PRINT November 1966

“Eccentric Abstraction”

THE FISCHBACH GALLERY OPENED its ’66–’67 season with a solid group show of nine sculptors, all of whom are worth seeing. But like most group shows this one is no exception in begging the question of group exhibi­tions, despite a manifesto and group name (Eccentric Abstraction, provided by Lucy Lippard). Artists do not com­monly arrange themselves in groups any more than sea urchins and star­fish align themselves with the echino­derms. At its most harmless the group show is a piece of innocent connois­seurship (“Seafood I Like”): at its most ambitious it is Linnaean, aiming at isolation of some tendency or clus­ter of tendencies by virtue of which the artists may be said to “play the same game.” This is dangerous––they say that when Linnaeus found some animal that did not conveniently fit into one of his categories he crushed it underfoot. Still, this is what every­body tries for and the Fischbach show is no exception. But what is one to make of a tendency defined in terms of a refusal “to forego imagi­nation and the expansion of sensuous experience”? Imagination is the ca­pacity to see what is not there or to overlook what is there. As such it seems more appropriate to business­men striding through forests and see­ing mortgages or soldiers napalming villagers and counting Vietcong than to any practicing artists. As for “ex­pansion of sensuous experience,” it appears to mean emphasis on tactile properties, which certainly doesn’t apply to all of the work included, e.g. Viner’s brightly-colored hanging plas­tic pieces or the plywood and fiber­glass pieces of Gary Kuehn. Most probably, the terminology of the cat­alog is intended to represent some kind of polemical opposition to the imagined stance of another fictitious group, the “primary structuralists.” But the Kuehn pieces, working off sharp binary oppositions between “hard” (rectilinear) plywood shapes and “soft” (diffusely formed) fiber­glass shapes, could easily have been included in the Primary Structures show. Moreover the work of all the artists shown exhibits sharply diver­gent interests, many of which are not altogether clear from the show. As usual in group exhibitions the artists whose interests are clearest––per­haps merely because they are simplest––show to the greatest ad­vantage. This may be true of Kuehn, whose intentions are logical and apparent from even a single piece. It would be interesting to see if he would look as well in a one-man show. On the other hand, Louise Bourgeois’ relatively small encrusted rubber objects are easily overlooked in this exhibition, because it is diffi­cult to tell precisely where her interest lies. If she is concerned with making objects, they are curiously eviscerated, like hanging masks. On the other hand if she is interested in the generation of relief surfaces it is hard to understand the uniformly small size of the pieces shown. Viner’s work is also difficult to deal with. Large, windowed, brightly col­ored plastic bags looking like so many immense aprons hanging from a ceiling rack, they can apparently be opened to even greater length like an accordion. If it is a game involving indeterminate volume, it is not clear. Moreover, Viner is the only artist in the show concerned with bright “Pop” color. Perhaps the only shared interest of these sculptors is a kind of unexpected use of materials. The most curious use of material is Bruce Nauman’s (he is probably the most interesting of the artists shown). His drooping soft rubber pastel colored pieces, randomly disposed, like the octopus-shaped floor piece, or the haphazardly drooping wall relief, push the idea of sculpture very far toward one limit. Keith Sonnier’s wall piece introduces the transparent plas­tic indispensable to happenings into a kind of hard-edge sculpture. There is a very nice and slightly absurd con­trast between the two sections: one plastic bag breathes, slowly inflating and deflating, while the other hangs glittering between two plywood boxes. In two floor pieces looking like collapsing chairs Alice Adams ex­ploits color to mask materials––steel cable is disguised to look like soft fiber under a deceptive coat of red paint, and a sombre brown conceals the marriage of steel cable with hemp. Eva Hesse combines rubber tubing and lacquered cord to form a pair of joined sausage shapes. She also has a somewhat less successful wall piece resembling a pair of cir­cuit boards for a huge computer, connected by a maze of cottony white wires. Don Potts’ leather covered plywood pieces have the scale of playground equipment but the feel of high class luggage, while Westermann’s drum is covered with the plush purple and green pile nor­mally encountered in bathroom rugs or toilet seat covers. This displace­ment of materials or, rather, separa­tion of material and shape gives the work a kind of contentless comedy that may be far less evident in the works of any of these sculptors taken individually.

––David Antin