New York

Michael Steiner

Marlborough Gallery and Goldowsky Gallery

Two of the sculptures in Michael Steiner’s show at Marlborough are very powerful, Betonica and Fleabane Marsh. Betonica, in Cor-ten, is the piece that derives most clearly from Steiner’s earlier work, such as the pieces in his last Marlborough show. Those earlier pieces, though they sat on the floor, never quite rested there; despite their rough look and undisguised material, they didn’t seem to be on the floor because they were heavy. There’s no doubt about Betonica, it’s an extremely heavy object, and the angled planes that give it a slight lift from the floor read as pictorial elements rather than literal ones because they are denying so much weight. The bulk of the sculpture uses two pairs of irregular right-angled planes which have an interface and form a boxlike space open at either end and closed over the top. On top of the box shape rests a fairly thick irregular plane of steel overhanging one corner by about enough so that it would slide off if it weren’t fixed. That topmost precarious plane is what signals both the tremendous mass of the piece and the fact that it is welded in position, and it gets you in the stomach. It is hard not to wish that it would fall and resolve all the tension in the piece. Betonica is about the most forbidding piece of welded sculpture I can think of. Yet for all that; its relation to the floor seems to be one that would be described by a series of folds and not by a random collapse of metal hunks, and that is what makes me think it’s a strong piece. I wonder if Steiner intended it as a kind of response to Judd’s open-ended boxes; Betonica’s balance of pictorial and literal factors seems to me to constitute a real denial of the claim of, say, Judd’s boxes to be sculpture. Steiner’s piece hides a lot less than Judd’s do.

The other really important piece in the show is Fleabane Marsh, a sprawling low sculpture in brass. When I saw photographs of the work I thought I was going to dislike the brass, but its color and finish seem to fit the conception perfectly. Fleabane Marsh is basically a series of four polygonal planes draped overlapping along the floor and partially supported by a pair of rectangular planes opened at an angle so they establish a sort of open front and closed rear to the sculpture as a whole. The latter device is very reminiscent of Caro. The brass planes spread along the floor are bent smoothly so that they have an unrigid feel, as if they were of some material that could be made flexible by being wetted. The finish on the brass is just right for the way the eye is buoyed and swept along this series of planes. The effect of looking at Fleabane Marsh is a strange sensation of lift—it is as if from any point of view one saw the piece from overhead, not just from one’s own height. The lifting arced planes tend, I think, to dematerialize the plane of the floor; they can actually only be seen to rest on it at two points. The result is that the floor almost ceases to read as a support.

The weight of Fleabane Marsh, which is tremendous I’m told, never really catches one’s curiosity in looking at the piece. This is not the case with the three aluminum works in the show. One of them, Thistle Way, looks like it might have been inspired by Richard Serra’s work, but Steiner is apparently always interested in denying, at least ultimately, the weight of the elements in his work. Different points of view on the aluminum pieces produce different sensations of balance and precariousness, but the fact of fastening always wins out, so the experience of the pieces is curiously theatrical in the sense that these conflicts of weight and balance, of pictorial and literal, are always rigged. Nothing much seems to be at stake in the experience of those pieces. I can’t really account for what I see as the disparity in quality between the aluminum pieces and the brass and Cor-ten ones. Anyway I hope Fleabane Marsh and Betonica point the direction Steiner is headed in now.

Kenneth Baker