Roxy Paine’s Metal Trees Are Flourishing

Artist Roxy Paine will have an exhibition of a new Dendroid sculpture at James Cohan Gallery in Manhattan's Chelsea district this fall, and other artworks from the series have been purchased for as much as $1 million by the Israel Museum, National Gallery of Canada, Nelson-Atkins Museum, Crystal Bridges Museum, Munich RE, and Sweden's Wanås Foundation. His huge work seen at the Metropolitan Museum last year has not been sold.

Roxy Paine’s stainless-steel tree sculptures have captured the public’s imagination, and mine as well. I’ve seen some of them installed in parks in New York, Seattle, Saint Louis, Washington, DC, and elsewhere, and they always demand and reward my attention. For one thing, they are beautiful, and for another, they make me think – two essential attributes as far as I am concerned. (Yes, I know, some great art is not conventionally beautiful, but that’s another discussion.)

Roxy Paine's stainless steel Inversion was shown at Art Basel in 2008, and is bound for the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Paine calls the series “Dendroids,” a name that combines dendron, Greek for “tree”, and “oid,” a suffix meaning “form.” But the title is more nuanced.  Other words derived from dendron refer to branching systems, and in zoology “oid” denotes a creature belonging to a higher level of taxonomy. So “Dendroids” aren’t just tree forms, but allusions to branching structures from neurons to rivers to genealogical charts. And a viewer may be moved to  consider the congruencies among such disparate but related systems.

As I said, they make me think. (Paine discusses the series in a video here.)

Their translation of organic forms into cold, hard steel reminds me about the intersection of nature and human industry. This is a terrain that Paine inhabits. He is known also for hyper-real replications of plants and fungi using polymer and other materials.

Just what is a “Dendroid”?

The “Dendroids” — always leafless — point to a future about which we remain profoundly uneasy – a time when we routinely will substitute the manmade for the natural. This is where the “oid” comes in: today the suffix suggests a manufactured substitute, the prime example being “android,” a counterfeit man (andros). The beginnings are already here in the form of bioengineered livestock and vegetables and lab-grown organs. Despite its promise the whole business is somehow disturbing, and Paine’s work is all the more unsettling for its spectacular and beguiling beauty.

Metal trees are not new. I remember encountering some 18th-century examples in the garden of the tsarist Peterhof Palace outside of St Petersburg, Russia. They were humorous diversions that surprised strollers by suddenly creating a downpour. And Paine is not the only contemporary artist I admire who makes  metal tree sculptures. Some of Rona Pondick’s sprout human heads and the ground beneath others is littered with apple-like  fruits that contain toothy mouths. Their nightmarish surrealism represents psychological pain with Old Testament overtones about human nature.

Roxy Paine (Jason Edward Kaufman © 2010).

Perhaps closer to Paine are the works of Giuseppe Penone, who uses tree forms to celebrate nature and to gently lament its destruction. In some instances he carves his own tree forms within the trunks of large trees. In others he takes squared wooden beams and carves them back into slender tree trunks, leaving the knots as stubby branches. They express a yearning for redemption through respect for the laws and beauty of nature. But if Penone’s works are poetic elegies, Paine’s are an almost shrill proclamation: this is where we have come!

So I was intrigued when Paine’s commercial representative, James Cohan Gallery, sent out a press release announcing Paine’s third exhibition at the Chelsea gallery, scheduled for October 16 to December 11. The release noted that he is working also on six new large-scale “Dendroid” projects that will be installed by next March.

What became of Maelstrom, the sculpture that took the Met by storm?

I contacted co-owner Jane Cohan to ask for details, but first I wanted to know what happened to Maelstrom, 2009, the sprawling “Dendroid” that covered the roof of the Metropolitan Museum much of last year. It turns out that it is back at Paine’s studio in Treadwell in upstate New York, “still available,” she says, but “in consideration” (not by the Met, which uses the roof for changing shows and has no place to show it). The asking price is around $2.5 million, she says, noting that at 130 x 45-feet the work is many times the size of others in the series.

Maelstrom on the roof of the Metropolitan. (Jason Edward Kaufman © 2010)

“We partially financed the fabrication of Maelstrom,” she says. “In the event of its sale, the Met will be paid back for their investment in the fabrication. This arrangement is very common between galleries and commissioning institutions,” she adds. (All of the “Dendroids” are handmade by Paine and his assistants at his upstate studio, working with wholesale pipe, tube and rod that they modify with a hydraulic bender and weld together to scale up his maquettes.)

Welded joins in Maelstrom.

Since the Met show boosted demand for Paine’s work, prices have increased. Single trees were in the high six figures when the National Gallery of Art added a 45-footer to its sculpture garden on the National Mall last year. Now, says Cohan, new “Dendroid” commissions – coordinated through the gallery – begin at $1 million, depending on the size of the work.

The fall show at Cohan will be a continuous walk-through network of branch-like steel forms filling the gallery from the front desk through the two main rooms and into the library at the rear. (The little room off the front of the gallery will have a wall installation of mushrooms.) Tentatively titled Distillation, it’s a kind of indoor version of Maelstrom, and it should be equally challenging to sell.

What does the gallery plan to do with a site-specific piece fitted to the interior of its gallery? “The possibilities are very open…and very few as well,” acknowledges Cohan. “It’s such a breakthrough kind of piece that all these opportunities open up and it forces anyone looking at it to really think and deal with their space” as a prospective site for one of his pieces.

Another view of the branching Maelstrom, 2009. (Jason Edward Kaufman © 2010)

“Dendroids” are going to Israel, Germany, Sweden, Canada and the U.S.

Not that the gallery is having much difficulty placing the works since the Met show. A half dozen “Dendroids” commissioned or sold in 2009 and 2010 are headed to institutions in North America, Europe and the Middle East:

The Israel Museum, Jerusalem: Inversion, an upside-down tree form shown on the plaza in front of Art Basel in 2008, will be installed in the museum’s famous outdoor sculpture garden by January 2011.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas: Yield will be installed in February 2011. Walmart heiress and museum founder Alice Walton initiated the purchase after Met show.

Facade-Billboard, 2010, is the second Paine "Dendroid" acquired by a Swedish foundation.

Munich RE, Munich: Discrepancy was commissioned by the insurance company for a site in front of a new building, and will be installed in March 2011.

Wanås Foundation, Knislinge, Sweden: Façade/Billboard is a black silhouette of a tree, plasma-cut from sheet steel and held up like a billboard on a stainless steel armature. (See image right.) Installed in May, it is the second “Dendroid” acquired by the rural foundation for contemporary art, which purchased Paine’s first work in the series in 1999.

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa: 100 Foot Line, a steel tapering trunk-like form that extends 10 stories into the air, will be installed in October atop Nepean Point, a hill overlooking the Ottawa River near the Canadian Parliament. The work was acquired based on a maquette (see image BELOW?), and may become a lightning rod for actual lightning as well as public opinion.

Maquette for 100 Foot Line.

Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri: Ferment is a stainless steel tree that merges with an upside-down tree above. It was commissioned to honor Martin Friedman, former director of the Walker Art Center, who is retiring as a consultant to the Nelson-Atkins.

The work being made for the fall show at James Cohan will be the 26th in the “Dendroid” series. Others are sited around Europe and North America, with several in private collections (two are small scale). Cohan believes a reason for their success as public art is that “the works fold themselves into the fabric of life so beautifully, you really interact with them.” It helps also that they are expertly crafted from durable material. And as I said at the outset, they are beautiful and thought-provoking, topical and timeless. Despite their towering price tages, my guess is that the “Dendroids” species will continue to flourish.


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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.


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