PRINT May 1974

Cecile Abish

THE WORK OF CECILE ABISH has been harder to see than it should have been. This distribution problem has arisen not only because she has no gallery, but because her works are usually erected on the spot. Like all artists who work on site, the duration of her work is subject to the time span of an exhibition schedule. To this restriction of access can be added the fact that her works have been scattered in both time and space. There was a big sculpture at the Bykert Gallery in 1971, a room-filling conglomerate “made expressly for the 20-by-20-foot space in which it was situated,” to quote the artist. It was a remarkable piece, summarizing many aspects of soft modular sculpture, but all it led to was a small photographic piece at Bykert in a mixed show three years later. She was in “26 Contemporary Women Artists” at the Aldrich Museum in 1971; the catalogue showed a Soft-jointed, ground-hugging piece, somewhere between a caterpillar and a shelf of books, but she was actually represented by something else. This was a 60-foot-long roll of heavy paper, extended like a welcoming carpet, with the center cut into a ripple of intersecting curls. Thus expendable materials must sometimes be added to the brief span of an art of on-site operations. However, such works can be repeated if not preserved, though this is a form of perpetuation that Abish has not adopted.

At another womens’ art show, “American Women: 20th Century,” at Lakeview Center for the Arts and Sciences, Peoria, in 1972, there was a large piece called Field Quartering. It was a complex structure compounding formal landscaping and mixed materials, including steel rods, nylon cord, and grease. The contiguity,sliding into unity, of grave geometric pattern and fragile and fugitive substances showed Abish’s ability to conceive and execute works on a broad theoretical base. Because the piece was done in situ, it was not ready for the catalogue, in which Abish was represented by illustrations of other works, Field Day I and II.

In these three works she is concerned with placing impermanent materials and structures in an irregular and unbounded field of perception. In Field Day I, the branches, stuck in the ground, not growing, outlined by tape on the rough ground, demarcated a temporary plot—temporary by the nature of her technique and choice of materials. She dispenses with all those acts of condensation and unmistakable sequence which characterize Minimal sculpture. Regular parts become frayed, and irregular ones are seen to be homeomorphic. The lack of opportunity to view her pieces in sufficient numbers and the divergence of work and catalogue when it has been seen have conspired to reduce the recognition due to Abish. As she wrote in the catalogue 26 Contemporary Women Artists concerning her sculptures: “They can be easily assembled, transported, and also taken apart and stored.” Once taken down, the pieces have had little currency; storage has unjustly become the equivalent of not known. In April, however, the situation was at last rectified by an exhibition of her work at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

The emphasis of her work has been on sculpture at ground level, or, at least, of horizontal extension. Two single pieces seen in New York recently make this point clearly. An untitled piece at Workspace, 10 Bleeker Street, in 1972, consisted of a circle of dripped plaster, 22 feet in diameter, separated from the floor by sheets of brown paper. The circle, something of an abstraction in its known regularity, was contrasted with the unassuming, but physically solid materials. The circle looped round a couple of typical downtown loft columns, a bond to the site on which it was made. This introduced another contrast, that between the bulk and structural rationale of the columns and the fragile arbitrariness of the plaster circle. (Note that I have to speak of the piece in the past tense, one of the problems of on-site art. I am denied the perpetual present tense by which we usually refer to works of art: “The Arena Chapel is,” “the Mona Lisa is.”) At the New York Cultural Center last year in “Women Choose Women” a piece called Space Setting resumed the use of the floor in the form of a plaster square in a cardboard trough resting on the newspapers that had protected the museum floor when the plaster was poured. Abish combined notions of art as the evidence of process and art as an abstraction, dealing with configurations that the mind knows in advance of seeing any one example of it, the circle, the square.

The antiseasonal plot of Field Day, the vulnerability of the paper roads, the capacity to lean and droop of her earlier vinyl, wire cloth, and urethane foam pieces (like the 1971 work at Bykert), all presume art with a high level of contingent points of change. Instead of the “invisible shield” of esthetic distancing, Abish risks the work’s survival as well as its distribution by some of her procedures. Malleable boundaries are recurrent in her work. In the last year, coincident with a spell as visiting artist at The University of Massachusetts, she has produced a remarkable series of Marble Works. In them her esthetics of horizontality, of mobile parts, and of the work of art’s flexible interface with the space of the world has been systematically extended. The immediate origin of the series can be located in Four Into Three, an Earthwork done at Ramapo College last year (another little-known piece). Here four shallow excavated rectangles were interspersed with three heaps of removed earth, slightly higher, of course, than the holes were deep.

This irregular complementary relation of space and form recurs in the new indoor pieces. Each consists of a clear set of components: there are four-foot-square panels, eight-foot-long stripping, and marbles, the proper five-eighths of an inch in diameter. These constitute a kit with vast combinatorial possibilities (and every kind of piece need not be used each time). In addition, there are clearances, areas where the “imprint” of the panels is indicated by a thinning in the distribution of the marbles field; the clearances, too, conform to Abish’s modular sequence.

The Marble Works entail no less dependence on site than before. In this case, a room is the container, serving as an intermediary between being a component and being a section of the space of the world. The dimensions of the floor of the room Abish has been using are 14 by 28 feet, but the kit is adaptable to other zones, subject to the artist’s decisions. The components, together in the room, constitute the work of art, but they do so as parts of a system, not as a single impacted formal array. The panels and the struts are ordinary materials, of untreated, naturally occurring colors. The marbles, though just marbles, are not child’s play. The Marble Works, aside from the intended pun on classical sculpture, are correctly titled inasmuch as the flow of marbles is the most complex factor. They define the floor in terms of gravity, statistically (the random scatter), impressionistically (as drops of light), and as two kinds of obstacle. There is the guilty knowledge that one is stepping on a work of art and introducing a shift in its elements as well as the ankle-wrenching risk of falling.

The spread of the marbles all over the floor implies a sense of solitude, a spectacle of particles which the viewer could only disrupt. Considering the room as a container, there is a sense of trespassing, as if the obstacle constituted by the marbles were both trap and token. It is a trap because once we have entered the room we are within the system of the work; it is a token because we can recognize the elements as part of a work of art. The kind of space in which we may be said to trespass is, however, ambiguous. It is opposed by a kind of proliferating openness. The accumulation of like forms, the marbles, far beyond counting (an extension of the profusion of branches in Field Day, for example) makes itself felt as expansive space. To quote a formulation of Gaston Bachelard’s, intended for another purpose but appropriate here: “It accumulates its infinity within its own boundaries.”

The situation is, therefore, that Abish has a backlog of work, done over several years, that demands to be seen and documented. The first step has been taken now in Boston, and it is to be hoped that the study of Abish will be taken off the almost random basis on which it has rested until now. An artist of her caliber cannot be appreciated or understood on the basis of accidental encounters with widely separated pieces—all that we have had so far.

––Lawrence Alloway