PRINT May 1978

Alain Kirili’s Form and Craft

IN A SHOW OF HIS new work at Dartmouth, Alain Kirili recently exhibited four 8- to 12-foot sculptures consisting of two to three loosely fitted iron, forged iron and terra-cotta elements, as well as two two-part terra-cotta reliefs. Five of these works were made on location, while the other required more elaborate forging and was brought over from Europe. All the iron components were lightly forged, while the terra-cotta was molded by hand in a manner more indicative of the artist’s assertive grip than of his skill as a ceramist. The terra-cotta reliefs compare to the terra-cotta cum-iron and the all-iron sculptures as drawings compare to finished paintings.

One saw the artist’s dialectic mode of working, whereby one element of a sculpture is pitted against another element or in which one sculpture challenges another presented in the same space. Within one and the same work, iron, with its connotations of strength, abuts terra-cotta, with its connotations of fragility. The factory-delivered and the handmade are casually juxtaposed. Curved rods wave at perpendicular or oblique ones across the room; two iron tiles, one flat and the other upright, echo two cubes of the same dimension set at a 90-degree angle to reiterate the corner. Floor, wall and ceiling enclose and support these sculptures as they stand, sit, or lean, occupying a maximum of space with a minimum of solid mass.

Like more and more European artists, Kirili does not believe that his Old World heritage predisposes him to art or has given him an edge over others. To him, growing up in France was not such an asset. France in those years was going through a dismal period of artistic anemia, and an education in the arts was hard to come by. The only alternative for someone so inclined was to take the intellectual route and ally himself with philosophers and writers, or to become politicized and join the revolution as a Marxist or Maoist. Kirili found his way out of this dilemma by coming to America and learning about art in New York. For French artists, a trip to New York, and beyond, was a matter of self-education before it was considered a formula for success.

With the self-determination of a spiritual runaway who found the climate abroad only slightly more acceptable than the climate at home, Kirili set himself grand-parental models in reaction against the Minimal modes of the 1960s: Gonzalez, Giacometti, David Smith, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. Their search for existential truth in the portrayal of man, along with Kirili’s own aspirations toward the sublime, became a guiding precept that made him rethink the fundamental premises of art. Zealous as a novice bent on reinventing the wheel, Kirili decided to go back to “first base” in sculpture.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Kirili identifies with the self-taught artist and enthusiastically embraces the principle of self-education through study and practice. Robert Morris, in the forefront of Minimal esthetics and subsequently its severest critic, is one well-known artist who has shown convincing proof that self-education is an ongoing task and highly beneficial to any artist’s production. The self-illumination of Robert Morris’ work and his writings constitutes an important confirmation for Kirili and a steady source of intellectual nourishment.

In his early works (1970), Kirili did not produce Conceptual art as such; rather, he conceptualized the nature and technique of making art. By analyzing the forms and signs that go into the making of art, he reflected on the mechanism of representation. Then, in turn, he presented such reflections as art. Today, those theoretical investigations have become subsumed by a more urgently felt need to concentrate on the practice of art. The physical experience of the work is paramount, since it is the only valid link connecting the artist and those for whom his message is intended. Kirili is direct, manual, noninterpretive, nonillusionistic; and he rejects what cannot be physically expressed and made by himself. In contrast to today’s mania for large, expansive, factory-made sculptures in the public domain, Kirili’s is a private and almost reclusive statement.

The scale of Kirili’s works is neither so small as to make the observer feel big, nor so large as to dwarf him. The nuclear component in one of the artist’s recent sculptures is no larger than a head or fist, plus extrusions or extensions that reach as high as a medium-sized man with his arm stretched out. Within this range (identified by Morris as falling “between table-top objects and monuments”) Kirili’s sculpture usually looks small because it sits on the floor and not a pedestal. Form tends to get miniaturized, just as space, or the emptiness around form, gets blown out of proportion. As for the monumental, Kirili, like so many younger artists in the 1970s, abhors gigantism, which is associated with waste. Rather than inflating the size of his individual forms, he permits their composites to escalate into environments. Kirili’s installations are contained and discreet—more centripetal, somehow, than centrifugal.

Of key importance, besides their physicality and scale, is what I would like to call the “significant arrangement” of Kirili’s forms. A work’s casual appearance and its apparent simplicity are deceptive. Kirili, following his own intuitions about the relations of opposites—nonstatic balance, multiple transformation, the manipulation of emptiness as though it were mass—transforms his careful articulation of forms into significant arrangements. Working in the additive, nonconnective way pioneered by Andre and Serra and now almost a lingua franca for younger sculptors, Kirili, neither purist nor formalist, allows himself three options: his sculpture’s components are jointed, unjointed or fit to be either (in a virtual or potential state). If we added to the connective options the basic placement options of studio, home gallery or museum, then an arrangement based on the subtle application of indeterminacy appears both unavoidable and right.

Kirili’s attitude toward craft is as basic as an urban intellectual’s sudden discovery that in the country things are actually done by hand. His love of the forge and his more recent infatuation with low-fire clay and blown glass is certainly genuine, even if it is profoundly ambiguous when viewed in the context of modernist sculpture—and almost perverse from the craftsman’s perspective. Does Kirili see himself as a latter-day Prometheus stealing fire in Austria to light some forge in New York? His enthusiasm may, indeed, have led him to make much, at times, of what is, in the last analysis, a subsidiary concern and just one of several ingredients in the manufacture of a successful work of art. Yet perhaps the pendulum, which once swung too far in the direction of art as concept, now swings back as readily toward art as craft: Kirili as the avant-garde’s first bonafide blacksmith.

The forms that Kirili both chooses and fabricates are strongly archetypal and often sexual in connotation. The rod is perennial, whether tilted, leaning or erect; and there is no way to mistake the associations evoked by those furrowed, pinkish terra-cottas covered with shallow orifices. On another, more abstract level, we recognize the highly suggestive nature of the connection (more often the virtual connection) between long straight forms and the elemental shapes of a piece of cut I-beam, a terra-cotta “sponge” or a lump of forged metal. Clearly there is prodding, piercing, plunging and outright penetration. The sculptor himself ventures another elegantly anthropomorphic, and more erotic than sexual, parallel when he tells us that those metal rods propped between the floor and the juncture of wall and ceiling and bending under their own weight are formal metaphors for déhanchement, the provocative jutting out of a woman’s hip in the sculptures covering temples all over India.

Kirili’s sculptures may seem to have the understated and disarming appearance of simple formal exercises that make no claim to personal expression or to the attainment of style. However, the eye detects their complexities of form as effectively reinforced by specificity of manufacture. As it turns out, these sculptures, staunchly open to analysis and scrutiny, yield insight into issues vital to our current esthetic understanding. Visually coherent, they articulate one young artist’s success at making public form serve the contingencies of a private vision.

Jan van der Marck