New York

Michael Steiner

Marlborough Gallery

A large group of steel sculptures by Michael Steiner, all dating from 1969, showing at the Marlborough Gallery, incorporate some Minimal attitudes and grant to these a greater permanence (of statement as well as of material) than they often take when left to their own devices. It’s all very post-Smith. Pre-rusting even gives the Cor-Ten steel the look which David Smith’s Cubi are only now gradually taking on. But it is also something quite formidable in itself.

Oddly, but fruitfully, Steiner’s work relates to the most British side of Anthony Caro. Pieces like Bowie, Low (ten feet long; only 3 3/4 inches high), Dan’s Piece, and Also Low actually call to mind the most significant individual in the realm from which Caro springs, that grand old man of English art, Ben Nicholson. It is even possible to imagine them as conscious reflections or variations on Nicholson themes, almost as final exhibition versions in metal of some of the artist’s masonite reliefs considered as preparatory studies.

Details which are reminiscent of Caro are, for example, the horizontal flanges which attach to often curving vertical forms, as in Salt Box, Grand Doré, Dictator A, and Hanover. (Interestingly, Steiner removed the additional vertical edge flanges of just such an element in Ambro after the catalog photo had been taken, no doubt feeling them an overcomplication; bringing to mind Caro’s last-minute paring-down of Wending Back in his recent Emmerich show.) There is even a single piece, Eight Flanges, which consists exclusively of such elements, as if isolating them for further study. Of course the metal execution of voluptuously curving forms is also Caroesque. But, most important of all, so is the optical viewpoint. I do not mean simply the idea of making big, low-lying sculptures that have to be looked down onto—plan sculpture, of which the preeminent example is Caro’s Prairie. I mean, even more, the same Baroque idea of favored viewpoints. Steiner’s pieces do not presuppose a single viewpoint, which would be absurd in the case of something which it would be easy to walk right over, but they do have a limited number of angles with optimum compositional strength.

Apparently the people who photograph sculpture have never been told that not every period or style intends its sculpture to be viewed at random angles, because in the Steiner catalog some of the views are so arbitrary that it sometimes requires a quasi-verbal formal analysis to tell which piece is which from the pictures, as in those visual IQ tests. Pieces like the different versions of For Ken Noland suffer no less than photographic trivialization; “in the flesh” they are grand and even heroic, like modern stage sets for a Greek tragedy. It is not at all impossible that what Steiner has achieved is like “color painting” in that, after styles in painting and sculpture which primped and catered to journalistic reproduction, its rich nuances of effect are unphotographable. Here the pleasure is in lining up forms and their edges and overlap pings, in shifting your own position and discovering arrangements of great strength and appeal separated, as in even a good film, by longer moments which are acceptable but neutral: you can’t get that from a still.

Joseph Masheck