New York

Christopher Wilmarth, Eva Hesse, and Paul Brach

Various Locations

Another newcomer was Christopher Wilmarth, with his first show at the Graham Gallery. He proves adept at both wall-relief and floor-based sculptures done in a satisfying though unexpected combination of softly polished light birchwood and plate glass. The bulk and apparent weight of the wooden volumes and extended masses are contrasted with the transparency and vulnerability of the glass—but both of these traditional or known “truth to materials” qualities are actually contradicted or modified by the specific way in which Wilmarth has chosen to use the glass and wood. The latter is shaped into stepped bars, or sectioned, drum-like pieces which are light and hollow, while the former is a thick and weighty quarter-inch glass with a slight greenish tint.

In the work called Lit, two seemingly solid birch cylinders are set on the floor facing in the same direction; two discs of glass are then sliced through the wooden parts at different angles, one parallel to the floor, the other tilting at about a 45-degree angle. These discs cutting through the pair of drums convince us of their hollowness and form a planar complement to their rotundity, while visually quickening the rotational speed of the volumes even as they are physically interrupted. Wilmarth often makes use of glass circles to repeat one lateral plane of a mass, or to enlarge upon the dominant shape of a sectored relief. Although he does this most obviously in the 15-foot-long wall piece, Cirrus (1967), where both a flat, rectangular shelf of glass and three rounded slices cut into a wooden cylinder three-fourths of the way through its circumference, I preferred the quirkiness of Wilmarth’s treatment in another wall work, Panoply. Here a half drum of birch projects out from the surface of the wall; halfway through its form a large circle of glass is suspended, completing its form (and enlarging it) transparently in two dimensions, and at the same time reiterating the flat plane of the wall two feet behind it (and visible through it). The overall effect is at once peculiar but classical, and oddly elegant.

In Ton, the most emphatic piece, this diverted “classicism” is again at work. Pie-shaped wedges are assembled into an almost completed half circle, but the final wedge on one end is shifted out to the opposite side, so that the rotating solid is left to hang over the floor precariously with one of its components exempted from its structural function. Suddenly a beat is missing, and is recovered in inverted form, a “measure” (several beats) behind where it is expected to appear.

With minimal forms and simple, but often just slightly erratic manipulations, Wilmarth manages to elicit a wide range of expression—tactile, visual, two and three-dimensional, psychological, etc. The materials themselves recalled modern kitchen cabinetry for me, in the way that Richard Artschwager’s marbleized, blocky constructions are pseudo-furniture. Influences of Judd in the reliefs, or of Morris in the notion of adjustable or possibly variable identical sections are also suggested, but Wilmarth is more interested in the personalized look of his materials than either of these older sculptors, and he is also more given to create a kind of experience that is not contingent upon the directness of the gestalt view. Although seriality is implied in several of the pieces—Ton, Cirrus, and the long four part, stepped-bar wall piece, Out—it is so often equivocated by irregular or off-axis interruptions that I do not think modular regularity is one of Wilmarth’s chief interests at the moment. Using many of the sculptural and object-art notions that have been employed in the work of his contemporaries for the past few years, he comes up with an accomplished and still original group of works that I found both pleasing and complex.

Another encouraging and thoroughly enjoyable showing of sculptures, objects, and model drawings appeared at the Fischbach Gallery, with Eva Hesse’s first exhibition there. Although she has been seen in various group shows from time to time, I had only been aware of Miss Hesse’s trailing or wound twine pieces. She also works in a variety of soft to hard synthetic materials: cast clear fiberglass, chalky white or brown latex, plastics, knotted cord, tangled wire. In careful but surprising ways, she molds incongruous materials, often making their formal properties almost contradictions of themselves. Geometry seems to disintegrate away from the formalizations of modular precision in a whimsical and disarming manner. Some of the pieces hang partly on the wall and end up on the floor; others are interchangeable, and some are laid flat like lumpy rubber rugs. I found the sense of humor which informed most of these works a touch bizarre, though not at all anecdotal or coy. Their sensuousness was so restrained as to be almost shy. And yet, apart from the watercolor drawings of plants and models, which seemed a little faltering even in their dreamy, Surrealistic fantasy, the fomial intentions of the work were both assured and clearly felt.

Accretion, a row of fifty hollow fiberglass tubes (58-inches long each) propped randomly in couples, singly, or in clusters against one whole wall of the gallery, was one of the most striking pieces. Leaning at different angles, the not-quite-transparent tubes, in a range of shadowy tints (barely grey, pink, or blueish), looked like a rakish line of exercising Rockettes ready to topple over if one “leg” were to fall out of step (and yet the integers are clearly variable). A similar principle of demoralizing form was seen in Repetition 19 III, 19 fiberglass buckets scattered around an area on the floor. The buckets look soft as they collapse into floppy, battered trunks and stumps, yet they are still rigid, and based on a module of form—irregularly arranged, and each dissolving away from that module, they defy and snicker at its obsessive rationality. Improvisation is drawn from regularized structuring, while individual precise form melts into the vulnerable, soft, and hazardously disposed collective.

Another large piece was Sans II, a wall piece of five joined cast fiberglass units of waffle-like boxed sections. Here again Miss Hesse divides, subdivides and aligns as if she is a hard-core serialist, but then the creased and rippling viscous contours, and the light-catching lumpiness of the surfaces or “structural” walls undermine that ostensible methodology. Grids of rubber hemispheres set on latex mats are never evenly trued and faired, and edges are torn or crumpled with impishly deliberate purpose to be imprecise (I watched the artist as she almost unconsciously unstraightened these rows of balls and domes on one of her square mats.) To illustrate the distinct and really strange sensuosity of these works, one has only to look into the interior of Accession III, an open-ended Plexiglas box whose sides and bottom are threaded with short lengths of hollow plastic tubing which project into the center of the square volume. The tube segments form a spiny, shining “cushion” which has a rippling, even silky look (the clear plastic of the tubing has a faint purple cast to it), and a dappled surface which catches and reflects light like some kind of synthetic fur—made from the skin of a plastic anemone!

While the work does not at first impress or impose itself with an overbearing presence, I found that the after-impression was one of a subdued, though eye-catching vigor. Incorporating the conceptual with a wryly objective slant on that conceptualness in terms of her materials, and the processes she uses to shape them, Miss Hesse adds a distinct new accent to the current scene in sculpture.

Registering his not surprising, but subtle response to the blond, bright light of the West Coast, former New Yorker Paul Brach shows a group of his California Paintings at the Kornblee Gallery. Like Robert Irwin, Brach generates a delicate radiance with the pale, almost invisible color of his paintings, but unlike Irwin, he does not seek to dissolve the boundaries of painted objects suspended in an ambiguous spatial realm. Brach still works with brush, paint, and canvas, and although the look and facture of his work is precise and cleanly refined, he doesn’t make a mystique of that process, nor become obsessive about it.

Walking into the gallery from outdoors, one is faced with a group of totally white canvases with, it seems, absolutely nothing on them. Gradually, as if looking up into a cloudless sunny sky when molecules and glistening particles begin to circulate in front of the eyes, images appear. Within the large square of 9 x 9 (whose field was first sprayed a silvery grey, then coated with white so that a gently flickering ground was created, pale haloed bubbles emerge, scattered in a faint hazy yellow arc across the top, or larger and fuller, with a pinkish aura near the center, flanked by tinier or medium size ringed circles. The feeling is of an airy seaside sky full of hallucinations in light, surrounded by rims of pastel dots, void and glowing at their centers.

In the other, smaller, paintings (5- foot and 3-foot squares) Brach used only a flat white ground, concentrating more on a progressively subtler definition of a single large bubble which almost filled the square field. In New Day #2, more visible than 9 x 9, a corona composed of filmy yellow and pink dots surrounds the circle’s empty center. In There the dots become miniscule, but still encircle a blank bright globe. In his most recent painting, Almost There (the title gives it away), nearly invisible oyster pink and buff pinpoints surround only three-quarters of the circumference, leaving the eye to seek its imaginary completion. This work has an almost stubborn hesitancy, like the sun when it is obscured by thick hazy clouds at the beach. In the smallest group of works, the Western Air series, the halos around white centers are often graduated rings, dissolving from visible combinations of pink and lavender, or chalky green and lemon, out to barely discernible peripheries. The kind of convex/concave relief created by these slight gradations is so quick and optical in its effect that it is as if the sense of dimension had escaped one’s vision almost before it could be perceived and apprehended. While my personal predilections led me to enjoy a great deal the order of sensibility displayed in these paintings, I still found them to be rather light on the visual and intellectual palate, more pleasant than lasting; and still, though, quite lovely even for the brevity of their effect.

Emily Wasserman