PRINT May 1971

Christopher Wilmarth: A Note on Pictorial Sculpture

IN 1968 CHRISTOPHER WILMARTH was exhibiting wood and glass objects which utilized, in a reticent way, an elegant version of Cubist and Constructivist vernacular—a mode which I believe the artist would have persisted in were it not for the quickening of sensibility which marked the end of the Sixties and into which the artist was rapidly drawn. Prior to this critical shift in feeling, the artist, then in his late teens, worked as a studio assistant to Tony Smith. The effect however of the tutelage did not make itself evident until the present exhibition in which the quirky heroic style which Tony Smith was once able to muster in the early ’60s—in Cigarette, for example, or Amaryllis—is refelt as a wavering monumentalism of glass forms. Before 1968 Wilmarth regarded his then craftsmanly art as having derived from Brancusi. Certainly, the artist’s clean wooden tubes and cylinders against which glass lengths were played can be shown to derive from an external reading of, say, Brancusi’s Torso of a Young Man although there is a world of difference between the solid presence of Brancusi’s wooden cylinders and Wilmarth’s efficiently grained veneers over hollow drums. It was still unclear that it was to be the glass of these works which was more important. Even the exhibition brochure of the artist’s first one-man show at the Graham Gallery in 1968 emphasized the wooden in his work as it was gotten up in a laminated wood-paper cover.

During the period 1969–70 Wilmarth was impelled to abandon the standardized relationships he dealt in in favor of the more expressive utilization of materials which marked that extraordinarily creative moment. Glass clearly emerged as the artist’s preferred medium, a material which he began to use with an authority and a throwaway diffidence which belied the set pieces with which he had begun his career. It was as if he had begun again. I recall, for example, several “drawings” of 1970 in which rough-hewn slabs of etched glass were recklessly wired together to form little notebooks which were then impulsively marked with colored pencils. It was the abandon and artful casualness to which one was drawn.

The great melee of 1968–70 marks the period of the reaction against Minimalism which was expressed as a wide front of disaffection for the architectural ambitiousness of sculpture in favor of pictorializing and coloristic gambits. It seems significant that at this time Wilmarth took to drawing on tracing paper—the clearest prefiguration of translucent etched glass—and to drawing in chalk on canvas as well, a kind of painting the artist strongly opposes showing.

The present exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery marks the resurgence of monumentalism. The new quasi-architectural scale is effected through the lacing together of curved square panels of glassheld in place by blackened aluminum wire. The glass modules have been altered coloristically through camphory variations possible to brushed etchwork on its surface a surface variation that parallels the glistening brushed steel finish of David Smith’s later works. The artist sees this surface rather as the memory of the actual application—his job—of the dark pitch paint on Tony Smith’s large wooden prototypes. To these possibilities might be added the curiously laconic surfaces of Robert Ryman’s white paintings.

It seems that Wilmarth is an artist for whom modest pictorial effects, even accidental ones—the emerying smooth of a broken edge, the layerings of small glass arcs slung together by two approximately rectangular wires, the lacing of simple geometrical sequences, the bunching of shuffleboard-like discs into rudimentary patterns, the leaning and “sewing” of smallish planes of glass one against the other and such like—tend to achieve more in the end than championship monumentalism. I imagine that the artist saw such eminently pictorial effects as insufficiently grandiose, somehow lazy, lacking ambition. Perhaps. Still, there is no way of transforming into an architectural mode the hesitations and discovered little “failures” of a pictorial mode in which certain vices may be virtues without making it clear that certain vices were after all only vices. In the most ambitious work, Tina Turner for example, the open eyelets along certain edges no longer inform us of disarming pictorial incident. In the present scale the eyelets denote an important and irrevocable change in plans which discounts the work because it cannot be overlooked. It may, for example, have been coloristically viable to rest the highest reaching curved wall upon a bed of brilliant green layers of glass—certainly the clean brightness of “on edge” glass adds a shrill and evocative note to the work—although the sculpture as a whole infers that the wall was to have been held there by the aluminum wire, for which task perhaps the wire was insufficiently strong. The rectangular green bed of glass is thereby demoted into a crutch-like support. These gleaming strata are, after all has been said in support of Wilmarth’s essentially tonalist attitude toward his medium—etched translucency against transparency against sudden shifted edges of green only a plinth, a base. After Richard Serra’s lead squares to which Wilmarth’s bent squares of glass are kin—such colorism can only pass, in an architectural scale, as fainthearted.

These notes are made in no spirit of invidious comparison. I want only to strike a cautionary note: the architectural thrust of Minimalism is not possible to a sculpture which takes as its basis the anti-Minimalist presentations of pictorial sculpture of the years 1968–70—whatever else is possible.