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Altered State

Open your mind to Monika Sosnowska’s mind-blowing sculptures at the Aspen Art Museum.

Monika Sosnowska, Installation view, “Monika Sosnowska,” Hauser & Wirth New York, 2010, © Monika Sosnowska, courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

I spent Halloween walking around Manhattan in a four-by-30-block area. Just two days after Hurricane Sandy, nearly everything was canceled or closed, but I walked to the few meetings that I did have. One was to see Monika Sosnowska’s Public Art Fund project at 60th Street and Fifth Avenue, on the southeast corner of Central Park, kitty-corner from The Plaza Hotel. I had walked up Madison from 66th to meet the gallerist on 69th, and, together, we strolled down Fifth to the sculpture. There, just a few days earlier, she had installed a giant spiral staircase, bent and torqued as if caught in a dynamic and treacherous storm. Sosnowska joked that the work had looked the same prior to the hurricane and assured me that it had been designed and engineered to withstand comparable winds. It was, however, impossible to consider the work outside the social environment in which it now existed. As we sat on a park bench and looked at the piece, several of our mutual friends happened to wander by, each partaking in a contemporary post-hurricane pilgrimage: moving from one friend’s house to another temporary location, or heading for a place where they heard they could plug in a phone and possibly even take a shower.

Much has been written about Sosnowska’s work in terms of its relationship to architecture—she is known for taking iconic forms from Bauhaus windows to post-Soviet structures and contorting them—and some in terms of its relationship to Communism (Sosnowska was born and raised in Poland). But much less has been written about her work in terms of its relationship to the monument and its associated political role in Western art history, or even about the emotional resonance of her sculptures’ altered and distorted forms.

So what will visitors encounter at the Aspen Art Museum Feb. 15 through April 21? Of Sosnowska’s three new sculptures on view, the first is a crumpled facade that’s based on a Bauhaus-era design attached to the ceiling of the lower gallery; the next, a compressed staircase that, like those in other works, takes on the aspect of vertebrae or a spinal column; and the third, a freestanding sculpture composed of a construction I beam, which she desires, in her own words, to “bend in spite of its nature.”

This statement reminds me of another time in New York, when I lived there early in my career. I was at a dinner party with some friends, artists who were still unknown, but who have since come to define our generation. The conversation turned to the power of the mind to allow the performance of things physically impossible—in this case, bending spoons. Everyone was handed a spoon just pulled from the silverware drawer in the kitchen, and we all went to sit in a circle on the living-room floor. Someone verbally led our thoughts; we closed our eyes and concentrated. And, then, as instructed, we simultaneously and forcefully repeated aloud: “Bend. Bend. Bend.” Mildly embarrassed, and partially freaked out, I was amazed to find mine bent in half and nearly doubled over. I think my sense of the possible changed that night; my status seemed to, as well. As Sosnowska rightly understands, there is great power in achieving the unthinkable.