New York

John Willenbecher

A. M. Sachs Gallery

A cenotaph is a “sepulchral monument erected in memory of a deceased person who is buried elsewhere” (Random House Dictionary). Etienne-Louis Boullee, a rather successful 18th-century architect, imagined such works on a megalomaniac scale, as conceived in large, pedagogical ink and wash drawings. Their forbidding structural simplicity is zoned by unbroken, transparent shadows that merge with the star-powdered heavens. John Willenbecher would have many of his arched plaster constructions, painted over with gray acrylic, and bottom shelved in wood—would have them be called cenotaphs for Boullée. As a show it is, I suppose, an homage to the French romantic who saluted the honor of a dead hero like Newton with the fantasy of a planetarium that would have dwarfed Karnak. But the reference is entirely poetic, not scholarly, and the celestial reaches are miniaturized, as if they were background for a sophisticated doll house. Though working in sculpture, Willenbecher’s sensibility seems decidedly calligraphic. His smallish gray fields are staffed with a discreet “white” writing, obtained first by sandpapering the paint to bring out some of the gesso beneath, and then frequently by inscribing crisp, ruled labyrinths upon them. The one illustrated, so gentle as a pattern and maddening as a progress, leads to a central circle which also, by the peculiarity of its reversed white modeling, becomes a sphere. Real tact was required to keep this sphere from seeming to nose outward, and Willenbecher has tact, tonal, and tact textural, in full reserve. The same goes for the little dark painted wooden cones and triangles resting on the shelf: they, too, are “dusted” with white in emulation of nebulae, yet speak as archetypal volumes. (A floor piece consisting only of such solids, enlarged and handsomely strewn, provided a nice counterpart to the nocturnes on the wall.) Just as they contradict the infinities suggested by their heavenly subjects, these geometrics parallel the dualism of the labyrinths, which simultaneously suggest charts of the constellations and architectural ground plans. Playing off the allusion to unlimited space against the circumscribed unit, Willenbecher rests a toy ladder upon the “sky” of another work. Real shadows, dark on dark, share Boullée’s sciagraphical penchant, without his grandiose symbolism—in fact, quite the contrary to it. I don’t know what all this has to do with current experience, in art or around it. But Willenbecher’s art asserts quietly that dreams have their own reasons. His mildly obsessional nightscapes run into each other with perhaps too much sameness, but in the end, they are as lucid as they are cryptic.

Max Kozloff