New York

Frank Lincoln Viner, Craig Kauffman, DeWain Valentine, Peter Alexander, Bruce Beasley, Robert Bassler, The Gianakos brothers and Eva Hesse

The Jewish Museum

Maxims: It is not what you do but how you do it. It is not what you do it with but what you do with it. Armed with these, I expected little from A Plastic Presence, an overview of the uses of plastic as a contemporary medium. The pretentious name of the exhibition did not help, nor did the sponsorship from private industry (although the Philip Morris Company has saved up indulgences with its support of the fine broad international exhibition “When Attitude Becomes Form”). My trepidations were perhaps unfounded. Tracy Atkinson, Director of the Milwaukee Art Center, made a judicious and in places bright and saucy selection. At moments it was inspiring; at others,wretchedly familiar.

There can be little question that plastic (or plastic-like compounds of slightly altered chemical structures) is our new material par excellence in a way that seashells or straw are not. This does not mean that important exhibitions of shellcraft or raffiawork cannot be assembled; it only means that the likelihood is slim. What is interesting is not the material itself, but the accommodation of the medium and its attendant technological procedures to modern stylistic sectors. What is especially interesting is that these stylistic sectors are ones which had been worked out first in more traditional methods of painting and sculpture. That is, modernist styles are induced or bent to the needs of the new medium and not the other way round. In this light, the use of plastic as a medium tends to transform persons into the ungrateful roles of craftsmen (in the sense of arts and crafts) as distinguished from artists. One is tempted, therefore, to conclude that a reliance on plastic as a medium tends to lead young artists into imitative rather than innovative modes. Moreover, the use of plastic tends to disguise a lack of innovative power behind the glossy facade of a highly modern substance and equally contemporary technical procedure.

Obviously, this is not always true, and it is those cases which are the critical ones for me. Among the works I most liked was Frank Lincoln Viner’s Peepul-yl (basis), a rudely behaved, punched, tied, foamed and tasseled sequence of three cushion-like forms luridly colored in funky tones. Craig Kauffman, one of the West Coast artists I most admire, was handsomely represented by an attenuated and scrupulous lentil-like work of the kind shown in his last New York exhibition. DeWain Valentine and Peter Alexander were represented with geometrical forms of a vaseline-mucoid coloration which contrasted with the hard, glassy use of plastic made by Bruce Beasley and Robert Bassler. The Gianakos brothers were well shown, Cristos with a chamfered and gullied piece of greenish layered lukoom and Stylianos with an airplane-like affair (which tended to shade all the work around it) organized out of tuberous-like forms and Constructivist principles. But, Eva Hesse’s Right After carried the exhibition for me. Anyone who has watched the evolution of newer American sculpture is aware of Eva Hesse’s central contribution to this development. Her work, whose forms are strong, suggestive and intellectually focused, surpasses any piece in the show.

Robert Pincus-Witten