PRINT Summer 1968

Richard Van Buren, David Novros, Charles Ross

IN RICHARD VAN BUREN’S earlier sculptures, which were made of opaque colored fiberglass cast over plywood, chunky volumes related aggressively to each other, angling into and cutting against the space around them. Usually two or three diagonally sliced or bar-like sections were arranged so that certain self-contained space relations were forced to occur between the parts. Such studied interior relationships somehow tended to exclude both the scale and physicality of the viewer and the room space around the pieces. Some of the later works were anchored low on the floor; their particular inertness, coupled with the necessity of having to look at them from an aerial viewpoint also suggested this kind of defiance of the spectator. Nevertheless, these sculptures had a confidence and a streamlined, though complex geometricity that may seem lacking in the new work. But Van Buren is now working toward a more original and satisfying use of his materials which is both integrated with, and expressive of, the simplified sculptural forms. Rather than neutralizing or subverting matter to accord with structural imperatives (as one sensed he was doing in the previous works), he is dealing with the physical substance of his sculpture as it responds and relates directly to the forms.

This exploration of the fiberglass casting medium for its own potential results partly from Van Buren’s dissatisfaction with the polished industrial finish or gratuitous (and essentially decorative) coloring of much current sculpture. The range of natural tints which he obtains—a translucent milky rose, a deep pinkish amber, a resinous mahogany—is sensuous, but characteristically restrained. It derives from variations in the direct treatment of the fiberglass surface, for instance, from the degree of sandpapering, or from torching parts of the wood substructure. The density of the polyester resin is also a factor which controls the coloristic effects: a two-inch thick layer of solid resin can be an opaque honey brown, while a half-inch coating over the natural wood beams will be a fleshy rose-madder within the same work. Thus the surface in Van Buren’s new works is used fully as a material (not just as an outer skin), and color is an inherent part of the material and the sculptural object.

In his April show at the Bykert Gallery, Van Buren develops several lines of thinking. A major work, and one of his most ambitious (though not the most successful) is a 12-foot long, six-foot high post-and-lintel structure made of 2 by 4-inch beams encased in fiberglass block s, with the center of its cross-bar dropped down slightly. Its floor piece echoes the stepped shape of the lintel, and this low-lying, compressed bar is cantilevered out at its ends so that it appears to hover just above the ground. The standing sections then lift the bar actually, that is, by repeating its form six feet over the floor. This allows for a broader kind of scale and spatial circulation between the two components that is relatively new to Van Buren’s work and thinking. The pieces themselves are, to the eye, lighter in weight, and the manner in which they relate to each other is more open and straightforward than in earlier sculptures.

An excellent three-part floor sculpture repeats the cantilever theme of the goalpost with two rectilinear stepped blocks set parallel to a long bar, also raised slightly above ground. In this work Van Buren explores space and interval in an original and elusive way. A narrow “T”-like channel which is formed between the three sections acts not just as line, not quite as joint, and not simply as space for its own sake. The space flows under and around the cantilevered solid elements: seeming to quickly divide, seeming to elevate the parts slowly, yet also binding them strongly to each other. The subtle difference between space and object which derives from this organization is expressively similar to the physical relation between the surface and core which is made more explicit in some linear wall pieces.

The wall pieces are perhaps more suggestive of the direction in which Van Buren is working, and while they are numerous in his current production, they are also more problematic than the other sculptures he exhibited. In these wall reliefs Van Buren horizontally aligns three or four beams about eight feet long, coating them with fiberglass, but leaving the bottom strip a dense line of resin (instead of wood) underneath. At times one of the boards will be charred a dark brown, and the entire substructure shows through the tinged plastic. In one sense this partial revealing of the work’s construction is ambiguous—sometimes the resin is thick enough to almost entirely obscure the lined-up boards, and one strains to determine where “inside” ends and “outside” begins. Translucence is implied, but frustrated, since light can only pass into the solid volume and cannot thoroughly penetrate it. At the same time Van Buren seems to be reaching for something that is more literal in that one is forced to explore his forms and materials as they relate to each other at close range, displaying the fact of their encasement, and the adjacence of the parts and substances both within and without. One is made directly aware of the articulation of the boards inside the fiberglass blocks, and of the manner in which they have been surrounded.

The problem with most relief work is its inherent pictorialism, but the expressive interplay between a compressed muteness and a literalized openness in these works rescues them from wholly pictorial terms. An hermetic quality resides in the near opacity of the covering layers, while the actualizing of both core and surface structure is effected through the use of transparency. The rippling, uneven edges in several of the pieces emphasize their departure from the standard rectangular for mat of the cast block or the straight-edged wooden beams inside. As light passes through these thin irregular contours one realizes their separateness from the wall surface. Yet the wobbly edges often look more contrived than they are meant to be, or are simply incidental to the otherwise well-integrated effect of the piece as a whole. One realizes that by intentionally allowing for irregularities Van Buren seems to be attacking a specific notion about sculptural precision and formalism, and a concept of the well-made form or object which have dominated much “Minimal” sculpture in the past few years.

There is both a modesty and a seductive richness to Van Buren’s new works, however, that compensates handsomely for the lack of a certain calculated and forceful presence which invigorated many of his earlier sculptures. If his recent work seems more reticent or private in its expression, more against form as such than about it, it is also a step towards a more subtle and wholly personal sculptural achievement. Much that is rewarding about this work is not immediately apparent. It is neither a step backwards to an intimate mode, nor a pretension to create an obdurate, monumental plastic art. What is insinuated by Van Buren’s work (and by the work of quite a number of other young New York painters and sculptors whose concerns he shares—Robert Duran, Brice Marden, Bill Bollinger, etc.) is a kind of presence and expressiveness deliberately different from, and even antithetical to that of sculptures by Robert Morris, Ronald Bladen, or Tony Smith, for example. The frequent use of structures with internal or low gravity centers, of asymmetrical shapes or parts which relate almost magnetically or hermetically to each other, a tempered, even inverted sensuousness, arid a general inwardness in terms of thinking and structural organization or surface treatment are only some features which may suggest the tenor of this sensibility. A consideration of Van Buren’s work might then be seen as instrumental to any attempt at trying to define or mark the issues of such a new quality of feeling and form.

FOR SEVERAL YEARS NOW, since he came to New York from Los Angeles, David Novros has been working with multiple unit paintings and an iridescent murano pigment. Until recently the works were made with stretched canvas or dacron, but they nevertheless seemed to occupy a place somewhere between painting and sculpture—the thickness of the stretchers, the relief-like effect suggested by strong cast shadows, and the particular compositional use of the wall space around the units all emphasized this impression. This year, in his second one-man show in New York, Novros has clarified his position and focus, now stressing a remarkably rich and intense range of luminous color, spray-painted onto light, thin fiberglass units. The level of refinement and the mature assurance displayed in this work marks Novros as a major young talent who has just begun to live up to the promise and originality of his earlier work.

The switch to a fiberglass base during the past year followed from problems encountered with the overly-absorbent stretched fabric. A more solid ground has simply facilitated the achievement of the kinds of color effects Novros wants to obtain. Paradoxically, the hardness of this material does not make the works appear more like relief, but less so, since he has had greater success in building up a lush coloration which clearly makes painterly chromatics a primary feature in the experience and making of the works. The thin dimension of the fiberglass (one inch thick), and the lightness implied by iridescence also cancels out the sense of sculptural relief. Furthermore, Novros has given up the more irregular or erratically emblematic shapes which were characteristic of his earlier works (and which emphasized a compositional figure-ground relation to the wall space), in favor of more right-angled inverted “L” or partial “E” forms. These simplified forms approach or suggest the rectangle, while still retaining a literally open, though dynamic inter-relationship to each other as flat, object-like entities. The wall thus no longer functions specifically as a ground behind or around these simpler shapes, and now the colored surfaces of the paintings are sufficient to carry their expressive force.

The five most recently exhibited paintings are either three-part or six-part works. In the former group the acrylic ground colors are uniform—a pale aqua blue-green, a scarlet red, and a fleshy orange bisque—while in the latter Novros seems to have varied the ground hues slightly-ultramarine blues and deep honey-ambers—from part to part. Each section is also coated with a different shade of the glittery murano. In most cases Novros applies this pigment evenly (only in the large honey-amber painting is there a mottled surface) even though the color of the sheen may change subtly within each single section. In the three-unit aqua-green painting the murano varies from a coppery-peach on the left to a shifting pale turquoise blue, lavender, and lime green in the center piece, to a faintly golden powdery coating on the right. Often direct contact along two vertical arms of the shapes in the six-part works will create brilliant and startling combinations. In the passage from gilt and copper-greens, to burnished bronze-orange, then to a magenta-lavender, and finally to a speckled pinkish-blue on the ambitious honey-amber work, the eye is repeatedly surprised and pleased. Novros avoids creating a cloudy or evanescent quality, however (as in many of Olitski’s color transformations), and it is clear that this shifting iridescence is on the surface, not atomized within it, nor illusionistically behind it. Its changes are as much a product of exterior lighting conditions and the viewer’s changing position in space and time as they are of the paint application itself. The role of color becomes concretely and distinctly expressive of that surface, and does not suggest the kind of shallow illusionistic space within a (rectangular) field which is often felt in the work of other artists who spray-paint canvas or hard surfaces (Olitski, William Pettet, Irwin, etc.). Through his unique use of the overall iridescent paint, Novros has also found a way to counter or combat the type of depicted illusionism which Stella has recently explored in his shaped canvases.

Another important difference from earlier work is the degree to which the luminous shine of the murano now holds to the forms and colors over which it is painted. Because the undercoat of many of the previous paintings was a neutral grey, white, or brownish-red, the pearly greens and pinks Novros was using often appeared to take off or detach themselves from the uncolored grounds.

Shape, too, has as much to do with the integral effect of flatness as the fact that the murano reflects light away from the fiberglass surface. The use of the full or closed rectangle would suggest space-in-depth almost too automatically, while the cut-out “L” shapes retain an objective identity of two-dimensionality, which contains color within its bounds. The proportions of the units are developed in a seemingly organic (though arithmetic) progression, expanding and contracting rhythmically, so that a parallel to the viewer’s experience of having to alter his own position in order to see the colors’ full range is effected by the sequence and shaping of the forms themselves. In this sense one finds that Novros has been able to coordinate his use of color with his organization of multiple geometric forms more intelligently and more completely than in his previous work. The changeover to fiberglass enabled him to accommodate the new bloom of color more boldly, and more expressively than ever before.

It must be emphasized, however, that the exposition of the material for its own sake is certainly not the main ambition. Novros uses a means through which new types of perception are stimulated, which would not have been available to the eye and mind from the use of traditional materials. Too many young artists are simply using new techniques and substances to make old art, but, to my eye, Novros’ work has afforded a vivid new experience which pushes the definitions of painting further away from its established bounds and tastes.

Charles Ross first showed prisms at the Dilexi Gallery in San Francisco in 1966. He has made large suspended lenses and rod-like columns, but in his recent New York show (at the Dwan Gallery) he favors truncated cubic or faceted polyhedral forms, made of Plexiglas and filled with distilled water. What has fascinated Ross since he began working with the prism is how this logical and immobile physical object affects and effects perceptual phenomena in a constantly changing and actively engaging relationship to the viewer—a relationship which often defies visual logic in a rather mystical way.

Prisms operate on many levels and offer a multiplicity of optical and psychological experiences, involving light, space, color, time, environment, illusion, appearance, reality, etc. There is an exciting dialogue between these factors, and a perpetual shifting of one’s own focus in regard to them. Translucence turns into opacity; reflection (throwing back light or images from a surface) becomes refraction (breaking up light into its spectrum components); solidity and weightiness are denied by transparency and immaterial luminosity; angle and plane are inverted and transmuted; light is bent or absorbed, and space may be violently distorted. One has a double awareness of the exterior geometrically precise shapes which the artist fashions out of the plastic, and of the fragmented images and patterns which occur as perceptual effects within the volume of the prisms. Even though these fragments of reality are highly organized within the prism, they have the effect of seeming to disorganize a space which the viewer can never really enter. Objects seen through a prism are surrounded with rainbow haloes, and spectrum arcs and bands are projected onto surfaces outside it, or are seen as part of the reflections and counter-reflections within. From the actual physical inactivity of the Plexiglas forms one is led into a kind of disorienting optical activity, through which objects and spaces may be glimpsed only incoherently or incompletely.

Although Ross insists that he is not concerned per se with creating an environment for the prisms (he claims to have left that behind with his activities in dance and theater) one finds that when or if the pieces fail to inspire interest, this is as much a function of organizational or sculptural insufficiencies, as it is of the differences in context. In his show at the Dwan, Ross arranged five sets of four prism units each on staggered pedestals (although the entire group was conceived as a single linear sequence of twenty units). The forms were arrived at by subtractions from the volume of a whole cube in 3:2:1 ratios, so that the progression moved from a cube, to a truncated cube, to a trapezoidal wedge, and then to a triangular wedge. The repeated series of forms was then rotated or turned over from group to group to create five differently positioned sections and variations on the basic geometric shapes. This kind of logical progression, which generates the forms and the sum of their optical effects, is in contrast to the visual disorganization which occurs within each single unit of the sequence. A contradiction is set up between the intellectually ordered and rigidly formed physical material, and the visually deformed light and space which are gathered into and seen through the prisms. Sometimes (and, one discovers, according to conditions of installation) the pieces suffer from this sequential organization, and often the simpler pairs of polyhedrons or single works made with graduated parts look much more complete and complex in themselves.

As empty Plexiglas boxes lined up on the floor of the artist’s long studio, the 20-unit sequence seemed to possess a certain self-sufficient independence from its surroundings, since the units functioned only as shapes, and not yet as prisms. Somehow the sequence appeared more coherent in the studio than it finally looked in the more cramped space of the gallery, where it was set on white platforms. Perhaps when the pieces were filled with water, thus converting the hollow plastic forms into prismatic solids, the perceptual effects which occurred within each unit distracted one from the external logic of the whole proposition. However, one graduated columnar piece established some fantastic coloristic distortions with the area and natural window lighting of the room it occupied in the gallery. By contrasting these contextual conditions one finds that the success or character of the prisms does change drastically from place to place. To the artist, the changes in themselves are not of tremendous consequence, but I felt that the prisms seemed to act more effectively when they were casually surrounded by objects, when seen singly (thus as distinctly beautiful objects creating distinct perceptual phenomena), or when particular lighting conditions (such as fluorescent fixtures) were especially favorable to the kinds of spectrum fragmentation which they produce.

Ross is a self-critical and keen thinker, with training in mathematics and physics, and since he made his first prism he has greatly refined both his sculptural sense and his technical methods, solving problems of water pressure, form, and construction as well as optics. It is to his credit that he has chosen to employ the medium of light as a natural, or untrammeled, factor in his work. Preferring to explore his own sculptural or formal originality by working with prismatic forms, he does not rely on such novelties as plug-in electrical current, artificial or colored light sources, or electronic-kinetic programming to spark up or substitute for the quality of the work itself. But there still seems to be a certain conflict between a focus on the process of perception as it occurs between the viewer and the single prism and a strategy for organizing from the outside. Ross likes to see himself as a catalyst: once he makes the prism, the correspondences between viewer and perceptual object take over, independent of his activity. But from the evidence of the Dwan show it appears that the dialogue between his visual philosophy and a mechanics of ordering is not yet successfully resolved. That the prisms in themselves “project situations”1—which is an inherent feature of their perceptual interest—raises the question of whether or not they require a broader kind of situating. Perhaps this is a form of overall environmental control which gets in the way of the internal effectiveness and excitement of such uncontrollable optical events as are apt to occur within the prisms as prisms. By ordering the multiple units in a progression (the formal implications of which are not entirely fresh or vital in the context of current sculpture) Ross points specifically to a duality in his use of the prisms—a duality which he hopes to capitalize upon, but which may indeed confuse, rather than enrich one’s experience of the work. The sequential proposition forces one to see the prisms as groups of simple geometrical volumes (this, as remarked, was clearer before they were filled), above and beyond their functioning as objects which induce or contain perceptual phenomena of a highly complex nature. The necessity of looking through numerous lined-up units becomes at best a labyrinthine game, in which one must skip between the staggered groups and multi-faceted parts. Yet one also realizes—and with a certain slight misgiving—that because the identity of the prisms cannot be changed, no matter what their varied external forms, the greatest latitude in working with them no doubt lies in possibilities of sensitive arrangement and permutation. It is this area which Ross can now explore to greater advantage, with the experience of several shows behind him.

Emily Wasserman



1. Ralph T. Coe, in Light, Catalog of Nelson Gallery-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, Missouri, Oct. 1967, p. 26.