New York

Michael Steiner

Candace Dwan Gallery

Faced with Michael Steiner’s radical rejection of his affinities to Don Judd or to others of that reductive persuasion, one senses this young sculptor’s ambition to create an art imbued with the complexity and toughness of say, a David Smith—yet without the latter’s imaginative ability or formal inventiveness to back up such an aspiration. Steiner has now given up fabrication processes in order to work more closely with his own materials (polyester resin which he casts over wood and paints bright pastel shades and primary hues). If there has been a logic to Steiner’s short development—from the shaped canvases and monochrome painted wood structures of 1962–3, to the more stringent mode of his stainless steel or aluminum fabricated “primary structures” in 1965–6, to the new polychromed additive volumes—one notes that it has unfortunately been a logic of a priori positions adapted to meet the look of the moment, rather than the internal needs of a personalized creative evolution. Notwithstanding, there is an impressive confidence to his show at the Dwan Gallery, as Steiner attempts to balance complex interlocking forms which have, aside from their lyrical coloration, a ponderous chunkiness. In his four sculptures Steiner is striving to be abstract in some original sense, yet one is inevitably referred back to a kind of anthropoid gesturing. Iberia, curiously clumsy in its enclosure of space and articulation of extended masses, gives one the pervasive feeling of a body flexing, straightening, and thrusting its limbs up and outwards, as if doing a sit-up. Anthropomorphism in itself is not to be flogged, but the intention here is clearly not to refer to such a morphology. Moreover, there are too many other factors which work to under mine even this energetic sense of muscular tension. Only the general scale of the piece has a solidity and a convincing, rather than overpowering relation to the viewer—it is not as gigantic as the thickness of the forms might suggest.

In Steiner’s new works, characteristically inflected cubes, thick discs or cylindrical segments, wedges, and inclined rectilinear shafts are perched and jointed onto each other, often jutting into space at rakish angles (phallic connotations aside). Iphigenia #1, with its big teetering blocks, has the kind of formal arbitrariness and chromatic sensuality which make for both the boldness and failure of most of the other pieces as well. Its intersecting wedges, tilted slide, and bent planes are painted an array of colors such as lavender, salmon, baby blue, lime green, or scarlet. They are lovely, almost manicured tints, but they do not have the strength or intensity to hold or match up to the already disparate and impossibly weighty forms. Color is used in several ways, and it is this kind of confusion which often subverts, rather than reinforces, the complexity of the piece. Sometimes the paint coincides with or demarcates each separate surface of a form with a different hue; on other areas, a single plane will be divided into harlequin-like patterns which do not correspond to the actual shaping of the parts, and where there may be no suggestion of such a division. Often Steiner will continue the color of one volume into the surface of an area where one mass locks against another—thus depicting an extension or projection of a shape beyond its actual physical limits. After a while, all these decorative tours de force simply compound the awkward integrations and tenuous conglomerations of the sculptured forms. However much Steiner hopes to enrich and enliven his structures by the use of color, he tends to overreach and obtrude upon his ability to manipulate form and space with the polychrome additions.

Emily Wasserman