LINCOLN — Snow had lain a thick coat of white over Orly Genger’s “Red, Yellow, and Blue” when I visited the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum last week. I wore boots. Snowshoes would have been a better choice.
“Red, Yellow, and Blue” is a sculpture; it’s a painting; it’s a monumental, crocheted serpent slithering through the sculpture park. Knotted by hand from a million feet of rope originally used by lobstermen and painted with acrylic house paint, it takes over the place with sensuous clamor.
Other pieces on display feel more discrete and more discreet. “Red, Yellow, and Blue” seizes the landscape and plays with it, engaging several other works in a delirious dance.
Genger, winner of the deCordova’s 2011 Rappaport Prize, blends the domestic art of crochet with the monumental ambitions of minimalist sculptors such as Richard Serra.
The artist installed “Red, Yellow, and Blue” at Madison Square Park in New York this past spring. There, 1.4 million feet of knotted, painted rope formed three separate chambers, each a primary color, on the park’s lawns, with undulant rims reaching up into the trees. When it came down, a fraction of the installation went to Chicago. The bulk came here.
Genger didn’t attempt to re-create the enclosures of Madison Square Park at the deCordova. She responded to the sculpture park’s hilly landscape and to the other art on display, installing her layers of rope in a long, curvy run.
Jennifer Gross, the museum’s deputy director for curatorial affairs and chief curator, waded out into the snow with me, and the drifts topped our boots. The piece starts in brassy red strands, which mount and rise to cup the side of a tree, then zigzag through other tree trunks, sidling up the hill past “Lincoln,” DeWitt Godfrey’s string of tumbling steel cylinders.
It slides into yellow, rising and falling across the edge of the museum’s patio, then down a rocky hill, where it shifts to blue. Down toward Flint’s Pond it makes a container for Alan Sonfist’s glittery aluminum leaf sculptures, “The Endangered Species of New England.”
“Red, Yellow, and Blue” takes inspiration from Barnett Newman’s painting series “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue?” (1966-1970). Newman sought to shake up rigid and didactic approaches to the primary colors and celebrate their juicy expressiveness. The blazing hues bring to mind nursery school finger painting. Maybe Newman’s paintings did frighten some: Vandals have slashed two of them.
Most of the art in the sculpture park, made of stone, metal, and unpainted wood, carries a restrained palette. “Red, Yellow, and Blue” shouts with color as it scrambles up and down hills. On the sunny day I visited, its brightness matched that of the cloudless sky. In the autumn, it competed with the foliage. Now, it sparks up the leafless landscape and turns it into a canvas coursing with runnels of brazen hues.
Genger’s installation hums along conceptually on many cylinders. It merges a traditionally feminine craft with a particularly masculine monumentalism. It blends painting and sculpture. It activates landscape with a sinewy abstract gesture. Its undulations of recycled rope, from which the artist and her assistants teased countless lobster claws and fish bones, hint at a previous life in the waves.
But really the best part of “Red, Yellow, and Blue” is sculptural. Sculptures compel more than just looking. They prompt a bodily response. We take in a piece’s size, its texture, its shape, in the same way we size up a stranger on the street: Is he bigger than me? It’s not enough to stand outside the museum and gaze down at the curve of brilliant blue cupping Sonfist’s aluminum leaves just over Flint’s Pond — that would be more like looking at a painting.
Gross advised me not to try to climb over the shale rock formations where the yellow slides down. So I set off into the untrammeled snow, following the white-capped blue mass of rope. It was roughly the height of a stone wall — familiar to a New Englander, and less daunting than some of the higher walls in the piece’s Madison Square Park version. The burly strand of blue felt like a magical pathway, kin to the Yellow Brick Road.
Losing traction on my way back up to the museum, I fell in the snow. I grabbed on to Genger’s rope — some small portion of it is mountain-climbing rope, not lobster rope — to right myself and scale the mound of plowed snow along the drive. It’s the least precious, most hands-on experience I’ve had with a sculpture, and something about “Red, Yellow, and Blue” — its solid, utilitarian heft, its warm colors, its intimate knotting, its naturalness in the landscape — invited it. I left, snow-dusted and exhilarated.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version included incorrect last names for Alan Sonfist and Jennifer Gross.