PRINT May 1974

Robert Grosvenor’s Fractured Beams

DEALING WITH SIMPLE, LARGE-SCALE, solid, geometric forms while purging implications both of the monolith and of the hollow, mock-up Minimal phantasm, is setting oneself a task. Attempting, further, to retain tectonic density while avoiding the fuss of Constructivist composing, tests the possibility of a highly reductive sculpture that still involves doing something to material, and producing a static, affirmative object. Robert Grosvenor’s wood sculptures of the last few years handle such issues admirably.

Even when Grosvenor’s shaped-up, squared-away work was Minimal, its inventive forms seemed to say more as freestanding ideas than Minimalism preferred generally to say. His work still has a quality of blunt, forthright statement, even though there is less outward shaping now than earlier on. In Topanga, 1965, where a cleanly faceted leaning diagonal cantilevers down anxiously, just short of the floor from a similar upright, both elements are angular in shape; the juncture is truncated into still another facet. The epic plunge of Topanga is hardly noncommittal, although its relationship to recent work is mostly in the engineering of the large cantilevered arm not quite touching the floor. Even to notice the striking similarity between Topanga and the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Kitt Peak Solar Observatory in Arizona (finished 1963) is to compare it with an extremely sculpturesque object, in fact, more a telescope than a building. Similarly Grosvenor’s recent wood pieces take what are essentially building materials, approach them as engineering substance rather than as architectural form, and convert them into sculpture.

The four large untitled wood pieces recently on view at the Paula Cooper Gallery are only a part of this group of works. Those were: a 3'' x 6'' beam of longleaf yellow pine, 21' 4'' long; a 12'' x 12'' (actually 11 1/4'' x 1/4'') hemlock beam 20' 3 1/2'' long, braced underneath with steel; and two works made of creosoted Georgia pine telephone poles, one 19' 9 3/4'' long, and the other, from a longer pole cut in two and fixed one half over the other, 23' 1 1/2'' long. Other related pieces include sawn and broken lengths of plank, and a large telephone-pole work—cut, bent, and sunk into the earth in the middle—seen in a drawing at Paula Cooper’s.

These pieces, all of dressed timber, relate to Carl Andre’s sculpture in their respect for the implicit form of the lumber, their extreme gravitational hug, the literalism of their linear extension, and finally in the explicit materiality which Grosvenor makes a matter of physical mechanics. Andre’s and Grosvenor’s views both have traditional and radical aspects, but differ in approach. Andre extends a specifically modern tradition that includes Brancusi and the Rodchenko of Construction of Distance (1920). Grosvenor is traditional in making a definite sculptural statement, something (that was not there) out of nothing (nothing already on its way to art).

In all the new works the doing is specifically breaking, often the breaking of something mighty massive. These timber sculptures are the products of difficult and risky acts. That heavy construction equipment comes into play in the fracturing of the hefty timbers and telephone poles only circumstantially relates them to Earthworks (even Grosvenor’s outdoor pieces made for specific sites are not inescapably bound to those sites). More important is an intrinsically sculptural refinement of expressionist ideas about strength and risk and a direct interplay with the give-and-take of the material that evokes di Suvero’s wood sculpture. Hence Grosvenor’s work resembles the ironic expressionism of Smithson’s Asphalt Rundown more than his wider notions of degeneration and collapse. Grosvenor’s timbers don’t collapse: collapsing for him is an essentially transitive process, something that must be done with effort to the material.

In its literal destructiveness the breaking process has something in common with entropic ideas, to be sure. Smithson, in Partially Buried Woodshed, stopped when the roof beam broke under the piled dirt; Grosvenor’s works begin with the fracture of the beam. For him the breaking is not fundamentally a destructive process, even though he avoids the presumptions of an altogether constructive approach. No matter how reservedly, Grosvenor still takes raw material and works it into art. He may not cooperate with the structural propensities or desires of the material, but he decidedly cancels its utilitarian properties. In fact, it is characteristic of Grosvenor to begin with a useful object having a pleasing but preesthetic clarity of form, and to make art by removing from that object its useful properties, raising its esthetic count. What is left is beautiful, but not because anything has been added, and not because any preexisting but hidden beauty has been revealed. The work is only beautiful because a purely esthetic transformation has taken place: what was actually useful (and only potentially beautiful) becomes as actually beautiful (and useless) as an entity in some classical discussion of purposelessness. What saves this operation from a drab conceptuality is less the intrinsic pleasantness of the materials than the radical directness of the means employed. Also, these means imply an intimate involvement with the subformal structure of the pieces, even though they tend to physically destroy it rather than drape it in sympathetic form.

The fractures in the lumber are symmetrically placed. True, the timbers cannot be broken with precise determination, and they can even break so unsuitably that a given attempt must be scrapped. But they occur at regular, symmetrical points. There is a high degree of control as well as a high degree of risk. As a result, we feel a self-effacing, calisthenic force in the retiring violence of the wood fractures. After traumatic force has been applied and has broken the fibers, a piece may slump quietly back into place.

In several works of the last three years the broken beam does not collapse into its original shape. Instead the breaks get emphasized by being propped up at the points of fracture. That such supports could have functioned physically and in situ as fulcra for the act of breaking, prevents them from appearing to be superfluous bases. Or a long studlike timber may have three breaks—one downward, dividing it in half, and two upward, subdividing the halves—and because these breaks are only partial, the unbroken fibers may actually hold the extremities off the floor by their tensile strength alone (recalling the cantilevering of the earlier work). In one such piece a thick plank is cut through at the center, and the halves are placed end to end, with a partial upward break in each half that raises the two centers slightly and produces a long, sleek, symmetrical, ramp-like effect.

The powerful abruptness of the breaks is much more than an interesting aspect of facture. A 12'' x 12'' beam cannot slip gracefully in two. As force is applied there is mounting strain, but the wood still fractures irretrievably at particular spots in the timber and at particular moments in time—not broken, not broken, still not broken, broken. The strident jaggedness of the fractures is not only expressionistic in relation to New York painting (where it could, with some banality, be likened to Still’s jaggedness). It relates at least as vividly to urgent, risky glissandos in expressionist music, skidding and abrupt movements in dance, and high-strung qualities in even German Expressionist painting. Tight yet daring, violent but contained, loud in elegantly brief moments, Grosvenor attacks the smugness of the utilitarian constructional member rather than its nonartistic origins—such material as a telephone pole having already lost whatever outlandishness it may once have had for art. A defeat of Constructivist impulses to compose is effected by the subversion of the intrinsic tensile and compressive constructional properties of building materials, forcing them to surrender their function but not their form.

Grosvenor’s aggressive attack on the wood is subtler than it might appear. In itself a length of timber or a wooden telephone pole is not simply a given form, or rather, not all its features are given with equal conviction. The width and thickness of lumber is “much more given” than its length, and because the length is so easily adjustable, its proportions are not really given at all. One of the pieces exhibited consists of a long (potentially “tall”) telephone pole cut in half and folded back on itself, so that the original “tip” end rests on top of the original “base” end, with the two centers one over the other. The length and proportions have been quite drastically affected by the sculptor, even though none of the mass has been sculpted away in the traditional sense. Actually, most of the pieces involve a conscious decision about length, and, consequently, proportion.

The whole matter of strength of materials—finding out just when they will give way—is attached to, but conceptually distinct from, architecture. Leonardo and Galileo founded the study of strength of materials, pursued as a physical problem detached from the practice of architecture. Galileo’s contribution can be found in his Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences (1638), where two woodcut illustrations demonstrate principles that are central to Grosvenor’s art: a weight suspended from a cantilevered square beam and a pair of demonstrations of wood breakage, one of a pole breaking “up” over a single fulcrum and the other showing a pole breaking “down” between two fulcra.

Curiously, what provoked Galileo’s interest in timber strength and fracture was a problem that implied proportion—noticing that when ships were launched very heavy vessels had to be specially braced so as not to break under their own weight. For Galileo the proportions of a timber, especially its relative length, were of prime concern:

Among heavy prisms and cylinders of similar figure, there is one and only one which, under the stress of its own weight, lies just on the limit of breaking and not breaking: so that every larger one is unable to carry the load of its own weight, and breaks; while every smaller one is able to withstand some additional force tending to break it.

There is wit in Grosvenor’s subversive use of such principles in order to disarm and bring down the structural pride of a heavy beam, rather than to respect and confirm it.

Grosvenor also makes small table-top pieces that sometimes function as studies for full-sized sculptures and sometimes as reductions after the fact. They present certain difficulties that the large works avoid. A tapered one, perhaps a chair rung, made on a lathe, is one of the least attractive, even though as a real rung it has the surest sense of scale. The breaks in the small pieces lack the expressive and physical integrity of those in the grand-scale works. Mostly because they are obviously so much more easily broken, the act of breaking loses its force and consequence. We are used to small things being broken. The fantastic diminution in size from a telephone pole to a chair rung seems to alter the nature of the break, whether or not Galileo would agree. Similar situations do arise in engineering when using models with natural processes of unalterable scale.

But if some of the small pieces seem inconsequential, Grosvenor has developed a mode of drawing that uncannily suits the needs of his sculpture. He uses a simple horizontal line to suggest a gravitational ground and then builds up from that, in elevation, a rendering consisting of segments of masking tape. In one drawing a long piece of tape extends almost all the way across the paper, overlaying other strips of tape for about one-third the way from each end, tersely expressing, in the translucency of the central part, a differentiation of mass. This drawing is a study for a large sculpture to be effected by repeatedly crushing a telephone pole in the center and allowing it to be squeezed back by each successive crush.

In each drawing the tape works in sensitive analogy with the givens of Grosvenor’s full-sized timbers, because the rippled texture of the masking tape is aptly like the intrinsic grain of the lumber. Moreover, the tape, like the lumber, comes in a set width while its length is a matter of decision. The drawing I like best is a study for the long telephone pole with a partly submerged angular dip in the middle, on which Grosvenor has been working at Coney Island. Each, however, carries conviction, and all hint at the careful assaults and elegant disruptions of grandly scaled sculpture.

––Joseph Masheck