Metaphotos of a Metasculpture: Omar Rodriguez Rodriguez’s Metaphotos of Josiah McElheny’s Metasculpture Model for Total Reflective Abstraction

Omar Rodriguez Rodriguez’s Metaphotos of Josiah McElheny’s Metasculpture Model for Total Reflective Abstraction (after Buckminster Fuller & Isamu Noguchi), 2003.

Blown glass objects, mirrored glass, and wood base.

Josiah McElheny’s sculpture at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, called “Model for Total Reflective Abstraction” (2005), is meta because it incorporates and distorts itself, the viewer, other visitors, other works of art, and the gallery.


The sculpture reflects itself. Its abstract objects rest on a mirrored base, rounding out and extending certain shapes, which seem to be floating in space. Other objects are duplicated in the flat mirror, so they seem to be resting on their own inverted image, and not a solid surface. Every object is reshaped and reshaped on the shiny surfaces, and each reflected shape is in turn distorted in other reflections, so that none of the objects has a definitive form.

A Sculpture About Looking at Art

The most significantly meta aspect of the artwork is that the viewer is reflected looking at the work of art, so the act of viewing becomes part of the piece for the viewer to reflect on. Also, other visitors are reflected looking at the sculpture and the other works of art surrounding it in the gallery. It becomes a sculpture about looking at art.

Metaphotos of a Metasculpture

Many times, I caught myself focusing on my own distorted images, as in a fun house mirror, rather than at the sculpture itself. The distorted images of myself became almost abstract shapes included in the sculpture, part of the “total reflective abstraction.” The inclusion of the viewer makes photography irresistible. I took pictures with my  phone on one trip then invited Omar Rodriguez Rodriguez to come back with me to take better quality photos. Since the photographer and camera appear, these photos are metaphotos, photos of someone taking photographs. (Thanks, Omar!)

Appropriating Other Artworks

Other works of art are also incorporated in the sculpture. Cornelia Parkers’ powerful sculpture “Anti-Mass” (2005), for example, appears in the McElheny’s sculpture from almost any angle, as in the photo above. Parker suspended charred pieces of wood from a Southern Black Baptist church burned down by arsonists. The name of her sculpture, Anti-Mass, has a double meaning: against a religious service, a mass, (referring to those who burnt the church), and being against gravity, as the pieces float without falling, transcending the destruction. The sculpture takes on more of an anti-gravity, spiritual feeling in the free-floating reflections of McElheny’s sculpture. (Other art works in the gallery are listed below.)

The name of the sculpture also refers to works of art not in the gallery with the mention of Buckminster Fuller, who invented the geodesic dome among other accomplishments, and Isamu Noguchi, who also worked with geometric and abstract shapes in his art and architecture.

The Art Depicts the Gallery

The sculpture also includes the gallery space inside itself which is shown, much as in Velasquez’ Las Meninas, which represented the type of gallery his painting was destined to hang in. (For more on Velasquez’s masterpiece see my post Las Meninas: A Metapainting.) In McElheny’s sculpture, the gallery itself, its walls and its lights, become part of the distorted shapes in the sculpture. Even the name of the gallery, which is written on the wall, is reflected in the artwork.

Photos by Omar Rodriguez Rodriguez. (Check out his blog

If It’s a Model, What Does it Represent?

Everything in fact is altered and becomes part of the work: gallery, other paintings, visitors and the sculpture itself, so that the viewer may reflect on all these elements as “total abstractions,” as works of art. According to the title, however, the sculpture is a “model” for “total reflective abstraction,” encouraging, perhaps, the viewer to imagine the “real” total reflective abstraction, which the sculpture models. What that “real sculpture” would be is left up to the viewer and so the viewer is invited to extend the sculpture well beyond its limits, to participate in its ongoing creation.

(Check out more metaphotos on InstagramFlickrPinterest, and Tumblr.)

List of Works in the George and Judy Marcus Gallery

(which appear in these photos)

Forrow, Al. The Spine and Tooth of Santo Guerro, 2007. Guns, bullets, shot, steel, glass, tooth, bone, and 15th-century fabric.

Heinweinn, Gottfried . Epiphany II (Adoration of the Shepherds), 1998. Oil and Acrylic on Canvas.

Nash, David. Rip and Cross Cut Block Column, 2002. Sycamore with Chainsaw Patination.

Norman, Irving . War and Peace, 1965-1966. Oil on canvas.

Odd Nerdum. Old Man with Dead Maiden, 1997. Oil on canvas.

Osato, Sono. “Meena” Oil, asphalt, beeswax, reclaimed objects on canvas mounted on wood panel.

Parker, Cornelia . Anti-Mass, 2005. Charcoal and wire.

Salado, Doris. Untitled, 1998. Concrete, steel, wood.

6 thoughts on “Metaphotos of a Metasculpture: Omar Rodriguez Rodriguez’s Metaphotos of Josiah McElheny’s Metasculpture Model for Total Reflective Abstraction”

  1. I was looking up this sculpture and found your site. I really enjoyed reading your piece with the photos. I was captivated by this sculpture when I met it.

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