New York

New York Artists

The re-emergence of polychrome sculpture may be partly due to the increasing emphasis on optical vibration, color fields and non-textural surface in painting, but in many instances it is the logical outcome of Abstract Expressionism, closer to the ideals of de Kooning, Guston and Kline than much of the sculpture done by their contemporaries in the fifties. The majority of those working in polychromy today are still committed to these ideals—the principles of gesture, immediacy, intuitive and highly personal form—as contrasted to the new “cool” art of geometry, color abstraction and Pop. But the rawness and simplified brilliance, the toughness and tightness of the art of the sixties is there too. Color is used to disunite; compact linear or monolithic forms are replaced by gangling tentacles or heavy, decisive masses reaching boldly and arbitrarily out into space. At the same time color disguises patina, tactile surfaces or found objects and tempers spontaneity of conception with industrial materials which look hot off the assembly line—plastics, glossy painted metals or woods—in the tradition of the Cubist polychromy of Picasso, Laurens, Archipenko or Herbin from 1910 to 1920. The artists discussed below all use color in three-dimensional work to some extent; for the Park Place group, Sugarman, and Todd, chromatics form an integral part of sculpture; Flavin uses color only as a background and Marisol uses it decoratively to obtain a carnival atmosphere. But all of them have recognized the “contemporaneity” of colored sculpture; they are competing with painting in its own territory just as many painters are taking their works off the walls and inclining toward sculpture.

The Park Place gallery, an artists’ cooperative in a loft building well off the beaten track, is becoming a center of polychrome sculpture, and their invitational show includes examples in plaster, wood and metal as well as commercial plastics, which are used with varying degrees of success by David Weinrib, Frosty Myers and Tony Magar. These acrylics and related materials can be gracefully bent and folded into forms impossible or at least difficult in other media and are rich in potential color, light and space values, but they are expensive and pose problems in terms of their excessive “beauty.”

Weinrib avoids the pitfalls by manipulating translucent and clear plastics, opaque painted metal, overlapping colors and shapes, until the initially direct gesture is complicated by subtle transparencies and depths (inadequately shown in photographs); the large variety of close-valued colors move into each other without interrupting the outward flow and reach into space. His exhibit extends horizontally for about four feet and seems to grow naturally from the wall. At first, for support, it is more angular, becoming increasingly curved and organic as it moves out. Effortless as this piece looks, it is really very disciplined. Plastics are certainly better suited to Weinrib’s work than the bent and cut metal he used predominantly before. It seems to have liberated his ideas and at the same time to have allowed him more technical assurance and control.

Myers and Magar, both of whom use plastic in a more conventionally expressionist manner, run into trouble because the lushness of the clear colors tends to dominate. Though Myers uses a variety of materials in occasionally interesting and precarious ways, his work is finally a little fussy. One wishes that he had omitted some of the twisting tangle of plastic shapes which are set on a flat surface over a black wood and iron base. A sensuously opulent hunk of clear lucite is an eye-catching object in itself that neither a jagged sheet of orange plexiglass jutting off the side nor other bright bits and pieces can compete with. These luxury items with their jewel-like colors juxtaposed against the matte black make a striking combination all too close to the esthetics of window display. Magar uses shapes of tinselly pink plastic and brassy sheet metal in a roughly made, yet Constructivist-oriented, hanging piece, but the elegance of the plastics is, at least in this case, incompatible with the rather sloppy technique, and the result is thoughtlessly flashy. He has done better work in polychrome iron.

In Tom Doyle’s The Hooker From Hadley, a double wooden form swings slowly out on a blue jointed pivot between a round green iron base and a ceiling wire. Wood and metal are painted; the top and most visible surface of the wooden core is purplish brown, dark green and black. When the sculpture moves, ponderously yet smoothly on its extended axis, it describes a deep arc in space with a slight dip at one point, where the orange underside of the central form is revealed, focusing the movement and intensifying the sense of weight. The form itself consists of a curved shape cut from a piece of wood which forms the other half—a negative reflection of the positive mass. This is not a large work, but its slow motion and simple but massive form, augmented by the use of understated color, lend it an importance out of proportion to its scale.

Other, but less provocative, polychrome sculpture was provided by Sondra Beale, Sidney Geist, Steve Montgomery and John Chamberlain. The remaining major piece, now raw plywood, but eventually to be painted in bright, flat color, is Ronny Bladen’s work in progress. Based on a series of juts and thrusts between three large rectangular units, the monumental and impersonal presence of this enormous structure will be crystallized by the addition of color, which in this case will be, one gathers, a unifying rather than dispersive factor. Bladen’s big painted wall constructions at the Green Gallery last winter showed him to be among the first to carry current painting techniques into three dimensions on a large scale. Only tenuously related to Abstract Expressionism, his work is more deadpan and more architectural than that discussed above.

George Sugarman is represented at Park Place as well as in a one-man show at Radich, and he recently exhibited at Howard Wise a strange segmented floor piece like a far-out miniature golf course. He is usually grouped with Weinrib, Doyle and di Suvero as a “space sculptor,” who does not so much “draw in space” as attempt to recreate or redefine space in terms of unexpected projections and equilibriums. But his methods are quite different; where one of Weinrib’s themes appears to be weightlessness and Doyle’s larger work is more environmental, Sugarman composes great, chunky, heavily-wrought wooden pieces which assert their presence unequivocally. His work has a great formal variety, ranging from the organic to the stylized, combining knots, “accordion pleats,” bulbous protrusions and spasmodically curved lines. Each piece is made up of several consecutive but clearly distinct movements; each section or each sculptural member is limited to a single type of form and painted a single color. This separation is further emphasized by changes in surface from one part to the next, although there is never any attempt to disguise the wood as such.

Not always coherent, Sugarman is never boring, and his robust forthrightness recalls vintage Léger. Bardana is a great sprawling limb of slabs and meanderings, ambiguously heavy forms and “light,” often garish, color. As unexpected as the “golf course” piece is Ramdam at Radich—a large three-part sculpture which begins on the ground with a tangle of jerky red wooden lines surmounted by a very Cubistic set of white rectangular forms and is finally topped by an immense blue blob, resting uneasily on its dissimilar bases. One wonders how Sugarman came to conceive of that form. Like much of his work it seems totally arbitrary. He is obviously an artist who leaves himself wide open and lets things happen.

Mike Todd’s very uneven exhibition at Pace includes three recent pieces in which he has begun to explore polychrome sculpture with far more original results than in the earlier mono-chromed assemblages that make up a large part of the show. The latter, constructed of surrealistic remains such as shoes, artificial legs, half mannequins, gloves, etc., and often painted a dull black reminiscent of Nevelson, have little to recommend them besides an interesting silhouette. On the other hand, in the three wall reliefs—Target, Pfazz and Homage to H. P. Lovecraft—Todd has set up an elegantly illogical system of weights and balances by exploiting the principles of the golf club. The deceptively fragile and slender handle draws a line across the wall, culminating in the powerful, compact mass of the head and the cluster of objects in which it is grounded. “Target’s” major form is a blue-ringed, yellow-centered hubcap; nestled within it are several balls, a leather-lined helmet sprayed turquoise, a brick red stuffed glove shape and the silvery turquoise golf club. The bright colors, varied by sprayed and flat surfaces, which alternately assert and dematerialize the volumes, also differentiate between forms and accent each object.

But the problem of associative versus formal values is still raised. Having given up the anonymity of the assemblages in which solid black blurred distinctions between the objects, Todd is now forced to cope with the specificity he has released. The objects employed are never wholly transformed into sculptural members, never wholly transcend their previous meanings, nor do they seem to have acquired any new connotations which would better justify their salience. Todd is working with two practically irreconcilable ideas: he wants to provide a strong optical and spatial impact but remains involved with his formal elements on the constricted object level.

Dan Flavin is not a sculptor and his medium is light rather than color. Half of this show consists of fluorescent fixtures hanging diagonally or vertically on the wall without further embellishment. In their shiny white metal settings, these lines of softly glowing white or colored luminosity become “paintings in light” rather than recognizable everyday objects. In a way they over-transform themselves. Four vertical white tubes—warmer bulbs on the outside and cooler within—create an extraordinarily sensuous and romantic pillar, far more reminiscent of theatrically illuminated classical architecture than of a Duchamp readymade. This and a single white diagonal are the two most successful pieces. When the lights are colored (red and yellow), they cross the borderline into decoration and become simply too beautiful.

The rest of the exhibition consists of hanging wall reliefs, or “icons”—solid colored boxes with lights in white porcelain settings attached to the sides. Here again the simpler is the better. A stark black box manages to balance the translucent white light, whereas the largest, Coran’s Broadway Flesh, has sides lined with small pointed bulbs with sparkling filaments; the whole glitters like a jewel case. The disturbing thing about Flavin’s work is this consistent tendency toward prettiness, despite the fact that the objects are strictly conceived. The dramatic qualities of light as a medium tend to obscure its initial clarity, but the idea is entirely justified in the statement of idealized purity made by the single white diagonal.

Marisol’s is another use of polychromy. This year she has carried her complex two and three dimensional play even further, deftly weaving illusion in and out of drawn, painted and sculpted forms, found objects and lightly satirical subject matter. But in spite of her undeniable skill, craftsmanship and wit, she does not take enough chances. This extremely deadpan work is always in danger of becoming coy, and her pieces are usually fun to see the first time and disappointing the second. Her use of color is anecdotal, rarely employed for structural reasons, but rather for decorative ends. This, among other things, gives her works the look of a craft or folk art (albeit a highly sophisticated, city-slicker folk art) in which formal success or failure is only incidental to image-making. More artful than art, they raise the question of what she is going to do with the talents she so obviously has. She is not using them now.

––Lucy R. Lippard