Some shows cast a spell you don’t forget. Zoe Leonard’s 1995 solo with Paula Cooper Gallery did that for me. And her spare, reverberant retrospective now at the Whitney Museum of American Art time-traveled me straight back to it.
The Cooper show wasn’t in a gallery; it was in Ms. Leonard’s studio, an old two-room walk-up on the Lower East Side. And I had it to myself. There wasn’t even a gallery attendant around to keep watch. Not that there was much to steal. A few unframed black-and-white photographs dotted the walls: one of a bare city tree, another of a woman’s tousled head seen from behind, a third of graffiti reading “Gay + Proud + Dead.” The windowsills and a long shelf were lined with empty, wizened fruit skins, each stitched closed with needle and thread.
Physically, the show was, to say the least, modest. Atmospherically it was rich, wired into its time and place. AIDS was stalking the city; an immigrant neighborhood was gentrifying; the art world was on the edge of a huge shift: the first Armory Show had debuted the year before. Ms. Leonard’s work felt like a tight-lipped lament.
That mood is hard to recapture in as public a setting as the Whitney, but “Zoe Leonard: Survey” comes very close. The installation is ultra-austere, all white walls and window with a fiercely edited selection of photographs. Most were taken in midair: shots of clouds from airplane windows, aerial views of sea and earth far below. A twisting river gleams like a vein of silver; a vast city looks as dark and indistinct as a swatch of nubby fabric.
The entire group could fit in a suitcase, and there are several of them — 56 to be exact — in different shades of blue, lined up across the gallery floor forming a sculpture titled “1961,” the year Ms. Leonard was born in upstate New York. The number of suitcases corresponds to her current age. Since first assembling the piece in 2002, she’s been adding one a year, extending a theme of travel in her art — through memory, space, and time — into the future.
For this artist, time — ductile and emotionally loaded — seems as important a medium as photography or sculpture. Many of her photographs carry two dates: the year the picture was shot and the year, as much as a decade later, when it was printed. Materials she uses in sculptures and installations — suitcases, fruit skins, vintage postcards — comes with prior, but unknown histories, creating intricate traffic patterns between present and past in her work.