James Rosati

Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University

James Rosati’s last one-man exhibition took place in 1962. His work from the past six years, including drawings, reliefs, “studies” for monumental outdoor pieces, and several full-size realizations of those studies, comprises a large exhibition recently organized by William Seitz for the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. During 1970, the show will travel to the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in New York.

Both the studies and their outdoor counterparts consist of groupings of quasi-geometric chunks or bars of metal (copper, zinc, brass, stainless steel, Cor-ten steel). Although only two pieces in the Brandeis show rest directly on the ground or floor, all are meant to exist without bases or pedestals. Apart from size, the distinguishing feature of the outdoor pieces is their color: Shorepoints I is hard white, Dialogue and Lippincott I are deep yellow, and Lippincott II is bright orange. In each of these, color is identified with surface (rather than applied to it), and the surfaces themselves scrupulously avoid texture or, incident of any kind. By comparison, the studies reveal (although they don’t really acknowledge) the polishing and joining of surfaces that went into them.

In terms of this show, Rosati emerges as an ambitious abstract sculptor who faces the immediate challenge of pushing his work more radically and consistently toward sculptural identity—that is, away from its basis in painting or, more specifically, the painting of synthetic Cubism.

In Shorepoints I, a centrally located, rectanguloid mass is attached to the rest of the sculpture on only one quarter of its (the mass’s) ventral surface. In Ideogram, two vertical bars splay in opposite directions in relation to a common horizontal bar with the result that the entire sculpture appears ready to collapse or fall apart. In several other pieces—Lippincott II, Adversary, or Dialogue, for instance—the chunks of metal, massive and cumbersome as separate units, are pressed against one another, or cantilevered, in apparent defiance of their own weight and the gravity which should naturally act upon them. These works push at a distinctively sculptural objectness, insisting that sculptural objects don’t “behave” like non-sculptural objects.

The splaying verticals in Ideogram are also resistant to visual embrace. Each member—and this goes for the horizontal as well as the vertical elements—pursues a direction seemingly “at odds“ with the parts adjacent to it. In other words, the piece has no one center of gravity. Its seeming “awkwardness” is actually its sculptural strength, its declaration of the terms by which it achieves freedom from other, non-sculptural, objects. In Rosati’s best pieces (in my estimation, Shorepoints I, Ideogram, Horizon I and Horizon III), the same freedom is felt: sculptural identity is achieved not in relation to mass, weight or gravity alone, but, more pointedly, in relation to, and by facing, the very question of objectness. Shorepoints I, Horizon I and Horizon III achieve this by sprawling along or just above the ground, spreading over and acknowledging it; yet, while extending over the ground, they also come to abrupt halts—they do not seek to imitate or battle the earth’s infiniteness. To say that certain of Rosati’s other works do not succeed as sculpture is to say that they yield to the objectness of ordinary things. They don’t win the freedom they struggle for.

The dilemma I’ve just outlined is manifest in Rosati’s drawing, use of color, and treatment of surface. All of the new works possess razor-like edges; in combination with the irregular masses they define, these edges frequently invert, distort or somehow alter the space they penetrate—as if to make measurable space purely optical and sculptural. Color potentially assists in this effort. Shorepoints I, for instance, is hard white; but in effect it isn’t just white. At any particular moment each surface offers a different value of white, lightens or darkens it, in chiaroscuro fashion, with the result that individual surfaces float in space and occasionally pull away from one another. But this is precisely where the works sometimes become compromised in terms of their sculptural identity. That is, the planes too often tend to flatten out in a shallow, two-dimensional space, thereby reading like the painted planes of synthetic Cubism. I say “compromised” here because I don’t believe the pieces want to do that: their breadth, volume, size, etc., as well as what they do with weight, space, and as objects, speak for sculpture rather than painting.

There are a couple of additional ways in which the works in this show raise questions about sculptural identity. The first has to do with preciousness, a quality that the studies come especially close to and occasionally fail to overcome: that is, when the chunks of polished metal coagulate around a single core or axis and become compositionally fixed, framed like expensive gems in an elegant display. In these cases—Untitled 1963–1969 is an example—the distinctly sculptural expression which the pieces promise and want gives way to what is merely the “look” of art, a seductiveness that encourages possession rather than freedom.

The second problem concerns architecture. Certain of the pieces look as if they could be translated into buildings, something which their titles occasionally suggest—Necropolis, for instance. Not that a likening of sculpture to architecture is in itself problematic; my point, rather, is that it becomes problematic in terms of certain works in this exhibition, because the evidence of other works, and even certain evidence in those works that are immediately “architectural,” is that sculpture, not architecture, is the central issue.

Carl Belz