Ruth Vollmer

In the exhibition “Ruth Vollmer, Painting and Sculpture, 1962–74,” there is nothing that I would characterize as painting, and very little that sustains itself as sculpture. As Sol LeWitt has written about Vollmer’s work: “These pieces are not sculpture; they are ideas made into solid forms.” This suggests the predicament of Vollmer’s work, which is that regardless of how tangible the work becomes, it is always the ideas which remain the most substantial present part of the work. The exhibition, which is spaciously, almost casually installed (many drawings are simply pushpinned directly onto the wall), weaves a kind of fragile momentary spell, a web of ideas and concepts which reflect the working of Vollmer’s mind in relationship to those of mathematicians and scientists since the Greeks, and of all of their minds in relation to the larger diffuse mind of nature, and of logic which exists prior to human thought and to art. Vollmer’s art is concerned with the process of discovering and exploring the logic and the systems which underlie all forms, and when it succeeds, it involves us in that process of thought too, and in the continuing sense of flow and wonder which she experiences in her work.

Vollmer is around seventy, was born in Germany, has lived in the United States since 1935, and has exhibited since 1960. The earlier work in this exhibition is of cast bronze. The earliest of these, Obelisk (1962), is a five-and-one-half-foot squat Washington Monument on legs, with one open side which reveals five compartments, four containing various open or closed spheres. The later bronzes are smaller single spheres, complicated by incisions or groups of cylindrical protrusions. These sculptures all suggest sorcery. They are combinations of obscured or altered geometry with something more mysterious and organic. Sometime in the late ’60s everything gets clearer. The material is usually machined metal or plastic. The systems and forms and the ways in which nature and math converge become explicit. One group of drawings develops different kinds of spirals, including one discovered by Paul Klee which results from connecting sides of nonconcentric squares. Another elucidates the ability of a hexagon and pentagon to generate each other and, incidentally, the Golden Mean. A third set, in which arcs radiate out from the center of each drawing at different intervals, sometimes in opposite directions, deals with the development of the sunflower head. In these drawings points are connected by straight or curved lines and various patterns emerge; it is like growth. Elsewhere in the exhibition, points and lines are extended to planes and then into three-dimensional form. A series of pieces result from the intersection of six ovals, some in clear colors of plexiglass, another in white opaque plexiglass. When all the edges of this form are connected by a continuous plane, a third sculpture and something called a Steiner surface results. The spiral takes a number of three-dimensional forms. One is an artificial shell where each rotation is a separate cone fitting over the last, diminishing to a point; there is a version in clear plexiglass and one in graphed mylar. In another manipulation of the spiral, Exponential Tower, the plane is vertical and remains parallel to itself; the result suggests Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. In Archimedean Screw, the radius of the rotation is constant and the spiral extends vertically, like a drill bit.

The largest work in the exhibition occupies an entire room and is concerned with the Platonic polyhedra, that is, with the five (and only) regular polygons. Made of brass tubing with a constant base length, they are: a tetrahedron (four triangles), a cube (six squares), an octahedron (eight triangles), a dodecahedron (12 pentagons) and an icosahedron (20 triangles). These naturally increase greatly in size; and because they are linear and open, the growth of the different structures, the ways in which they are combinations of planes and lines, is all quite visible. Each polygon is paired with a sphere of equal volume and, possibly because the spherical shape is constant, each of these is made in a different material: spun aluminum, brass screening, mirrored or clear acrylic, etc. However, most of the above information is conveyed more through texts on the walls than through the objects themselves.

Thus, the information, the ideas, are not extracted from the objects so much as they are applied to them and illustrated by them. While Vollmer’s objects make her ideas more real and tangible, for the most part they are simply inert and boring. A number of them are decorative and uninterestingly complicated, and many achieve a physically brittle quality which characterizes Constructivist sculpture, particularly Gabo’s. (A similar stiffness plagued Smithson’s sculpture until he moved outdoors.) For example, while it is momentarily arresting to see what six intersecting ovals do, in fact, look like, the resulting object itself does not sustain attention and, in plexiglass, it particularly lacks any life of its own. Only Spherical Tetrahedron (constructed of spherical rather than flat triangles) has sufficient presence to move beyond its generating idea and explanation, and on Brancusi’s, not Vollmer’s terms.

The exhibition seems to stress the ethereal, conceptual side of Vollmer’s work; the inclusion of a few more bronzes might have given a more complete notion of her sculptural achievement. The work at Everson, however, suggests that Vollmer is not primarily interested in a final finished product, which may be why they seem so incompletely considered. Her drawings, which are loose and light, often unfinished, best reflect the investigative, fluid nature of her talent. Like Agnes Martin’s drawings, they have the strange quality of being at once intimate and impersonal, straightforward and evocative. The sculptures, while a logical part of the evolution, are too concrete, too final, and physically too complicated for Vollmer’s tentative purity. They suggest that she should be a painter, or even a musician; sound seems pure and single enough to be the appropriate extension of the drawings. The objects seem artificial and ultimately removed from the idea of growth, of nature, which Vollmer is exploring. It is a strange predicament; the objects make the ideas more accessible, and in doing so they stifle the sense of Vollmer’s mind and of the natural logic which motivates her.

Roberta Smith