TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January 1968

Peter Forakis

PETER FORAKIS’S WOODEN SCULPUTRES of 1960–61, of which almost none survive, were loose-jointed compilations of lumber, bolted and nailed together, and painted in tough, sweet carnival colors. Found raw material, often holding traces of its pre-art status, was pushed and heaped into art. Improvisatory work with casual materials is part of a city sensibility that marked recent art. On one hand, it has connections to the Junk Culture phase of Pop art and, on the other, there are links to the physicality of Abstract Expressionist paint. (Abstract Expressionist, in this sense, is only de Kooning and Kline, not Still, Newman, Rothko, nor, properly, Pollock.) Abstract Expressionism, in the ’50s, was often discussed as the art that only dirty old New York could have produced. (Hence, it was inimitable to contemporaries elsewhere and differentiated from historical precedent.) The thick paint deposits have more to do with the studio and with a style, but, nonetheless, some of the early recognition of New York’s art took the verbal form of liking New York as a place.1

Forakis is neither an Expressionist (though he remembers Milton Resnick on the West Coast in the early ’50s) nor a Pop artist, but his independence does not preclude references in either direction. His American Junk, 1962, reveals the gritty urban quality in more than its title: it has a material presence which also characterizes early pieces by Chuck Ginnever, Mark di Suvero, and John Chamberlain. It was shown in January, 1964, at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, together with a twenty-panel painting, ten of which can be seen in the installation view reproduced here. At the time the painting seemed closer to the sculpture than it does now; the rough and negligent carpentry, the thick-skinned paint describing forms as mandatory as street signs, the candy colors, were all direct and brute. Forakis’s work since 1962, however, has brought another aspect of his early work forward and it can be seen to be central. It is an interest that is clear in The Rising of the Seven Tribes, 1960. The regularity of the separate panels, the clarity of the seven in one-one as seven format, and a moderate degree of optional arrangement, make it an early statement of the modular organization that he has stayed with ever since.

His modular preoccupation has not always been recognized. He was missing, for example, from the recent Art in Series show at Finch College, an omission with, perhaps, this cause: Forakis has been somewhat undershown, despite fairly frequent exposure at the Park Place Gallery. These showings would have been more adequate if he were more repetitive for longer periods, but, in fact, his art is diverse enough for his production and his exhibitions not to have matched well. As a result, his work is only fragmentarily known. He is still, as in the Junk Culture phase, chronically underfinanced: Laser Lightning, for instance, a recent work, exists only in a cardboard mockup owing to lack of money. One part of the later work of Forakis that is fairly well-known, his comic strips, probably increases his public’s problem. The imagery comes on as churning, evocative signs and scenes, full of half-blocked cues; to quote from a text by the artist, “cactus silhouettes poke barbed truths in the brain of my time-clock.” However, the pages of Grope 1 and 2 are, also, precisely sliced and sequential displays of restricted formal elements. The undecipherable but stirring images imply a kind of energy that is not the usual accompaniment of a modular or serial art. The fact is, however, that Forakis’s fully serial art is uninflected and non-hierarchic, rigorously bound by its premises.

The paintings of 1960–62 developed from simple to complex, but all were rough; the paintings of 1963–64 are all in maximum black and white contrasts, simplified and reduced like the color bars in street signs. Forakis, throughout the first half of the ’60s, moved between painting and sculpture, doing both simultaneously and enjoying connections between the two media. Floating Cloud, 1961, is like a demonstration of the connections—almost one of his paintings folded into a rectangle. It does not, like some paintings in which the image is deduced from the stretcher’s form, resemble a graphic cut-out for folding into three dimensions, because Forakis’s color occurs arbitrarily across and against the given angles of the box; corners are painted over and edges reveal blips of encroaching color. In 1964, when he made his last painting, Daedelus and Icarus, there are still connections between painting and sculpture but his ideas of both changed, as he moved from brute to neat. The two canvases in Daedelus and Icarus, white on white, combine the flatness of painting with a peripheral thrust, possessive of surrounding space, like sculpture. The fact that the canvases are identical is another reminder of Forakis’s modular preoccupation: he is repeating one form rather than introducing new ones into the work.

Modular or serial art marks a radical shift from the traditional definition of art as a unique configuration of unrepeating forms; such a work is incomplete until it has all been seen. Serial art, on the other hand, may or may not be theoretically endless, but the unit of meaning is no longer necessarily all the work. If a work of art consists of repetitions of the same form, in bits, in steps, the unit can be either the single item or the whole formal population. All of it is not an unimaginable entity, as a complex unique work of art is, but is conceivable as a system, given one full unit. In addition, of course, one arrangement need not preclude others made by people other than the artist. Serial art is, as has been stressed, conceptual in origin; it is, also, strongly physical in its consumption by the spectator when it is environmental in scale or use. Since 1965 the modular theme in Forakis’s art has been dominant. Tetrahedrons I and III are on the scale of toys and invite handling; this is true of a lot of works, but handling and the changes of position that follow handling, are here within the intention of the artist. In his retrospective at Windham College, there are a group of unlinked modular works; twelve two-surfaced triangular forms; twenty-four right-angled triangles made by the negative space between the base lines of three corner-touching solid triangles; and groups of plumbing joints, which turn out to be a ready-made of Oriental elegance. The groups of identical forms are regroupable and each unit interchangeable within the limits of the artist’s system (which has a minimum requirement of sufficient density for recognition).

In addition to the variables, Forakis has made many fixed-position sculptures, some of them solidifications of the modular pieces, and others are of inherently ambiguous forms. Magic Box, 1965, depends on geometry as a source of uncertainty rather than as the demonstration of order. The use of geometry to create twisting or knotted forms is, perhaps, the extension of his use of color in sculpture (painted against the form) into a completely three-dimensional form. His work is geometric, but it is a geometry of continuities and double-takes, rather than of stable determinate solids. Forakis’s knowledge of topology is casual, but is indicated by the title of a 1965 piece, Topological Air. What he calls “hyper” space in his later pieces is usually a reference to the visual knots, kinky planes, and crisscrossing of his sculpture. The continuities of Outline, 1966, are not four-dimensional though elegantly warped, with recognized geometric forms in the process of transformation. In Port and Starboard, 1966, a linear knot and a planar sequence are combined; the forms are comparable in area but unlike in articulation, related but opposite. Some of the art criticism concerning artists at Park Place accepted at face value the relevance to art of post-Euclidean geometries hinted at in these works. Ed Ruda is probably more accurate when he is ironic about it in his memoir of Park Place (in Arts, November, 1967), with his references to “the Hypercube Realty Co.” Forakis’s work is not part of an idealistic art-science tie-up, another Faustus marrying another Helen with a Bauhaus kite festival after the ceremony, but a creation within the definition of the space of art.

The changed meaning of geometry in art is not the result of the substitution of one system of geometry for another, because uncertainty and paradox applies as strongly to Euclidean as to topological forms, in the context of art. The stability of early 20th-century geometric art was the result of an agreement that simple forms were more basic, more universal, than complex ones. Looking at Mondrian now, however, it is not the supposed universality of his vocabulary (dependent on an iconographical reading of line and color) which is moving, but the extent to which his geometry is a personal, and arbitrary, possession. Once geometry loses its primary grandeur, it becomes what it is in art today, a non-absolute means. Within these terms, the only ones available after all, to human beings, Forakis’s geometries are important. They have the muscle which is conspicuous in the early work but preserved in the style of the modular works, that is, in a kind of work in which objects are frequently passive in relation to their architectural setting. This is not a criticism of passive or diffuse pieces, but an attempt to characterize Forakis’s difference from that. His modular forms usually have a spiky or faceted look, for all the regularity of their recurrence.

“What do I do about all the pieces that are to remain models? I have found that most . . . people can’t read a drawing, no matter how clear it is to me. A model table was built at Park Place and roads painted on it to connote scale and viewing environment.” Forakis’s frustration at merely symbolizing scale accords with notes on his childhood: “I grew up looking out into space and the objects in space and how they were placed. From billboards to ‘R and R’ signs outside motels and industrial buildings, gas stations and cemetries, oilwells, and windmills. Bridges and freeways, multi-ramped. TV towers, high-voltage towers . . .” One of the sculptures has left the model table and been erected by the Great Southwest Corp., Atlanta, Georgia, at the entrance to an industrial park. Unveiled, if that’s the word, last July, Gateway has received curiously little attention, despite such promising themes as art and industry coming together, and the size of the work: it crosses a four-lane highway, clearing the edge of the road by twenty feet. Two triangles of red painted steel tubing are connected to span the highway; one triangle rests on its base, the other on one point, so that their connection by 200-foot long tubes produces a giant twist in space. Two other large works, though not on this prodigious scale, are Laser Lightning, 1967, in which color is applied to the four surfaces of the continuous form, but slips from one side to the others, like a Mobius strip. It runs until its four colors have all wound round the form. Vermont Tower, 1967, is seen here assembled horizontally; the jointed sections were linked vertically on the campus of Windham College, Putney.

Previously, Forakis’s works gave the effect, as one met them, one or two at a time, of being the outer bits of a far-off internal explosion, an impression possibly confirmed by his comic books, which were treated as evidence of Forakis being a folkloric Abstract Expressionist under the skin. Forakis’s development, from painting and Junk Culture to sculpture, both modular and non-modular, now seems cogent and purposeful when viewed in the perspective made possible by Windham College.

Lawrence Alloway

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NOTES

1. Thomas B. Hess, for instance, in 1959, considered the best analogy to a de Kooning pink to be “on certain damp nights, the sky over Times Square.” The urban ism, minor and doubtful, of Abstract Expressionism (celebrated in the same year by Harold Rosenberg in an unreprinted psycho-geography of 10th Street), is demonstrable and certain in Junk Culture-oriented Pop art (for example, work at the Reuben Gallery, 1959–61).