New York

Chris Wilmarth

Paula Cooper Gallery | 529 West 21st Street

Chris Wilmarth’s show at the Paula Cooper Gallery included some very thoughtful sculptures among its six freestanding works, nine wall pieces, and two items that rest on the floor and “hang” from the wall. A number of works consist of plate glass and steel and employ an active sense of the intrinsic visual and plastic properties of the materials. The tensile strength of these substances is at least as important as the way they absorb or admit light, although optical properties are sustained, preventing the works from becoming superfluous or redundant evidences. Otherwise they might be works-proper of some Platonic, immaterial sort. Otto Brendel once described sculpture as art that you could stumble against in a dark room. Wilmarth’s works are indeed sculptures, but it is to his credit that he can pack into the solid material limits of his pieces ideas which are often allowed to remain in a kind of utopia of disembodied qualities, phenomena, and effects. Further, despite the healthy self-sufficiency of these works as entities they largely avoid precious execution.

An example of these qualities is the freestanding sculpture Slip, 1972, consisting of a heavy sandwich of curved, acid-washed glass between two layers of steel. From inside the arc, the first layer is a curved oblong of steel that looks as if it might be the missing central area of the larger, third layer. In between is the smoothly flush layer of glass, exactly the same size as the large (outside) layer of steel but—because of its bright translucency where the back layer of steel is cut out—it forms a modulatory element between the two pieces of steel. This isn’t as complicated as it sounds: it simply sets up a nicely understated relation between the proportional identity of the second and third layers and the implied pairing and opposition of the bright, “open” rectangle of muted light and the inside rectangle of black steel. At the same time there is an articulate sense of the materiality of the glass and steel, especially at their edges, where literal “work” comes in the handling of such substances. Moreover, there is a spare but conscious sense of formal relations which prevents these effects from becoming a picturesque indulgence in the natural properties of the stuffs. The relation of the dark band of the rear steel plate as it masks the edges of the glass—the relation of this wide band to the middle band through which the light filters, is suggestive of Stella; in fact, so is the overall quadrant form of the piece in plan. Another parallel with painting lies in the tonality that is an important part of Wilmarth’s effect: the sculpture is a spatial composition in materialized tones, almost a sculptural counterpart to the Whistlerian nocturne.

Wilmarth’s sculptures have a rather contemporary variety of dignity about them which I can’t help thinking is a sensitive response to wider issues than art. They look strongly composed but structurally weak, as though there were indeed one optimum position or arrangement for each, but that this will depend on the good graces of the future custodians of these objects. This may be a sensitive disqualification (rather than a violent overthrow) of the unshakable stability of composed and marketable properties. It is not as common a quality as it might at first seem. In most contemporary art which avoids the fused, frozen unity of the gallery object—and in all aleatoric art—one arrangement or disposition of the piece is as good as any number of other arrangements or dispositions. In Wilmarth’s work there is one way to do it exactly right, and every time a piece is mounted it may have to be sympathetically reworked.

I prefer the larger works to those which hang flat and rectangular like pictures on the wall. In the latter, especially the small ones, we lose the sense of the tensile expansiveness of material, for the glass gets thick and chunky in proportion to the height and width; the anxious inaccuracies of the glass-cutting become magnified in a too picturesque way. The same problem holds for the black wires holding such pieces together: particularities in the twists of the wire become too evocative of pictorial incident when seen upclose in the small works. But the use of wire, with its implications of the drawn or painted line, isn’t inevitably disturbing. One of the best pieces in the show, which rests on the floor and is attached to the wall, uses wire (as drawn line and real support) with tact and interest.

Joseph Masheck