PRINT Summer 1964


SCULPTURE IN THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA AREA was for many years a series of individual efforts within a Twentieth Century form-material definition. The sculptors were independent and there was a school-lessness typical of the area. There was also an isolation that may stem from the fact that sculpture by its nature is a less portable tradition than painting, and there was less past to overcome when modernism finally struck. But even in isolation their works were united by the large tradition of the form-maker. To anyone who even pretends to tradition today, the whole definition under which he works is being challenged by instant art history: artifacts that arrive, mint-new, complete with credentials pinned to their shirt. Under today’s house rules any spatial obstruction, no matter how heterogeneous or impermanent, can be sculpture, and judging from the international exhibition scene the number of collations being shown is staggering and seems to be fast coming into dominance. But there still exists an attitude of plastic sculpture concerned with forming a physical body of homogeneous and permanent material into an object, and in diverse works coming out of the L.A. area these stricter attitudes toward the materials of sculpture seem to persist. Although isolated, they seem to be holding a place in line for the return of a monumental concept.

In the current game of redefinitions, sculpture can be expected to loom large. It deals in substance and comes as near being a magic object as anything our society can conjure; for this reason it offers a refuge to those who can no longer feel any bite or authenticity in the flat image. Painting has challenged its own limitations to a point of fatigue on many fronts. The invasions of the painters’ realm by a photographic level of perception, the emotional sweep of Abstract Expressionism trivialized into anonymity, a Junta-like reinstatement of geometry—whatever the beef—is likely to create a yearning for the certainty of fetish objects on the part of many painters and lead them to follow traditional three-dimensional paths. Because collectors must feel this fatigue and yearning in their own way, it seems natural that they would respond with some enthusiasm when their artist starts “sketching” in bronze. The technical facilities in the Los Angeles area (with a large assist from Berkeley) have made the casting process more accessible and inexpensive enough for a fairly sizable number of painter-sculptors to put out their shingle. Jack Zajac, whose success for the past few years has given much impetus to the local revival of bronzes, now works in Rome but is still active in the area through his La Cienega connections. He continues to work in the romantic figure vein of skull and figure motifs and although his current work has taken on a more agitated surface quality, the form is still the quick waxy form of the modeler. Much of this genre is marked by a characteristic sketch quality, an intimate and at times ingenious naturalism. Of the most ingenious, Joyce Treiman often combines small bronze figures with some pictorial device—one projects from the face of a framed painting, another sits on a drawing. Her work is always lively, she is a most able draftsman, but it all skates perilously close to being an exercise in wit. James Gill has confected some sculptures on the theme of a woman-automobile personage. The figure is a partial rendering of the figure in a lumpish, Play-Doh like form, as she emerges from an automobile door. The fragment of figure and automobile are a composite form but whereas the woman is in a rough, patinaed bronze, the car part is smoothly polished and slickly painted with metallic paint. Emerson Woelffer has carried his image into bronze with some small artifacts, symmetrical standing totems that convey the sense of being heraldic vanity mirrors. Being small, they do not assert their presence, rather they are charming and really quite ingratiating. Ingratiating too are the figure pieces by John Paul Jones and Roger Kuntz. Of the two, Kuntz has the sharper eye and the surer grasp of modeling; his figures have the same involvement in their own particular and transient activities that one finds in Degas. As a movement, or rather a diversion, this Bronze Age will gain adherents but points back to painting rather than toward any durable sculptural statement. In the tradition of the sculpture-maker is the development of Robert Cremean, who with a strong craftsmanly sense constructs his own original vision. His neo-Romantic use of the figure constructed by an involved process of joining and fashioning wood, along with the use of various new adhesives to reinforce fabric and to compound a wood mache, brings new insights to a vocabulary provided by the earlier part of the century. The mannequin figure has much in common with the spirit of di Chirico’s metaphysical dummies. Cremean provides the environment for the larger pieces so that the figure has a specific arena in which to exist, such as the area of a platform or the interlocked spaces within a structure. His most recent pieces turn away from the precisely crafted volumes and become like carvings within a rough cube, the inside forms are finished but the outer boundaries are the flat sides in simple profile forms. The results are more massive and possess a directness of statement that escapes any sense of dandyism that might haunt his earlier pieces.

Even more indigenous to the area because of the ceramic revival in the past two decades is the potter-sculptor. As a craft, pottery-making contains many certainties that can be applied with taste and skill to the making of functional things, but if the potter chooses to push beyond function into a less limited expressive arena—into wild, wild art—these certainties must be jettisoned because even hybrid pots are too ambiguous to demand a purely sculptural response. Only a few potters make the final break to become sculptors. Peter Voulkos pushed from pottery of consummate skill to clay sculpture into cast metal with his characteristic command. John Mason, an associate of Voulkos has continued primarily as a clay sculptor and has developed a powerful vocabulary of impacted forms using the will of clay in a direct way. Clay, used monumentally as Mason uses it, creates a powerful sense of mass within forms that have little gesture. They are contained by their very weight, and even their color, which is often used as a reminder of surface, cannot escape from the powerful gravitational sense of “inside.” Working also from an early contact with Voulkos, Kenneth Price has taken an almost diametrically opposed tack. There is no evidence of the “will” of clay, it is polished and smoothed into a simple ovoid, but most of all it is painted in bright spangly colors to create a surface, like that of a car, that has no “underneath.” The sculpture becomes an object in a very special sense, a concrete miracle of nasty-nice volumes with candy coloring on their meticulous surface, conveying a sense of do-not-touch. Color is the dominant element and it is the color of a painter—it demands an attention to the surface, it simply doesn’t give a damn about the mass on which it appears. The extrusion of finger forms present the only challenge to the original geometry of shape and provides the implication of “inside” that is so important to their impact. Price creates an art of paradoxes that is elegant and disturbing. It seems inevitable that some monumental definition of sculpture will arise and that there will be an almost vengeful return to form as an absolute value. Until this happens, Los Angeles, as most other places, must operate with the kind of definitions that are given the army recruit: “If it moves, salute it! If it doesn’t move, pick it up! If it’s too big to pick up, paint it green!”

Douglas McClellan