PRINT May 1978

Thomas Bang’s Recent Work

THOMAS BANG RECENTLY EXHIBITED several floor and wall pieces which are characteristic of the two different forms his ideas have taken over the past years. The new pieces follow in a progression of work from the late ’60s and early ’70s which is obviously derived from concerns of and work by such artists as Donald Judd, Robert Morris and Carl Andre. Like the sculpture of these artists, the pieces are abstract in that they have no metaphorical allusions but refer only to themselves. And the limitations and strengths of the materials are manipulated so as to indicate their characteristics. A distinguishing characteristic of Bang’s work is the use of two materials whose properties are at variance with each other. Two substances work in opposition to each other to form the image; the image is, therefore, depersonalized by the “automation” involved in the process of making it.1

Despite the similarity to ideas prevalent in the work of these other artists, there is an aspect of Bang’s work, obvious all along but more pronounced in the later work, which sets it apart. Instead of implying regularity and wholeness in form, Bang’s pieces seem to be about fragmentation or the denial of a suggested completed form. This is not to say that it is Bang’s intention to make a piece which is not whole. Rather, the implication is that the fragment is complete in that it is all that is necessary as an indication of the form or process. The work exists as a trace of the “whole” and includes all that is essential to its understanding. To some extent Bang’s works appear fragmented because of his use of two different materials. With the juxtaposition of two materials, especially two with opposing properties, it would be difficult not to frustrate the sense of completion of the form suggested by either one. But in this way pieces consist of internal relationships and, as such, bring to mind the work of such artists as David Smith and Anthony Caro.

The tensions suggested by Bang’s use of two opposing materials is most easily comprehensible in his wall pieces. One is accustomed to viewing paintings on the wall which have inherent in the medium the juxtaposition of many elements. The canvas has always been a ground on which the painter defines relationships between different colors and shapes. It is the complication of bringing these elements together that gives a painting overall form. Bang’s wall pieces, however, are relatively simple and accessible images which exist within a shallow space and are perceived much as one would a painting or, more truly, a wall relief in which the wood has become the ground into which wax is inserted to complicate that body.

For example, one work is a two-inch-wide piece of painted black wood extending horizontally about eight feet at eye level. Along the top edge, toward the right, a small piece of wood has been cut away and wax has been inserted, forming a crooked edge above the top. The wood is dull and the wax shiny; the wood is hard and straight, while the wax is pliable and interrupts the hardness of the edge.

A wall piece such as WCW 3 is more complex because a more complicated composition is introduced. A geometric pattern is formed by the edges of a cut-out area that corresponds to a linear incision on the opposite side. The carved-out area has been filled with wax and then again carved out, leaving a similar pattern. Despite the similarity of the step patterns (and an implied symmetry), the image is neither regular nor symmetrical, but random in its composition. And the complication between the implication and the reality is reinforced by the juxtaposition of the two materials, as in the piece mentioned above. Furthermore, the wood in WCW 3 has been left natural, yet stained—presumably during the application of the wax. Thus there is a greater sense of the materials working in opposition to each other. Not only is there color difference: there is also the sense that the wax was once a hot, fluid substance which worked itself into the holes, asserting its own properties against those of the wood.

Part of the strength of these reliefs is that they are easily perceived. Bang’s floor pieces are more difficult. These sculptures obviously do not occupy the same shallow space at eye level. Rather, they have “dimensions” and share the viewer’s space, in that they are objects which must be walked around. Furthermore, there is an ambiguity in the scale of these works, as they are neither quite small enough to be intimate nor big enough to be public.2 Bang has used these sculptural characteristics to intensify and complicate the ideas already discussed with regard to wall reliefs.

Bang also interrupts the completion of systems, or complicates one’s understanding of the materials, in his freestanding sculptures. These pieces are directly related to the wall reliefs in their use of materials and in their seeming arbitrariness of form. In an early piece, Untitled (Single Block/Cylinder), 1971, these juxtapositions are plainly set forth. The work is made from plaster—a solid, brittle, white material—and wire, a linear, pliable, black material. The wire originally formed a cylinder within the rectangular block. However, the wire has been partially unwound, and has broken the block as well as destroyed the regularity of the spiral. The opposition of the materials and the forms that they make is obvious. The properties of the two have been forced to act against each other and, in so doing, to manifest themselves as well as to fragment the image. In this work, however, there is a clear sense that the wire “once” completed the cylinder and that the block “was” rectangular. The breaking of these demanded action by the artist. Thus, there is a personal element, although it is understood to be controlled within the process of making the image. And the process can be completely conceived upon viewing the final image.

In his more recent work, Bang has fragmented the image to a greater extent. His materials are hydro-stone and wooden blocks coated with creosote. The hydrostone is again a very heavy, hard but brittle, white material which has been molded around, and within, the confines of a structure made by the wooden blocks. The wood has stained the hydro-stone, marking a presence which, in many cases, has been removed. The result is the forming of an irregular step pattern, as described in the wall reliefs. FV 3 and FVC 9 are representative of the two types of form these floor pieces have taken. In the former the step pattern is juxtaposed against the suggestion of a circle; in the latter, a trapezoid. In both these works voids are left within the image by the removal of the wooden blocks. FVC 9 only has one block remaining: the edges of its trapezoid have been broken and the space within the image has been opened up. Several blocks have also been removed from FV 3, and part of the hydrostone has been chipped away. These pieces suggest a fragmentation more explicitly because the empty space or, better, the actual removal of substance, is more emphasized.

The fragmentation in these pieces existed from their initial conception. There never was a solid cylinder—for example in FV 3, despite the suggestion of a circular form. Nor is it clear exactly what the form initially looked like when all the elements used during the piece’s formation were present. Thus, not only is the image a fragment, but, on viewing the finished work, one can only guess at the progression of events which led to the formation of the work. In other words, one’s conception of the process by which the piece was made is also fragmented in these later works.

Up to this point, the complications and oppositions suggested by these sculptures could just as easily have been described along the lines of the wall reliefs. All are implied by relationships between two materials working within a common area. In this sense, the floor pieces are like the wall reliefs. The hydrostone sets up a ground into which is inserted the wooden blocks, much as the wood of the wall reliefs provides an area in which the wax can function. However, the perception of the relational aspect between the materials is of course different when seen on the floor. A freestanding sculpture, because of its dimensions and placement in the round, is perceived by the viewer more literally as an object and as continuous with one’s own space.

The sizes of the pieces are determined to a large extent by the scale of the room (a gallery, for example) and in relation to human scale. Whereas Judd’s and Andre’s works bring attention to the viewer’s position in relation to the environment by implying a filling up of space, Bang’s attitude toward these aspects of sculpture seems much more ambivalent. His works are small in scale, yet they are not miniature or intimate in that sense. Their size is perhaps most similar to that of Joel Shapiro’s sculpture yet they indicate a still different sense of scale. FV 3 and FVC 9 do not relate to the space outside of their boundaries in the same manner as Shapiro’s works do. Bang’s are introverted images. The progression of movement goes inward from the area of the gallery, to the borders of the image, to within it. Rather than implying a filling of space, Bang’s pieces tend to exist only in the space they occupy. The area is small but certainly not small enough to make the works unnoticeable. Because of the solidity of the hydrostone, the sculptures sit heavily and unimposingly on the floor and act as interruptions to the continuous space of the gallery. They appear as inert objects which one might trip over physically (and does, visually). The pieces also have a humorous nature as a result. They do not impose themselves on the space, but stubbornly sit in place.

In being neither large nor small and stubborn but not assertive in attitude, the works are somewhat disconcerting. They create a tension just because they are ambiguous. This ambiguity, as well as the introversion of the image—which tends to interrupt the space it exists within, rather than to define it—tends to intensify a sense of fragmentation in the image.

Fragmentation as it exists in Bang’s work is not about suggesting that the image presented is a part. It is not about cropping, as in a photograph, which captures part of a scene within its frame and implies the rest. The connotation of Bang’s work is more analogous to that of a sculpture that an archaeologist might find. In the most obvious sense, the objects appear archaeological because of the breakage and staining as well as the fact that some pieces seem to be missing. They look worn. But, more significantly, as the image exists in its fragmentation, it only provides hints as to what it might have been when all the elements used in its formation were present. It is interesting to consider, perhaps, what might have existed, just as one might imagine what the head of The Nike of Samothrace might have looked like, yet that is similarly visually inconceivable and does not deny the sense of the whole.

To extend the analogy with archaeology: it is almost as if Bang’s recent work existed as an archaeological remnant from the 1960s. There is a strong sense of confrontation with the idealization of the geometrical form—mathematical systems—and a sculptor’s ability to make a mark on our environment. In Bang’s work the systems and geometrical forms have been broken up by external elements. It is as if these works were made in the idealized forms of Minimal art, yet have been broken up with time.

Tiffany Bell



1. See Robert Morris, “Some Notes on the Phenomenology of Making: The Search for the Motivated,” Artforum, April 1970, p. 62

2. See Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part II,” Artforum, October 1966, p. 20.