New York

John Duff

David Whitney Gallery

The idea that contemporary art follows a linear development, that there is a discernible mainstream from season to season, seems even more a figment of critical and dealer imagination this fall than usual. There is a feeling of uncertainty in New York now about what art ought to be––induced partly by the art community’s abortive effort at political activism last spring, and more significantly by the sense that it is a time of real flux and shifting relevance for all the participants in the art game: artists, dealers, critics and museum curators. The work of an artist like John Duff whose imagery is highly personal, referring not to a contemporary art context, but rather to natural and constructed phenomena in other areas of human experience, is particularly easy to look at right now.

Eclecticism is one of Duff’s strengths. The conjunction of unexpected, varied materials in relationships that seem surprisingly appropriate imbues his work with its lowkey, incongruous beauty. His sculpture arises out of contrary impulses: a formalist urge and an intuitional one. Through their interaction, preconceived shapes and ideas about format become operational in unexpected ways. The yellow rope and fiberglass piece (1969) in his studio is a good example of this interaction. The piece incorporates a fish shape that the artist has used before. In this instance, it is made of unrelated, wired-together fragments of fiberglass. The shape is propped up by two cast-off plywood chair legs with peculiar “z” forms and held in a curve by yellow rope. Tension-held curves are a frequent device in Duff’s work. The rope has been strung through unpainted ribs of wood, fiberglassed on to the fish shape vertically at one-foot intervals. Ribbing or supportive grids also recur in his sculpture. The final image is unique and was arrived at intuitively as the work progressed, even though its components are combined in characteristic ways.

Materials are what seem to trigger the spontaneous impulse that makes this artist’s work beguiling. Another piece in the show uses old thrift shop neckties as its major ingredient. Its antic attractiveness and irrational unity resist description. This work has the intuitive rightness of shape and original construction with nonart materials that marks Duff’s sculpture at its strongest. His pieces fail only when his tendency toward formalism is allowed to dominate his spontaneity. Then they become overcontrived and overdesigned, losing their vigor and the sense of the precedence of materials. The two pieces in the Whitney “Anti-Illusion; Procedures/Materials” show in spring, ’69, suffered from this tendency, as well as most of the fiberglass series completed subsequently in 1969.

Although he rejects conventional sculptural materials and techniques, his objects are built with considerable emphasis on the way elements are joined together. He attaches materials to each other so as to create actual physical tensions in them, in contrast to an artist like Alan Saret whose work involves contiguous elements freely thrown together. Partly because they are so carefully constructed, Duff’s pieces have a functional quality foreign to conventional sculpture. Many of the objects he made after graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute, where he was a student of Bruce Nauman’s, resemble tools or implements from a primitive culture. In fact, all the esthetic properties of his sculpture appear to occur not as a deliberate product of an artmaking effort, but rather as the unexpected byproduct of the making of a useful object. His receptivity to the properties of unlikely materials often results in innovation. His objects exist in a place of their own, shared only perhaps by Eva Hesse’s idiosyncratic creations.

Kasha Linville