New York

Chris Wilmarth

Rosa Esman Gallery

Chris Wilmarth’s recent hanging sculptures and studies on paper allow a categorical interest in the properties of materials to sustain an assertively painterly but not extrinsic surface handling. The four sculptures shown recently are reliefs, somewhere between freestanding independence and an altogether wall-bound planarity. If they relate more closely to the plane of the wall than to that of the floor, they nevertheless do so against a formidable gravitational pull. Further, they break down categorically into those which lay a square plate of glass over a square metal plate versus those which combine two squares of glass. Either way, the facing glass is etched to a nocturnelike softness that holds hazily to rectangular form by its involvement with surface. Drawings in graphite and watercolor relate sensitively, in turn, to the sculptures.

At Wilmarth’s 1972 show at the Paula Cooper Gallery (Artforum, June, 1972) I was concerned that, when his wall pieces were too small, the exigencies of glass-cutting and the accidental details of the wire rope drew too much attention to themselves as facture. That seemed to be at variance with their overall coolness and subtlety. The new wall pieces, each over a square yard, overcome this difficulty and become more involved with sculptural space as well. The cutting in and bending back of the steel layer behind in the two works from 1973—Given and Blue Start—grants them a more literal and sculpturesque presence without compromising a sense of the metal as essentially a square sheet of the same size as the flat glass in front. This also allows the tonalism of the etched glass to stand in sensitive relation to the less uniformly, but equally strongly, modified steel behind; the overall sfumato of the glass is met by the chiaroscuro of the bent plate—which affects only part of the metal plate but to a more severe degree. The two works from this year, Arbor for Two Grays and Stornoway, use pairs of glass plates, rather than glass with steel, and bend out from the wall in a graceful segmental curve, instead of propping out at an angle. They both relate to and also diverge from the works with steel, and this pairing of sameness with difference is characteristic of Wilmarth’s art.

Within the single piece the same binary impulse operates in terms of form, especially in a tendency to deal at once with symmetry and asymmetry. We see configurations in which the fact of a pair of forms asserts sameness while, on other grounds, the same two forms constitute a pair in opposition—lighter/darker, in front/behind, or open/closed. In Stornoway, for instance, the glass behind is darker, while both are supported by symmetrically stretched cables from two cutout lower corners. The simple linearity of the wire is checked by its urgent tensile duties, just as the cutout corners function structurally and not just as pattern. Each corner is cut out of only one sheet (with a hole in its opposite place), so that the cutouts are in palpably different physical planes, even though they function interdependently as both structure and composition.

Part of the appeal of this setup is formal, because the sense that the piece is a homogeneous composition is in itself a gratification, just as the painterliness of the etched surface is rewarding even if not thoroughly sculptural. More important is that both these features are only two-dimensional “facets” of essentially three-dimensional ideas. If the handling of the face is painterly and flat, the literal superimposition of one plate almost exactly over another of the same size involves ideas of overlap—as well as mass, density, and flexibility—that cannot be accommodated to a two-dimensional conception. Similarly, the effect of translucency involves the physicality of the materials and their manipulation in real light and space. The insistent materiality of Wilmarth’s pieces insures that they are not merely transient, quasi-linguistic “ideas,” despite their ambiguities.

When glass and metal are combined, as in Blue Start, the same situation is interestingly altered. For one thing, the symmetry of the conceptual system itself shifts its axis. Two glasses, both equally bent, could be reversed, whereas bent steel cannot fit over flat glass, and would obscure it even if it could. Hence sameness becomes a matter of equivalent difference, and sameness and difference bring different qualities to the fore. For example, glass turns out to have a sheen that is perhaps unexpectedly like metal. As a finely scratched surface of literally vitreous hardness and initial gloss, the etched glass asserts a partial opacity which suggests the way silver accumulates a membrane of scratches that locates reflected light while heightening a sense of surface.

The glass has to reveal itself and also reveal the metal, while the steel has only to be itself. However, even the fact that the more opaquely planar element is behind tends to reverse the relation of literal surface and picture plane in painting and to generate a nonpictorial arrangement. For Wilmarth it seems important that the glass reads as massively and substantially as the metal, partly to extend to all possible analogies between the two materials (both are thick, sharp-edged sheets of once-molten substances) and partly so that the differences may be all the more pointedly abstract.

If painterly features are welcomed without disruption of the more purely sculptural concerns, the wire lines and supporting pins of Wilmarth’s work also avoid, at the other extreme, the sub-esthetic quality of a mere armature. Even the pegs from which the pieces hang supply a helpful indication of physical force; and the undeniable reality of the wires prevents them from becoming pictorially disembodied. How the pieces prop themselves out from the wall, whether at an angle or in a bowed curve, ultimately recalls a preference for obtuse raking angles and curves that are segments of circles in Cubist painting. But Wilmarth’s angular and segmental forms are intrinsically spatial adjustments of concrete planes.

Wilmarth’s small graphite drawings subdivide, in grids of balanced proportion and density, into rectangles similar to the subdivisions of the reliefs divided by plain bands in obvious indication of the wire-rope lines of the sculptures. Drawn in heavy, silvery, opalescent graphite on multiple layers of translucent paper, they approximate even the elusive physical properties of the finished sculptures. With uncanny aptness, what the real wires are to the hanging reliefs—graphic line and literal support—staples are to these small drawings, in their mechanical frankness as well as in their responsibility to the design. The staples thus read as small dashlike notations, in harmony with the rectilinearity of the balancing graphite and light areas as well as with the dull metallic sheen of the graphite itself. Wilmarth manages to be subtle without being arty.

In the watercolors—separate and connected versions of Six Clearings for Hank Williams—the management of translucent effects seems less clever. They are just as descriptive as the graphite drawings, and in addition they have the capability to describe the spatial projection of the reliefs from the wall. Yet possibly because these features are already too conventionally present in the medium itself, the watercolors tend to look like miniature paintings rather than sculptures implicit in studies. Then they resemble configurations in the paintings of Ad Reinhardt, whereas a parallel with Reinhardt might be more worthwhile with the realized works of this thoughtful, reserved, rewarding sculptor.

––Joseph Masheck