PRINT February 1969

9 in a Warehouse

AN IDEA OF THE IMPLAUSIBLE INNOVATIONS that charge many of the new sculptures at an exhibition called 9 at Castelli, in a spacious upper west side gallery warehouse, may be obtained by imagining, of all things, how the works must be prepared for re-shipment back to the studio. Instead of being dismantled, unhooked, dollied and crated, these sculptures will have to be rolled up (Bollinger), swept into a pile (Serra), chipped and chiseled from a corner (Serra), and scraped and scrubbed from the wall (Sonnier). All of which is a way of saying that their approach to installation hints inordinately of the thinking processes and esthetic objectives of a clutch of young sculptors, half of whom have yet to be shown formally (or informally) in one-man exhibitions. (They were brought together here by Robert Morris.) For in their studiedly casual arrangements, or their almost osmotic grip into the planes of the room, far more even than in their unusual materials, they demonstrate a principle that will have nothing to do with the properly distanced, or dramatized contexts in which we normally view sculpture.

It would be hard not to think, to a great degree erroneously, that some real diffidence and withdrawal are involved in these tactics. After all, we are not accustomed to stepping on sculpture, or to avoid stepping on sculpture which appears to be some kind of leaving. Nor do we expect it to seem merely a sullying and spotting of the surfaces which enclose us. And this is not to speak of the amorphousness of the substances that for the most part are scattered or dropped about, and that betray little preconceived notion of orthodox form or even pattern. It is not that we are irritated by a disdain for permanence, but we are touched by the knowledge that these works cannot even be moved without suffering a basic and perhaps irremediable shift in the way they look. The life and salience they have as objects, rather than the intactness of their medium, is, therefore, of a pathetic transience.

Yet surely it is its attack on the status of the object which provides the show with its major premise and rationale. To recall the Primary Structures exhibition at the Jewish Museum two and a half years ago is to realize what a drastic change has occurred in the concept of spatial behavior, density, and abstraction as imagined by American sculpture. To begin, the new work may be just as large in scale as before, but no longer is it monumental or public so much as intimate, portable, even dispensable. Structure, too, no longer has any hubris—any more, that is, than cyclone fences; molten lead, chiffon, rubbery latex or cotton batting can lend to it. In short, the idea of the object is engulfed by the volatility, liquidity, malleability, and softness—all the unstable characteristics—of the substance which embodies it. Which means that the object becomes largely a reference to a state of matter, or, exceptionally, a symbol of an action-process about to be commenced, or already completed. Yet, light or kinetic sculpture, while often equally indeterminate, is not to be paralleled with this current work, because, among other things, it depends on dematerialized effects rather than on the immobile nature of what is given. In this warehouse of shy, sly conceivings, not only is mass sacrificed to porosity, but the object, especially the artificial, man-made object, returns to nature, obeys physics. And as a result, one has few of the metaphors and less of the polish by which primary structures contrived to look so associated with architecture or furniture. On the contrary, the accent here is on the uniquely tangible, even if the volume of the sculptural unit is slivered down to a fold or a shaving.

Still, this tangibility or concreteness, unfussed and undisguised as it is, becomes the matrix of a new metaphor. For, never lingering far from the sensibility displayed here is a pictorial sense that conflates many interesting problems. It was perhaps inevitable that sculpture should respond to that same impulse to airiness and luminosity which has recently informed much current painting. But instead of the chromatic brilliance and sensory power which earmarks the canvases, the sculpture concentrates on bodily and tactile coefficients of the painterly development. It is as if one had some quickened, evasive allusion to the “permeable” surface life of a picture which then dissolved back into the opaque physicality and presence of a raw material. The optical equivocations tremble in the breeze, as it were, or lie crumpled on the floor. (Though this does not apply uniformly, certainly: Nauman’s inert block, and Kaltenbach’s folded felt rug have no such resonant intention.) Lines, shadows, markings, spatters, all these string or wash through three-dimensional filters whose discontinuity fluctuates according to circumstance. Volumes tend to be extremely recessive and imprecise, incised by flap or mesh or crease. But it is in this shallow kind of existence that pictorial format, as distinct from effect, unexpectedly asserts itself. Serra’s splash piece takes as its improbable field the meeting of the floor and the wall, whose right angle joining he fudges and blurs by having thrown upon it a, by turns, lacy and lumpy molten lead. In another work, he seems to prop a lead picture rectangle against the wall by means of a pipe wedged diagonally from the floor. The flocculent latex swatches of Sonnier, with their dangling or stretched twine, treat the wall itself as a picture plane. They are like finished sketches, or sometimes more dabbled ones, with linear extensions trailing hesitantly into space. Alan Saret, not here, but at the Whitney Museum, creates a giant wire tumbleweed, stapled on the wall, which moves out into a hazy entanglement not dissimilar from the gestural idiom of Abstract Expressionism.

At this point, one might easily imagine the young sculptors to have finagled themselves, unwittingly or not, into the old esthetic of “action” painting. Qualities of spontaneity and improvisation, all-overness and design, are much reminiscent of early fifties painting. But not only are these more atomized, they are also humbled, gratuitous, and thrown away, with the peculiar confidence of those who never had faith in the egocentrism of gesture, and who are therefore free to objectify it as the delicate chance slavering of gravity. What characterizes this group of sculptures most provocatively is its absence of formal prejudice, its indifference to style, such that even fairly obvious suggestions of prior art become mere manipulated ghosts of themselves in the tentative hassle with material itself.

Developed with the resourcefulness that greets one at the warehouse, the new sculpture is a subtle, liberating spectacle. As a reaction to the rigid, minimal sculpture that immediately preceded it, it displays much of the same conceptual coolness and devaluation of “relationships” at the same time that it opens up new possibilities of freedom from the object and collaboration with the environment. But this has not been achieved without certain very restrictive sacrifices. For one thing, even an intensified exploration of the properties of one material does not permit a great or meaningful variety of statements within it. Once the esthetic is known, the sculptural stuff, be it tar, industrial grease, or excelsior, exhausts its range, its spectrum of permutations, with distressing ease. This liability has already manifested itself in the rage to discover new materials and the redundancy of adhering to them in more than just a few contexts. There is a quiet breathlessness in this exhibition, where originality is something to struggle for and against. No one wants to be trademarked by a flagrant device accessible to everyone else, and yet no one can give himself over completely to the anonymity which is one of the implications of operating at such a remove from the conscious shaping of matter. The sculptor in this mode locks horns with the fragile devaluation of his own inventiveness, a dilemma from which only strength of personality will deliver him.

Fortunately, at least three of the exhibitors display certain distinct predispositions which color their work and authentically focus its resolve. Richard Serra is possessed of a peculiar gaminess that gives to his lead or latex debris a hide-like authenticity. One senses also an inherent violence that at its best wards off the expressive. Keith Sonnier, for his part, purveys a kind of handkerchief elegance, spotted or kneaded in streamers and flocced scrubs, as well as a conserved, laconic energy that tents or demarcates space by a few simple lineaments. Alan Saret likes a complicated chaos, insouciant and wooly, even in chickenwire, as his recent show at the Bykert Gallery proved. That he color sprayed some of his pieces there indicates his affinity with the atmospheric lyricism to be found in much current spray painting.

I cannot say quite as much for Eva Hesse and William Bollinger. The former’s latex mats and rippled edge series of wall boxes are slightly more picturesque versions of minimal sculpture; the latter’s extremely handsome fallen 40-foot cyclone wire fence that flops over and inverts itself halfway across its length is rather too emphatically purposeful to be placed within the overall sensibility. Finally, Bruce Nauman and Steve Kaltenbach repel both attentive looking and conceptual openness in a Dada gesture that is too frivolous for me.

Max Kozloff