Sarah Sze’s ‘cabinet of curiosities’ seizes the moment at High Museum

Exhibit preview

“Fast Forward: Modern Moments, 1913-2013”

Through Jan. 20. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; until 8 p.m. Thursdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. $18; $15, students and seniors; $11, ages 6-17; free, 5 and younger. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-4200,

“Fast Forward” at a glance

The exhibit drawn from the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection examines five key years in art history and watershed moments of the 20th century. The 164 works are by 105 artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O’Keeffe, Louise Bourgeois, Franz Kline, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Jeff Koons and Kiki Smith. To convey how contemporary artists are propelling art into the future, the High also commissioned new works from Sarah Sze, Aaron Curry and Katharina Grosse.

Special programming includes:

  • "American Independent Cinema from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art," a screening series, continues 8 p.m. Oct. 26 with John Cassavetes' "Shadows" (1961). Showings in Rich Theatre change weekly through Nov. 24. $7; $6 seniors, students.
  • "Modern Musings," a talk by High Museum director Michael Shapiro and MoMA director Glenn Lowry, 7 p.m. Oct. 29, Alliance Theatre. $15, $5 students with valid ID, includes exhibit tour with Shapiro and Lowry.
  • College Night, 7-11 p.m. Nov. 10, includes exhibit tours, music, DIY DJ station, performance art, robot demonstrations and more. $7.
  • Second Sunday, 1-4 p.m. Nov. 11, includes artist demonstrations, art-making workshops and performances. Free with museum admission.
  • "Day After Thanksgiving: Modern Materials," 7 p.m. Nov. 23. Performances, art-making, exhibit tours. Free with museum admission.

There is an air of slightly unsettling intrigue about the installation that fills the final gallery of “Fast Forward: Modern Moments, 1913-2013,” the just-opened High Museum of Art exhibition surveying milestones of 20th century art.

After strolling several seamlessly flowing galleries packed with powerhouse works by the likes of Salvador Dali and Willem de Kooning that have been drawn from the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, visitors encounter Sarah Sze’s multifaceted creation. At first glance, “Book of Parts (Centennial)” looks and feels little like any of the pieces that preceded it, most of which can be viewed at eye level.

Instead, the New York artist’s sculptural construction, dominated by ladders and storage shelves displaying countless collectibles, appears like an artist’s studio or science lab where the worker has stepped away for a moment, leaving a fan that flutters paper and myriad crook-neck lamps illuminating multiple projects in the process of something approaching completion. Intrigued viewers step close to, and even into, the installation, kneeling to examine items on lower levels or standing on tippy-toes to study ones up high.

Adding to the oddness, the shelves that hold tiny objects lined up like toy soldiers (and some random bigger items) all tilt forward, somehow not spilling their contents. The thrusting furniture invades the gallery-goers’ space and plays with their perception, leaving them feeling off-balance, like they are moving through an arty funhouse.

Sze, who won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2003 and who will represent the United States at the 2013 Venice Biennale, is very much up to tricks.

A “cabinet of curiosities” is how Michael Rooks, High Museum modern and contemporary art curator, describes Sze’s installation. He selected her (along with sculptor Aaron Curry and installation artist Katharina Grosse) to thrust “Fast Forward” forward, representing the art of today and suggesting where it’s heading.

Sze (pronounced “Zee”), who speaks quietly but with refreshing openness about her process and intent, called the challenge a virtually impossible one.

“In some ways, it’s set for failure,” allowed the artist, 43.

Instead of waving a white flag, however, “Book of Parts (Centennial)” responds to that “absurd” yet “hopeful in its own ambition” challenge by addressing how fragile the idea of trying to encompass an era is — fragile being the word Sze most often employs when describing the piece.

The tilt, for instance, “speaks to fragility, volatility, this tension of what’s going to happen,” she said.

In the 38.5-foot-square space, Sze said she sought to create a work that conveyed ephemerality, something with the immediacy and emotion of witnessing Serena Williams winning a tennis match or experiencing a great jazz concert.

“So that when you come here you’re experiencing that very specific moment in time,” Sze said, “that moment when things come together.”

Rooks believes Sze, despite her admitted ambivalence about the scope of the assignment, does make the art of the 20th century come together with that of the 21st. He points out that she subtly references many of the works on view in “Fast Forward,” such as responding to Piet Mondrian’s 1913 grid-based painting “Composition in Brown and Gray” with the architectural grid of her installation. Another example: the way she employs color “emotionally and compositionally,” similar to the rising abstractionist painters of the mid-century.

In such ways, Sze captures the “genetic code” of the 20th century art on view, Rooks believes. But she pushes it forward in the manner in which“Book of Parts (Centennial)” zeroes in on man’s ongoing quest — particularly in this www.-dominated era — to “collect and sort and classify and categorize information,” he said.

The things Sze has carefully assembled fascinate on their own terms. They include milk and salt cartons, paint cans, flip-flops, a beach recliner, an airplane ticket, plants, feathers, rulers, clamps, drill bits, duct tape, washers, screws, tools and more.

The interpretation may be in the eyes of the beholders who choose to focus on different items, but it’s clear that the artist is using everyday materials as tools to shape a physical and metaphysical experience

It’s also clear that Sze has a thing for hardware stores. Indeed, she acknowledges getting easily distracted in them, even when she’s intent on purchasing something practical for the New York home she shares with her husband, scientist-author Siddhartha Mukherjee, and their two daughters.

When it’s suggested that he must wonder at times where his wife disappeared amid the aisles of nuts and bolts and washers and springs, she responded with a laugh, “No, he’s like, ‘Stay in the car, I’ll get it!’”

The Columbia University art professor's focus, however, is razor-sharp when planning how to present her "palette" of purchased and found objects. In her studio beforehand, she creates a 3-D scale model as well as a multitude of artful drawings that anticipate how people will navigate her work.

Yet Sze’s approach to installation is a process of improvisation. “The [objects] that make it — the ones that don’t get pulled out — are the ones that can sit in this space between sculpture and painting,” she explained. “If it can sit in a place that’s constantly in flux, then it stays. If it reads as too much of one thing, then it’s out.”

In a similar way, she remains flexible in her approach to the Venice Biennale next summer. On the day last February when it was announced that she had been selected by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, she revealed she already had a plan to The New York Times: a sequence of five installations for the American Pavilion that suggest the act of discovery that comes from wandering the streets of the Italian city. But like the High installation, the varying works will also play with orientation and disorientation.

Just as she wasn’t daunted when asked to represent an era by the High, the Boston-born artist said she feels no particular pressure in representing a country more than 3,000 miles wide.

“It’s interesting because the frame will be, ‘This is American,’” she acknowledged. “But my father was born in China and my mother’s family is Scottish. So what is American?

“It’s a fluid, fragile, fluctuating, transitional, ever-evolving idea, and always has been,” said Sze, an artist whose work expresses all of the above.