New York

Richard Nonas

Clocktower Productions

Richard Nonas’ work isn’t systematic in the sense of an ordering entirely generated by a preconceived idea of sequence, or an ordering that proceeds from a closely formulated set of rules. It is systematic, however, in its use of a single unit as the matrix for each piece, where each piece is the result of putting together several units all of which are exactly alike, and in the suggestion that this gives rise to of an infinite proliferation of orderings using the same components. In this respect Nonas’ work relates to Dorothea Rockburne’s Drawings which make themselves.

Nonas’ exhibition at The Clocktower utilized the space in a way that drew attention to his sculpture’s absolute dependence on material signification. On the bottom floor of the show—which took up three floors, two containing sculpture and one drawings—six pieces were exhibited. All of these sculptures fit into a floor space that’s about five feet square; three are made of wood and the other three metal, each metal piece echoed by a wooden piece with the same configuration—the only difference being that where the metal pieces use four or five sections of steel the wooden ones require four or five lengths of wood. Since the metal sculpture was arranged in a large room and the wooden pieces in a much smaller space, one was made aware of wood’s comparative lightness and steel’s relative heaviness in a way that established this awareness of materiality as a prerequisite to experiencing the work. The location of the works demonstrated that steel, for Nonas, demands more space than wood because it’s heavier.

I have said here—in contrasting his work with Jackie Winsor’s—that Nonas is involved with communicating visually through the pressure exerted by materials. Unlike Winsor, Nonas is not concerned with a context of communicability whose syntax is located in the effect of materials upon one another within the work, but with the potential of metal or wood to transform our experience of real space—the space squeezed beneath the work and the space directly above it. Since Nonas is concerned with the opposition “space below/space above” his sculpture, which hugs the floor—or, more accurately, presses itself down upon the floor—doesn’t really address itself to an idea of horizontal extension, but rather to its opposite, verticality.

Nonas, then, connects with Serra rather than Andre. And specifically, to “Serra’s need to achieve verticality without permanently adhering separate parts of the sculpture” (Rosalind Krauss, “Sense and Sensibility,” Artforum, November, 1973). It is here, in Nonas’ ability to set the terms for a sculptural modification of space that concentrates on a sensation of verticality by means of a restrained qualification of the ground plane, that the nature and scope of the sculptor’s endeavor is made clear. In taking as his theme a disruption of real space, Nonas continues the preoccupation with “ground” that has in recent years been an underlying concern of the most adventurous American sculpture. Nonas’ work, in that it makes the space above the piece an essential part of the dialectic which governs one’s experience of the work, points to the reason for a preoccupation with ground. It is, Nonas’ work reminds us, through an experience of our own perpendicularity as something achieved in tension with the ground that we can readily attribute verticality to other phenomena. It’s through concentrating on the horizontal plane on which we ourselves stand, too, that Minimalism in general finds it possible for sculpture’s space to be made continuous with our own. And it’s that continuity which makes possible the juxtaposition of “signifier” and “signified” that describes the ambition of an art trying to escape—by remaining within real space—the (ideological) innocence of art based on a notion of transposition from real to “ideal.” This transposition is only internally transformational, in that it merely denies, but doesn’t affect, the continuing presence of real space. The intent of work engaged in such a transposition from real to “ideal,” like Noguchi’s, must implicitly be to make real space “disappear” in one’s experience of the piece, and this is the sense in which such sculpture is “illusionist.”

Nonas is concerned to lay out clearly the terms in which his transformation of real space occurs. To this end, the six pieces shown downstairs at The Clocktower were each accompanied by a shelf piece, arranged at eye level on the wall nearby, that illustrated the sculpture on the floor by providing a cross section of it. These used the same materials as the work on the floor, and made the space beneath the sculpture accessible in a way that was different from, but simultaneous with the space above it. This idea of different but simultaneous modes of access is, I think, the main point of the work.

The configurations presented in the six downstairs pieces are—in the sculptures that use steel—all made with three metal plates that make a rectangle five feet by three, supported underneath by one or two other plates, the whole thing made to fit into a square. The position beneath the rectangle of the support piece or pieces is in each case: one at each end; one closer to one end of the rectangle than to the other; and one exactly level with one end of the rectangle, making—from above—a square completed on two sides (see illustration). In the wooden pieces shown downstairs, four pieces of wood are used on top in each. All six of these pieces are, in a sense, equally accessible from any approach positions, but Nonas also makes one aware that propping attributes a directionality to the sculpture that, in the end, qualifies its all-around approachability.

In the seventh piece, Nonas acknowledged the directionality of the slope by shutting off two sides instead of one. Great Western, 1973, is a large work, occupying a floor space 13’ square—the piece took up the whole second floor at The Clocktower. Two eight by twos, set on their sides, describe two sides of the square. On one of these, starting at the corner where the two lengths of wood on the floor meet, 14 others are propped by one end—these each lie on their eight-inch surface—forming a slope that ends level with the side of the square which runs alongside them. The half-open and half-closed square that sets the horizontal limits for Great Western is interesting because it draws attention to the necessity for controlling the tendency toward horizontality that Nonas’ work must have once it gets above a certain size.

By saying that Nonas’ work is, in an important respect, “situational,” I mean that his work contains the capacity to acknowledge the mutability of real space, which might be the space of the open air or, as in the present case, the space of a gallery. This capacity stems from his use of materials that aren’t fixed together in any way, which results in sculpture that contains within itself the conditions of its relationship to the world at large—convergence of materials within the piece that’s as physically provisional as its relationship to any physical context. As Rosalind Krauss says in the essay to which I’ve already referred, the point of Richard Serra’s House of Cards isn’t that propped metal sheets look as if they might fall down, but that the piece coheres through a material union that also internalizes, or subsumes, the “ideal” conditions of a cube’s unity—the conceptual purity of the cube—within the terms of a material coalescence that occurs in real space. Nonas, in substituting the square for Serra’s cube, continues to focus on the issues that Serra raised in that work. Insofar as Serra’s piece deals with a tension between conceptual ordering and its material realization, Nonas has taken this idea to another stage of development by proposing an opposition between “private”—internal—and “public”—external—space. The former is necessarily largely inaccessible, physically but not conceptually, even as it’s made into a structural antinomy that affects the space one can see, the space above the piece. The reduction from a cube to a square, then, is a response to Serra that elaborates the paradigm to which Minimalism as a whole addresses itself, in that it permits Nonas to depict and manipulate the necessary difference between the accessibility of interior space, on the one hand, and exterior space on the other. In his ability to address that question so succinctly Nonas, for me, establishes himself as an artist of high ambition.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe