. “I get as close as I can to other mediums,” Black said. “How close can I get to painting? How thin a sculpture can I make?”
But while Black’s art may be one of nuance and subtly, of blurred boundaries, she is intriguingly strict in the way that her work is shown, sold, and circulated. Every detail of the installation is explicitly stated. Frames, plinths, and barriers are absolutely verboten. Some pieces even require owners to regularly send the artist photographic documentation of her work installed in their homes. The piece on the floor of David Zwirner, that beastly, earthy wonder, which Black assembled by eye and intuition, would later be precisely catalogued so that it can be recreated to her exact specifications.
“The connection between me and the work, it doesn’t end, you know?” Black said, explaining her attention to those details. “Or if it’s not me, it’s my estate or whatever. It doesn’t end. It doesn’t become separate. So I sort of retain that control over it, even when someone’s bought it.”
Paying for her art doesn’t give you power over it, she said. “You can’t just do what you want.”