New York

Julius Tobias, Alice Adams and Susan Smith

55 Mercer Gallery

Julius Tobias’ new piece at 55 Mercer deliberately confronts the viewer by blocking the entry into the gallery. Five rows of concrete beams, each split in two, extend horizontally like curbstones across the space, with aisles on the side and in between for passage. As in Tobias’ previous work, the basic ideas have already been worked out by Carl Andre. The new element for Tobias of psychological confrontation was examined in Andre’s early styrofoam blocks as well as later floor pieces. All that Tobias adds is a different situation.

Both of the other artists represented at 55 Mercer are involved with architectural forms. Alice Adams’ three towering wooden structures, built up with rows of thin wooden slats, are columns growing out of box-shaped bases. That there are three pieces and that they vary in stages in complexity indicates a parallel to the Doric, Ionic, Corinthian progression. The simplest is just a vertical box, reminiscent of lackie Ferrara’s monuments in its construction from the systematic addition of standard units. The second column begins to fan out from the box on two sides, while the third curves out more dramatically from an inner, three-sided box core. However, these works are not really architecture as none of the columns supports anything, or shows anything more than a decorative function. In fact, the flamboyant curves of the second and third columns suggest an ornamental interest which conflicts with the simple constructive ordering.

Adams also seems to be concerned with enclosing hollow spaces. The first box is totally enclosed, and the openness inside is only hinted at by the narrow slits between the slats, through which one can peep in. Inevitably there is a sense of mystery, for one can only see the area, one can’t actually enter it. In the second piece the top is open, exposing the inner framework. The third work is open on the side enclosed by the curving appendages, although the viewer’s entry is blocked by the crossbars supporting the fanning sections. The primary effect of these structures, though, is one of building, a kind of systematic ordering of parts which piece by piece add up to the whole.

Susan Smith, on the other hand, is interested in the vestiges of past architecture. Her large wall-size paintings, in pastel and gesso on cardboard, depict the traces of razed buildings left on the remaining, exposed supporting walls. From on-site studies of these walls, Smith distills the abstract design imprinted by former walls and floors and rediscovers the original architectural plan. Thus, by her choice of subject matter, Smith provides for an inherent order to her paintings—for the architecture itself has a calculated relational scale and proportions based on standardized units. This underlying order is emphasized by the presence of the penciled grid used to transfer the drawings. Contrasting with the rational construction is the painterly use of the pastel on cardboard. While the basic architectural supports are well defined, there is no absolute clarity due to the misty haze left by the pastels as well as the use of a narrow value range. The grainy texture and the absorption of the pastel into the cardboard enhance the ghostliness of the image. The muted grays and earth colors add to an aura of timelessness, an evocation of the remains of ancient civilizations, which is the emotive effect of these works.

However, the filmy gradations, which fill the areas between the architectural supports, create a kind of spatial illusionism that threatens the flatness of the wall surface. This is especially true when the haze extends to the edges, thus blurring the boundaries and negating the object character of the cardboard as wall itself. In Yellow Diagonal Wall the object-hood is further destroyed in that the depicted wall slants diagonally at the top—differentiating it from the cardboard which remains rectangular in shape. In other words, it becomes a picture of a wall, whereas in Mauve Horizontal Wall the actual shape of the cardboard coincides with the edges of the wall, so that the depicted wall is a wall itself. Also breaking up the continuity of the surface are the divisions made by the three separate Cardboard panels which make up the whole. Because these joints are not considered in the composition, they overemphasize the separateness of the drawing and the surface. Yet even so, the works do approach the uncanny presence of the exposed city walls they represent, as well as evincing a classical sensibility to the architecture of painting.

Susan Heinemann