PRINT April 1985


JOHN DUFF’S SOPHISTICATED SCULPTURE offers us a brilliantly revisionist estheticism, that is, an estheticism that transcends institutionalization while fulfilling all its conditions. It transcends through its perfectionism—it is so perfectly autonomous art that it seems a critique of the very notion of autonomous art.

Specifically, Duff’s revisionist estheticism is not only a matter of the reformulation of sculptural Synthetic Cubism in contemporary material—fiberglass—but in the reconstitution of the openness essential to it. For Duff this now involves the unresolved relationship between wall and object— part of the object is attached to the wall while part juts into space, often with a kind of abbreviated dramatic energy, as though it had thought better of projecting too far and forcefully but was already on its way to doing so, and could only stop short. Cantilevered Wedge, 1984, is a good example of this. More important, however, is the unresolved relationship between the sculptural spatial construction of wedges, with their peculiar unity of angle and curve (“edgy” planes and volumes which seem just short of being bloated), and the sometimes coarse, sometimes delicate—but always rich—“painterly” surface Duff gives the wedges. This “performance’’ renders each piece readable as an erratic translation of time into space.

Another aspect of the reconstituted ambiguity is the unresolved figural presence of the sculptures. They are not only generally figural in size and implication (some of them are freestanding) but their abstractness can be read as a deliberate skimming of figural reference, as though abstractness were the residue of a figural search-and-destroy mission (which in fact it once was). This is partly why the figure lurks around the mental corners of Duffs sculptures, without actually making an appearance. It is nonetheless responsible for the latent totem ism of Duffs pieces. The figure was this way even for Constantin Brancusi. However, he achieved sculptural integration by reducing the tension between the parts to be integrated or by generalizing the whole, while Duff restores that tension, that sense of potential rupture yet inherent connection of parts, making sculptural integration inwardly dramatic—emphasizing the struggle for integration rather than its inevitability.

It is exactly because of the nostalgic character of Duff’s abstraction—essentially Cubist—that his work can be understood as post-Modernist. This is not meant in the increasingly flabby sense of the concept as implicating a freeform culture of metaphor and quotation through which one moves blindfolded, as it were, tagging bits and pieces of dead form and image in a kind of neo-naive enthusiasm for the “truths” chance can bring. Rather, Duff’s post-Modernism can be understood as an attempt to recover persuasive purposiveness for art by recovering once authentic artistic intentions from their institutionalization. His perfectionism is in opposition to much of what ends up as post-Modernist. His tidying up and “correcting” the awkwardness of the historically original inaugurates new meaning where there seemed to be only language left, where there seemed only shells of “presence,” sedimenting as form.

Modernism assumed that there was more supposedly heroic will in creating the new, but post-Modernism shows us that the will directed toward the past—a species of pastoral will—is even stronger. Duff wants to play Apollinaire’s Harp, 1984; the question is not whether it can still play the music it once played, but whether it is capable of more, and other, music. Duff shows that it is. To echo Brancusi, as I think Duff sometimes does, is not to try to recover the origins of abstraction in a freshly refined codification of its development, but rather to restore morale to it by trying to see it poetically rather than simply linguistically, that is, to see it as a fresh source of affect, and thus as a mode of engagement. It is to liberate abstraction from its supposed “disinterestedness,” and make it again interesting because it is “interested.” The “sprinting” character of Duff’s sculptures, the seeming spontaneity of the directional changes which partially constitute their immanent structure, and the general sense of pursuing eccentric form for all its affective worth—profound affect always cloaks metaphysical awareness, as Alfred North Whitehead suggested—all add up to a rehabilitation of sculptural “presence.”

Duff has found a way to sail between the Scylla and Charybdis of contemporary sculpture, between the Minimalist preoccupation with holistic simplicity and gestalt, and the old assemblage/constructivist strategies of accretion. He has reinvented tension as an absolute goal of art, locating it beyond estheticism or avant-gardism.

Donald Kuspit is the editor of the revived Art Criticism, and the author of Leon Golub: Existentialist/Activist Painter, to be published shortly by Rutgers University Press. He writes regularly for Artforum.