PRINT Summer 1970

Ronald Bladen and Robert Murray in Vancouver

ROBERT MURRAY HAS HAD his sculpture fabricated since 1960 in factory situations. He is familiar with the processes and besides his involvement throughout the manufacturing, he has also been influenced by the objective esthetics of warehouse conditions and machinery. There is absolutely nothing new in the scale of sculpture being bound up in its mode of production but the influence of the Lippincott technology on Murray’s work is directly intelligible in ’the proficiency and ease with which otherwise ponderous sheets of metal unfold themselves. The scale of the sculpture is responsible to no single aspect of manufacture, but is, instead, contingent upon the machinery, the material, the idea and finally the activity of the artist at the time of its creation. Murray says of this: “No matter how complete the thing may seem in my mind, it is by building it that I discover if the idea has validity. Whether a working drawing or even a crude paper model is used as a means of communicating with the fabricator is unimportant, especially once we begin on the piece.”1

It is in Murray’s developing freedom within this context that he has surpassed the almost virtuoso technical accomplishments of his earlier sculpture to the much tougher work of this exhibition. In fact, Becca’s H is in this sense the only backward looking piece in the show. Becca’s H has iconic references both to the structural vocabulary of Murray’s own work (the recurring H-shape support system, etc.) and to a piece by David Smith called Becca, 1965 which is a collapsing H-shape made up of stainless steel sheet. Coincidence has it that each have a daughter called Rebecca for whom the work is named. Consistent to the rigor of a logic which Murray invents as he develops (it is in his particular system of logical relationships that I take it his uniqueness from Caro would lie), Becca’s H would ideally have been composed of fewer parts than it is. The need for portability, since it was not made for a specific site, necessitates a rather ingenious technical solution to the problems involved with installation of such tonnage. In detail the piece suffers from this. The junctures far from being arbitrary are placed according to the necessity of assembly. The large cantilevered sheet bent from the same piece of metal as the horizontal of the H is actually two pieces fastened on either side. The illusion of a single plane slung beneath the cross member produces the dynamics of an “otherwise static arrangement.” However, the piece is subservient to this problem which it has created itself, and then sets about the solution of as its raison d’etre. The effect in detail is of a disjuncted and punctuating union of the parts, detrimental to the coherence of the whole. The upright L-shaped planar leg is repeated again in Chilcotin, certainly the most demanding and successful work of the show. While Becca’s H is painted a more subdued battleship grey, Chilcotin is a contrasting blaze of epoxy yellow. Where Caro will use I-beams or corrugated sheet as ready-made materials to be involved compositionally, Murray uses industrially produced Q-decking, as it best expresses its utility content or meaning. In Chilcotin the vast expanse of planar material is laid horizontal and stretches out as if in declaration of the corrugated rigidity of its own substance. The material is the integrity of the object rather than being poised amongst other elements in a more painterly or Cubist compositional fashion. The initial impact of Chilcotin is a cool inertia compared to the superfluous and almost frantic activity of Becca’s H. The literalness and overt availability of structural details (there is no contrived or hidden engineering) seems to satisfy the logic Murray builds, exactly as Becca’s H defies and subsequently loses it. The experience of Chilcotin is crucial. A photographic reproduction can only provide a limited point of view and two dimensions. Murray locates the phenomenon of this sculpture most accurately when he says: “It’s a piece which has to be experienced. There is a kind of Alice-In-Wonderland quality. It has the appearance of a table as you walk up to it, but by the time you’ve got there this literalness disappears and you almost feel you are shrinking.”

Chilcotin is a table with one sawhorse leg, an L-shaped bridge and post supports. The Q-decking provides a plane interrupted by the positive and negative differentiation of its form. Light ripples across this producing extraordinary permutations of color. The basic epoxy yellow can range anywhere from a lemon color to an extreme orange yellow which is so intense that you are brought to its edge as if it were a molten pool of paint, but no further. (Murray usually likes to preserve the surface so that a high gloss is avoided except where this fact is brought consciously into play as a further function of the sculpture. Under certain lighting conditions, specific facets of Athabasca seem to lose their surface entirely, while others in shadow have a flatter black formality which contradicts this tendency. “. . . I feel that what the color does is important to whatever emotional quality the piece itself has . . .”) It is in the facility of Murray’s combination of contradictory illusionistic and ambiguous elements that his deepest success occurs.

Seen from a distance Chilcotin is an entirely different piece of sculpture. Changes in its perspective and surprise over its actual height occur as often as-diversification of its color range. What becomes apparent is that Murray has an approximately definable grammar of parts which, by way of clarification, bears a marked resemblance to the linguistic operational vocabulary of Noam Chomsky.

In Capilano, the H-shape is severed and acts as a narrow bench over which the Q-decking cantilevers parallel to the floor on one side and angles down toward a severed semicircular piece of square tubular steel on the other. The ring-support at the base of the oblique angle subtly arrests the balance of the entire piece at a critical point. This gives Capilano the forceful rotational thrust matched to the power of the river from which it received its name. For Murray names are only locations for ease of identity, but he usually tries to maintain a feeling for the pivotal quality on which the work depends. The color is a rich plum-maroon and gives coherence to the piece. All the parts are available as information about their construction. There is no proper illusion, only. a visually ambiguous complexity.

Ridgefield, though modeled on the earlier Prairie (1965–1966), was Murray’s first use of a pre-fabricated material. If Ridgefield is turned on its side, the later Chilcotin is not far from conception. The vertical linearity emphasizes the quality of the wall itself over the planar mass which has virtually no volume when seen from the side. This piece is very much a barrier to any gestalt. It puzzles the need to comprehend it in its entirety, and one is constantly checking to see if the legs continue through to the other side.

By contrast, certainly, Athabasca presents a startling extension of this planar wall. Here the curvilinear faceted surface takes over from the single inflection of Ridgefield. Because one cannot tell where the shell ends as it curves around in either direction, the convex or backside of Athabasca simulates the appearance of a solid monolithic object. It is in this tension between the perceptual gestalt of the initial appearance and its subsequent disintegration that such a work derives its energy. This could be thought of as a predominantly theatrical device. But although overtly dramatic it is more analogous to the researches of an architect like Robert Venturi into the two-dimensional facadism of the American architectural context.

Murray has had a long-running fascination with sculpture which appeared as though it could be fractured into two independent parts. Athabasca realizes this possibility by creating two similarly shaped shells that remain independent of each other.2 It is essentially comprised of a series of leaning diagonals much in the manner of the inclined plane in Becca’s H or the angular slide of Capilano. But where these previously mentioned diagonals are supported by the structure of the piece, in Athabasca the material of the diagonal itself is its own support. This is a work whose contingency within the industrial context is paramount. “Part of the source of this piece was seeing the shaping of enormous metal plates when I was in the Bethlehem Steel Shipyards in California . . .”

Traffic moves through the twin shells of Athabasca in an erotic, albeit confused fashion. People approach the narrow entrance slit and disappear only to emerge from the opposite end, thrust out by the expanding walls into the larger space of the gallery. The movement and form of the sculpture itself, and the people who inevitably get involved, can be seen as a montage of surfaces filled with glistening reflections, distorting the space and the object at the same time. The experience is similar to that of an event or film, but instead of that kind of flux, the structure imposes itself much as the architecture of the new Toronto City Hall, where two shells sever space in their monolith.

La Guardia, a deep blue low-lying work completed in 1968, has a swaying horizontal momentum created by tracks of Q-decking moving in a self-correcting path between two semicircular arches. Murray relates his experiences while flying, of being inside an electrically defined tunnel moving towards a landing strip in “controlled stages.” The ground-hugging plan of the Q-decking spread between two arches captures this sense descriptively. Of course he does not mean it as literally as this makes it sound; all this does is to reveal a part of the conceptual process that otherwise would remain for us to conjecture about. It could just as well allude to tracks running past a corner in a subway—both are irrelevant to the sculptural experience itself.

Murray’s continuous fusion of surfaces, which is in fact an overlapping and then bolting together of materials, is what distinguishes his work from the later concrete Cubism of Smith. Here the object is unified by planes of metal projecting out and including area lost to a more conservative base-bound sculpture. While Murray has not the California “fetish” for finish, his colorism is certainly a declared and generative concern. “. . . I would rather my pieces were seen as color than anything else. Perhaps because I began as a painter rather than a sculptor I still tend to think of my sculpture not as three-dimensional paintings but as three-dimensional color . . . I see them as color configurations—and the size of the piece is often determined by how much of a given area of color I really want . . .”

Ronald Bladen has moved as intensely away from color as Murray has gravitated toward it. All three of his works shown at Vancouver appreciate the impact of surface but only as it is integral to the perception of form. In this sense it is a very organic realization of color without the commanding elemental independence which Murray gives it. This is why, in The Cathedral Evening, the skin or surface of the piece relates directly to the interior structural condition. There is no attempt to lose the method of construction by floating the plywood surface over an intuitively engineered scaffolding with an illusory industrial perfection. The hand-crafted appearance of the work is as concretely there as is the mass of the “thing itself.” The matte black latex applied with a roller tends to reinforce. the expressive and singular imagery of the whole rather than neutralizing the surface. It becomes a gestural positive against the negative stasis of the gallery walls. The two large modules supporting the plunging cantilever of the wedge are weighted through the addition of steel ingots and blocks of cast concrete. “I don’t believe in bolting anything to the floor to make it part of the building . . . I believe in the life of the piece itself so that it exists independently of the building.”

Bladen’s forms retain an expressive physicality which, far from being subtle, seems to float or hang heavily into the space. Their geometry is anything but an intellectual or mathematical process and the conception seems to be linked more with a dominated view looking up from underneath than the plan view of a work like Murray’s La Guardia. “The pieces are essentially emotional . . . romantic. They are not involved in geometrics. I use geometric shapes because I do not like organic ones, but my purpose is to produce an emotional impact.” Bladen’s tendency to a bilaterally symmetrical arrangement of parts is only an abstractly biomorphic reference, but one which Murray avoids altogether. If there is any volumetric organic quality in Bladen’s sculpture it is in this symmetrical cohesion and relationship of modular components. In Untitled Sculpture, 1970 this is reduced to a vast concavity which is internally enantiomorphic.

Untitled Sculpture: Three Elements is by now a well-known work. Since the “Primary Structures” show at the Jewish Museum in 1966 where it was first seen, it has been fabricated in metal for three outdoor versions with Bladen retaining the original wooden prototype. The singularly strongest experience of these Three Elements is something which the term “sonic” best illustrates. Besides their gravitational defiance and the dynamics of three strong volumes in a literal optical rhythm, there is a pervasive condition of sound inseparable from the operation of the piece as it is installed. It is in this context that Bladen’s reference to the “dignity” of his work makes most sense. Bladen’s work is anything but dispassionate and academic. The subjective experience of the sonic property of Untitled Sculpture, 1970 is important to understanding why it works as it does. Its proposition is essentially dualistic. The body is made up of a nine part semicircular wood construction apparently floating about two inches above the floor. The plywood sheathing is painted with white latex paint. “The white and the black are philosophically opposed. The white of the inside of the piece is, well, it’s acceptance . . . it’s very moving; and the black becomes slightly forbidding—totally different in experience.” The white concavity of the front induces an intense high pitched destruction of peripheral vision. As you enter the area within the two outer wings there is a colorless resonance which further reinforces the loss of any capacity to distinguish surface from depth. The dissolution of a field of flood-lit white curving space is historically only analogous to the intentions of artists such as Robert Irwin and Dan Flavin. Irwin’s ambiguous hovering disc-paintings and Flavin’s fluorescent dissipation of spatial values are both similar phenomena. This represents a real departure for Bladen and the successful inclusion of a value factor which he had earlier discarded as problematic. The painterly properties of this, in combination with the sonic presence of the form, effects what approaches a religious aura. Its focus transcends theatricality and sets up an all but hypnotic quality. This has the effect of transforming the subjective scale of the piece to that of a techno-industrial talisman or icon.

Dennis Wheeler


1. All quotations from both Murray and Bladen are from the catalog of the exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, March 10–April 5, 1970.

2. This has not, in fact, worked out to be the case. As Murray pointed out during the installation, they seem to work at an optimum in only the one position.