PRINT February 1979

Natural Structures: Michael Singer’s Sculpture and Drawings

MICHAEL SINGER’S WORK IS MOST remarkable in its vision of nature. His sculptures express a relation to a universe of incessant change and motion. Constructed of bamboo, phragmites (marsh reeds), rocks, light strips of wood, Singer’s outdoor sculptures do not attempt to impose their structure upon the natural order. Rather, elements of the environment, such as water, light, and wind, are allowed to participate actively; sometimes they even alter the formal order of the work, just as Singer integrates the rhythms of a sculpture into the preexisting structure of the environment.

Singer’s use of artistic structure to reveal or enhance natural phenomena suggests a non-Western restraint and discretion toward the natural world. Singer sees his work, both indoor and outdoor sculptures and drawings, as expressing a view of reality as flux, with moments of perception that show man’s interdependence with nature in an ancient life cycle. These and other fundamental attitudes point more to the cultural traditions of the East than of the West. We have the occasional artist who connects to this vision, but no continuous tradition involving twin elements that are central to Singer: a veneration of nature and a commitment to transience.

In his spiritual orientation and his obsessive fidelity to nature the Western artist to whom Singer comes closest is perhaps Cézanne, with his elusive esthetic of “contact with nature realized through sensations.” Certain other aspects of Singer’s sculptures—their discontinuity and openness of structure—relate in a broad sense to the tradition of space drawing, in sculpture, specifically to certain works of Gonzales and David Smith. Even Cézanne, however, for all his determination to express the fugitive, wanted an art of permanence, “as lasting as that of the museums.”

Instead of creating forms with weight and volume, or, like American earth artists of the 1960s, bulldozing vast tracts of land, Singer’s elegant and light structures paradoxically make artistic use of the environment by yielding to natural forces. The important themes of his work—suspension, “giving in,” the balance of tension and compression—are derived less from art historical precedents than from daily renewed contact with the outdoors, using materials indigenous to a particular place. Singer gives the viewer an epiphany of the natural world, an experience only total immersion in an area of engaged vision can create. He has affinities both with Oriental views of nature as cyclic change and also with the Northern Romantic spirit in his preference for the direct apprehension of unreconstructed nature.

In both drawing and sculpture, Singer dramatizes nature not as object, but for being in nature, nature indissolubly linked with mind. Singer deliberately blurs the boundaries between the work of art and its surroundings. His idea of the function of art is primevally spiritual.

Singer has given the name “Rituals” to his drawings and sculptures. It is important to him that the work reveal what is felt in the illuminating moment of natural apprehension. In deriving inspiration for his constructions from what he calls “a sense of ritual,”1 inherent in a particular site, Singer shows affinities with, for instance, the builders of the Shinto shrines. A group of works, including the sculpture in his recent New York exhibition, he entitled “First Gate Ritual Series.” The “first gate” refers to the torii, the wooden gateway structure that marks the entrance to the Japanese Shinto shrines; that, in turn, also relates to the curved bowlike element that is a recurrent image in Singer’s recent work.2

Singer’s earlier outdoor sculptures, frequently worked on over long periods of time, were made of materials from specific sites in national parks—materials such as phragmites, bamboo, marsh grass. These spare, linear structures suggested extensive drawings in space. One outdoor work of 1973 covered an area of 100 acres; another piece, in the Everglades National Park in 1975, consisted of 14 sections of bamboo and phragmites covering around 700 feet of a vast open glade. The structure of these works altered unceasingly, shifting with conditions of the environment, and they responded to the changing direction of the sunlight. The materials were flexible and perishable, inviting continuous participation with nature. Some works disappeared back into the land altogether. Exposed to wind and rainstorms, these pieces were poetic in conception and, simultaneously, studies in spatial dynamics.

Singer’s more recent sculptures, both indoor and outdoor, are less linear, more compact. They continue to explore the tense balance of forms, changing the vectors of spatial relations. For the past three years Singer has taken thin wooden strips and woven them into a complex mesh of curved horizontals. The piece called First Gate Ritual Series 10/78 shows that a radical change in the new indoor sculptures is the totemic human quality that the artist has introduced into the vertical elements. Grouped together at mysterious spatial intervals, these verticals now conjure up not only the image of trees stripped of foliage but gatherings of attenuated human figures. The curving vertical elements now relate to the rounded wooden structure that constitutes the lower part of the sculpture, with diagonals and bent strips of wood in shifting planar relationships. The horizontal weave of poised wooden elements in this work come up about four feet from the floor, while nine verticals rise above the viewer, like strange hieratic presences, up to a height of ten feet. As in the totemic dimension both in Giacometti and the open vertical works of David Smith, Singer’s sculptural statement is enriched by having a structure that is a bizarre fusion of human form and abstract symbol, here in the slim verticals, and the spatial intervals between them.

While the verticals in the new work evoke the totemic, the structure of the horizontal curves has also become more complex. These curved wooden strips are now denser in weave, more ambiguous in direction, and they act as intersecting planes. Works such as First Gate Ritual Series 10/78 were prefigured by the horizontal two-part work Singer executed in Roslyn, Long Island, at the Nassau County Museum of Fine Arts, in 1976. The diagonals in the Roslyn work were subtly related to the banks of a pond, while the sense of vertical extension that Singer has now developed structurally in indoor works was then partly supplied by the trees in the environment.

Intuitive in his attitude toward both nature and art, Singer’s work is also marked by acute attention to overall sculptural form, and a precise choice of site and approach. The Roslyn work appeared so poetically one with its site, on a pond surrounded by hills and woods, that one might not have been aware of Singer’s scrupulous calculation of position, which involved both the viewer’s kinetic participation and the active role of nature. The work’s structure of curvilinear rhythms pulled attention out to the contours of the landscape; the mesh of bowlike diagonals connected us to a sense of flow in the hills and woods. In order to see this work one had holistically to experience the landscape environment to which it belonged. As the work never actually touched the water, it gave the illusion of floating while being static.

Another feature of Singer’s work involves remote sites. This sculpture is to Singer “a form of research,” like what T.S. Eliot called the first voice of poetry—“the poet talking to himself or to nobody.”3 Sangam Ritual Series 4/76, which Singer executed in the ten-thousand-acre Smithsonian salt marsh preserve near Chesapeake Bay, was not easily accessible. That work had a calligraphic linear structure of bamboo, resembling an exuberant space drawing on a vast scale. Sangam Ritual was an example of a continuously changing horizontal structure. Around 200 feet in length, with over 150 lines and elements, the work’s visible form depended totally on the position of the sun.

Singer’s Bog Ritual Series 6/78, done in Marlboro, Vermont, has a similar beauty, depending on light and time. In the early morning the light hits the central part of the work, making it appear contained: by mid-afternoon, additional bamboo elements on either side of the piece are illuminated, and the structure appears to expand. These works’ lack of implied absolute limits emphasizes a romantic concept of space as immeasurable and expansive.

First Gate Ritual Series 10/78 is the most recent and most exciting example of Singer’s indoor works designed for interior space. In earlier interior works Singer used tall verticals, but they did not carry the sense of the totemic, nor were the spatial intervals between them “symbolic.” The visual fascination in Singer’s new indoor work depends partly on the mystery of the curved wooden elements in tension, but above all on the subtle relationship between artistic imagination and nature. For these works also project a paradoxical feeling about space. The wooden strips are in a relation that is complex but cunning, with each part depending upon the others for its meaning.

Although this sculpture does not move, the weave of its forms appears animate. Its nine totemic verticals serve, by contrast, to emphasize the undulating horizontal configurations and also to stop or halt their movement. The work seems mobile because of the energies released by Singer’s holding of elements in tension, as if in intersecting planes. Varying curves create a complex rhythm and a dominant imagery of unceasing, rhythmic flow. Singer’s imagery, from hieratic verticals to bent clusters of wooden forms, is evocative: a portion of a forest where trees have fallen down, the movement of water or of wind, symbolic human presences related to some ritual space.

The power of this art derives from small changes in pressure and balance, adjustments of weight and force. The materials chosen, and how far Singer bends them, create a forceful animate imagery. If the curve closest to the ground symbolically makes reference to the form of the torii, it also expresses the Oriental idea of forces giving in to gravity. The other curved strips act as overlapping planes, reflecting off the bend nearest the ground. No piece of wood actually touches the floor. The work is disjunctive, yet unified; grounded, yet weightless; bounded, yet immeasurable. Singer’s combination of the raw materials of landscape with an intuitively imposed symbolic order returns to art richly poetic qualities.

While the strength of Singer’s sculpture is in its discretion and esthetic distance, the drawings are free and unrestrained. The forms derive from two sources: structural elements of the sculptures and images extracted from the physical world. Like the sculptures, the drawings relate to specific sites. While both kinds of work express a vision of nature as change and motion, the drawings are more sensuous. They depict with unusual vividness the world of post-Monet artists as described by Meyer Schapiro: “They discover their pictures in looking around at objects, and execute swift sketches which have the immediacy of a glance. Sensibility operates instantaneously, in the very act of seeing.”4

These large drawings vary in dimension from 46 by 31 3/4 inches up to 45 by 84 1/2 inches. The dominant form in all the drawings recently shown is the curved vertical element with the totemic presence of Singer’s sculptures. In the drawings he extends the arcs of the curves, and adapts them to other recurrent images—globular forms suggesting leaves, pods, cattails. There are also swift painterly strokes of charcoal and smudges, which evoke smoke or rushing water.

As Singer has said of his drawings, “When I am building a piece, the drawings and sculpture happen together. In some cases my drawings are an attempt to define and discover certain symbols that occur in these experiences.”

The freedom and lightness of Singer’s touch evokes Oriental calligraphy, but there is a bold, impassioned rhythm and lack of restraint that explains why he has occasionally been linked to Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, in setting up rich structures with biomorphic images suggesting patterns of growth, Singer recalls Gorky and Kandinsky. However, not only are his strokes and graphic rhythms very different, but the nature of his symbolism marks a sharp divergence from Abstract Expressionism. The emotive conviction we associate with Abstract Expressionism is there, but, rather than being emblems of the inner life or of the unconscious, Singer’s images are symbols of nature. They make concrete a jubilant moment when the parts of the world are perceived to exist in harmony. More specifically, Singer’s shapes and the kinds of movement evoked—wind, the wild rushing of a waterfall—refer back to phenomenal reality.

Singer varies heavy bold strokes of black charcoal with impulsive spirals of calligraphic pencil lines. He uses thick collaged elements to build up a dense surface. The collage shapes also express changes in rhythm and enrich the line. A remarkable sense of texture, even of wetness, fog, mists, is conveyed by turbulent graphic strokes and by the smudging of charcoal. Meanwhile, the collage feature brings in the idea of “conscious” control without diminishing the natural vitalism.

While the recent drawings are entitled “First Gate Ritual Series,” they show a recognizable, but not literal, relationship to the recent sculpture. In an earlier drawing by Singer, Ritual Series 4/3/76, 1976, both the spatial intervals between its verticals and the shape of its forms are directly related to the sculpture Sangam Ritual 9/76, installed at the same time in the Wadsworth Atheneum. Now the relationship between drawings and sculpture is more subtle. The drawings express the sculptures’ themes of suspension, the balancing of weights and spatial forces, and Singer’s handling of line to create fluid, moving forms, giving the drawings the same marked quality of spatial energy as the sculptures. Yet the symbolic translation of the forms is freer, and the spatial intervals between them differ from the sculptures. Also, the mood is more intensely physical. Dominated by images that express the energy of quick perceptions, they show the universe in a momentary, as well as a more active, mood. While both drawings and sculpture are kinetic, the sculptures incorporate duration and process in their structure, and seem to symbolize a contemplative state of mind. The drawings convey the urgency of the very action of perception.

In the drawings, some lines are stroked, like painterly gestures. Singer exploits various thicknesses of line as well as breaking or curving a fine to express spatial depth, differences in texture or tone and changes of light. Edges are fluid; outlines are frequently broken. Both in mood and in their formal patterns, all the drawings illustrate Singer’s affinity with a Taoist view of nature as cyclical change. Singer takes the verticals from his sculpture, and, intensifying the curve at the top, treats the form as evolving in a cyclical movement. In some work, such as 4/21/78, or 1/30/78, Singer explores a curved reedlike vertical form and examines what happens to the movement of the image in a horizontal rather than circular pattern—as if it were interrupted and urged on by water or wind. In a seven-foot-long drawing that is a tour de force of cosmic dynamism, 1/30/76, the surface drops, in sudden dramatic recessions, into a penumbrally dark space. Eleven or twelve heavy black curved forms create a sense of distinct fields of force, like fierce wind storms or vortices of water. Singer encircles the heavy verticals which hold these energy centers with calligraphic pencil lines, which adds a swift rhythm to the whole.

Singer’s baroque calligraphic elements seem less related to nature’s forces than to a personal symbolism of nature. Two drawings, 1/30/76 and 1/30/78, besides conjuring up the raw power of nature as it strikes our senses, also evoke vaporous mists, smoke, dark marshy ground or the drama of light and darkness. Contrasted to the verticals, which seem like grounded essences, are forms suggesting leaves that are blown about, suspended in a turbulent field of energy. The drawings create radically different moods and spaces. Sometimes, as in Seven Moon Ritual Series 10/5/78, the space is flat, as if violent activity were occurring all on the same plane. In other cases, the space is full of directional ambiguity, and the handwriting elements are elegant and quiet, with an Oriental restraint in the disposition of forms in the spatial field.

This year’s Art-Nature Venice Biennale left one with the grim impression that only two or three artists had actually thought about nature as related to art or to human life. We are not so far from the 19th-century Romantic attitude toward nature as moral guide, yet this view seems impossible for fragmented modern man. What has taken its place? What kind of relation can modern secular humanity have to landscape? As was pointed out in the early 1970s, many “nature artists” aspired not to romantic transcendence but to a nostalgia for primeval perfection or a prehistoric relation to nature.

At the moment there are a number of American sculptors—George Trakas, Mary Miss, Alice Aycock —whose work relates both to architecture and to nature, but their vision of nature differs sharply from Singer’s. Singer’s distinctive contribution, in my view, is his capacity to make his art bring nature and our own selves into a kind of ritual interaction. Conceived of and experienced as Singer does, nature has a definite significance for man, and the formal structure of Singer’s work reveals this. His curvilinear rhythms and vertical totemic presences confront us with more than structural balance: they express the vision of a supple yielding to nature. The drawings, above all, communicate a vision of the mutability of form and of nature’s ceaseless power.

Margaret Sheffield



1. Although recent journalism has devalued the word “ritual” into a trendy phrase, Singer chose the title “ritual” for his work over nine years ago, for what Mallarmé would have called its poetic resonance. Also, just as “ritual” in worship involves repeated actions (and set objects) and is intended to bring one closer to a god, “ritual,” for Singer, involves repeated actions (and structures), intended to bring one closer to quintessential powers in nature.

2. The American architect Ralph Adams Cram, in his classic Japanese Architecture and Allied Arts (1930), stated of the torii: “one of the most perfectly simple, exquisite and classical forms ever evolved in the art of building . . .”

3. Although there is no direct influence of Japanese architecture on Singer, and he discovered affinities after the fact, analogies can be drawn. For standard books on Shinto art and in particular the prototype for all Shinto shrines, Ise, see: Yasutada Watanabe, Shinto Art: Ise and lzumo Shrines, New York, 1974; Arthur Drexler, The Architecture of Japan, New York, 1955; Kenzo Tange, Ise: Prototype of Japanese Architecture, Cambridge, Mass., 1965.

4. T. S. Eliot, “The Three Voices of Poetry,” On Poetry and Poets, New York, 1961, p. 96.

5. Meyer Schapiro, “Matisse and Impressionism,” Androcles I/1, February 1932, p. 23.