New York

Group Show

Castelli Gallery | Uptown

The group show which opened Castelli’s season had rather more to it than most such. Several of the artists broke out new works of much more than routine interest.

Early this fall, Donald Judd had at Castelli a piece that was an elegant comment on the column. A series of stacked boxes attached to the wall, its elements reached from floor to ceiling but touched neither, nor each other; they hovered. Structurally this was no column at all. It could bear no more weight than the middle of a well. But visually the piece was a column indeed, firmly organizing space vertically, its elements like formalized, suspended drums reminding us that, though they hardly support the top of the page, newspaper columns are as genuine as Greek ones.

From the column, Judd turns, in the current group show, to the beam. Also against the wall, this piece is a long brass rail beneath which occur interrupted sections of red box-shapes. Visually, do the red boxes support the rail or do they hang suspended from it? Posing this quiet question, the piece simultaneously suggests different answers. (The structural answer, obvious to those who peek, is almost invisible and clearly doesn’t matter.) On the one hand the rail, because perfect and uninterrupted, seems a stronger element than the reds, and the eye is tempted to read them as literally dependent on it. On the other hand the reds’ color is the more aggressive; they are in the expected position of support, underneath; and if the spaces between them are read formally, as volumes, the first space to the left corresponds exactly to the first red box to the extreme right (that terrible revisionist), etc., etc., an interlocking effect whose visual energy also argues, if exquisitely, for the reds. It is a delicate question. That passage of rail between the two far right reds, for example, can be read two ways—if the reds support it, as under compression; if they hang from it, as under tension.

Like Judd’s, Keith Sonnier’s piece downplays its structural support. Judd floats his image against the wall; Sonnier chooses glass, almost invisible, to keep his piece upright. Further, the glass has an air, however superficial, of just having been leaned there, of both nonchalance and precariousness. But if Sonnier deemphasizes visually the kind of power it takes to keep his piece up, he stresses strongly the power to keep it functioning in another way, i.e. lighted. Not only the light is striking; its means of production is as well. The black transformer, read formally, is one of the piece’s strongest visual elements, and the black wires leading from transformer and outlet are prominent as well. This is no oversight. All could easily have been painted white to vanish into the wall. Instead, their deliberate visibility corresponds to a singer’s tapping his microphone as he sings, emphasizing, instead of conventionally ignoring, his esthetic means. Its wires support this Sonnier as much as steel legs do a David Smith. In fact they point to this piece’s visual as well as actual source of support, in other words its base—its electric outlet.

Richard Serra’s new piece is deliberately precarious, though, because smaller, less dangerously so than One Ton Prop shown this summer at the Whitney. Serra’s new piece eliminates the base’s providing vertical support of any kind, actual or visual. The only kind of support it provides is lateral: a lead slab leaned gingerly against a long, low block of wood, the piece isolates balance from weight. Whoever heard of a base with nothing on it?

In fine contrast to the rather heady formal issues it addresses, the wood in particular looks very much of this tough, physical world, the bruises, stains, and chips from its pre-esthetic history reminding one, plunk in the middle of Castelli’s flair for the exquisite, of a boxer at a cocktail party.

Roy Lichtenstein’s painting is a staggeringly belligerent work. Sheer size is the most obvious reason; there are many more. Not only is the work huge, but its principal image, the largest of three formalized pyramids, is a maximum one—its point and visible corners extend to within a hair’s breadth of the four edges of the canvas. The comparative darkness of the sky behind tends to push the first pyramid’s dazzling white even further forward. And in using so boldly heavy a line, impeccably ordered dots, and sharp overlapping and diminution, Lichtenstein seems to be proclaiming loudly the isolated purity in his work of drawing, shadow, and perspective. The effect is a slight ringing in the ears.

The sense of perspective is strong, almost brutal. As have many painters since Manet, Lichtenstein leaves the horizon high to keep the foreground immediate, a technique here so successful that even from across the room the eye seems to look more down than forward at the first pyramid’s nearest corner. But it is part of the work’s belligerence not only to declare strongly its sense of space but then almost equally strong to deny it. There is a general sense of airlessness that results from the total absence of shading. The horizon line, whose normal faintness suggests its distance, here has a boldness that makes it jump forward. The lines of the last pyramid, which should be faint as well, instead are as heavy as the first. In fact number three’s base line is even heavier than number one’s (which is perhaps made relatively light to keep unemphatic the first visual barrier the eye must cross to enter the work’s space in the first place). The strongest denial of space is the first pyramid’s lack of room to exist in the round; its unseen fourth corner would collide with pyramid two, a deliberate jar to the eye no less unsettling for being tacit.

Jean-Louis Bourgeois