New York

Salvatore Romano

Max Hutchinson Gallery

Nonfigurative sculpture usually refers either to architecture or to nature. Post-Minimal sculpture, for example, has largely been concerned with making a return to nature (random principles of distribution; accidental, gestural structuring; loose, organic, unmanufactured looking materials, etc.) in reaction to the rigorous architecturally oriented Minimal work of the mid-’60s. One of the problems Minimal sculpture often failed to solve involved its competition with architecture when located in an exterior urban setting. As a stand-in for architecture, it functioned to maximum effect when it pressed out against the confining walls of an art gallery or museum. Then, its rectilinear severities (or aberrations) could be read against the right angles of the room space.

More often than not the same Minimal piece that worked well in the gallery looked lost out-of-doors in an aggressive urban setting. Its unmodulated, unarticulated planes often seemed simple and toylike against the detailing of even the simplest building facade. The very lack of scale referents that made the piece seem oppressively massive in the gallery when measured against the diminutive size of the viewer, worked against it when the piece was faced with the inevitable scaling of window, mullion, and door to the overall shape of an ordinary building. (This is part of the reason why the girl’s head by Picasso and the tree by Dubuffet operate better in their respective urban plazas than most of the boxy black pieces to be seen in such places elsewhere around town.) All the opposite factors come into play, of course, when a natural post-Minimal work is located out-of-doors in the countryside, but that is not my concern here.

Salvatore Romano’s sculpture, when considered in this light, is seen to be capable of operating as well in the gallery as in the country, or on an urban plaza for the reason that it combines both architectural and natural referents and procedures. His latest piece is a black 8’ square less than 2’ high. Its top is diagonally crossed from corner to corner by an 11’ rectangle with 10” sides. An identical rectangle located above this one pivots 360° on a point located near one of the corners, where it connects to a block of styrofoam floating in a water tank hidden in the square unit below. The blocky base functions as a substitute for an architectural monolith in classic Minimal style, while the pivoting hypotenuse operates to stress the natural effect of air on a lightweight object floating in water. The base implies stasis, solidity, predictability, logical thinking, and the rational, ordered, manmade side of life. The floating hypotenuse, conversely, points to the arbitrary, unexpected, irrational aspects of nature. It adds a measure of Surrealist disorientation to Romano’s strict Constructivism. (Similar effects occur in the drawing shown with the sculpture, with its loosely fanned graphite edges.) One viewer may find it playful, while another might resent the impurity it implies. I like the balance it provides.

Romano’s new piece is intended, in fact, to be seen without its base when it is placed out-of-doors. Then the water tank will be set below the ground; only the two long rectangles, one stable, the other mobile, will be visible above ground. In his design of this particular piece, Romano has literalized his propensity to make indoor-outdoor sculpture that will operate effectively in any setting.

Like many Minimalists, Romano started out as a painter. But before he was a hard-edge geometrical painter, he was working in the Abstract Expressionist mode. The automatist procedures he used at that time were submerged for many years, but they have reasserted themselves formally in the quasi-Surrealist surprises of his particular kineticism. After he started adding wooden projections in front of his geometrical paintings (literalizing their dimensionality) he moved directly off the wall to the floor. His first sculptures—Da Da Dee and Zeno II (which was in the “Primary Structures” show at the Jewish Museum)—were static but they hinted at movement. They looked as though they could move, like a Calder stabile does. These early pieces had complex, interlocking internal structures, and were rigidly geometrical. He moved next to arcing unitary shapes which rocked; then he began floating these pieces on water so they rocked naturally without specific propulsion.

Being more viscid than air, water provides a thicker cushion for an object floating in it. It creates a soft, gradual motion which is automatic, and yet natural. A Calder mobile moves similarly but with a less padded motion, and lacks the advantages of being earthbound that we traditionally associate with sculpture. Romano’s recent work has gotten more complex than the unitary floating pieces of the late ’60s. Water functions now only to engineer the kineticism of the piece, acting like an oiled ball joint or a gimbal. When natural air movements operate on an object floating on a perfectly protected surface like this (as opposed to the ocean) they bring about an eerie sensation of buoyancy that is, perhaps, only paralleled by weightlessness in outer space. No artist I know of except Romano uses these special properties of water in his or her art. Though there have been many floating sculptures—by Marta Pan, Robert Grosvenor, Alan d’Arcangelo and others—they have tended to be static and rigid on or in water. Romano is able to work effortlessly with the medium.

April Kingsley