New York

Nine Sculptors

Nassau County Museum Of Fine Arts

The Nassau County Museum of Fine Arts in Roslyn, New York, was formerly the Frick mansion, a large Georgian-revival building from the 1890s. It stands on 175 acres of grounds, which include formal gardens, picturesque meadows and untended woods. This last spring and summer the museum put on its second exhibition of outdoor sculpture. Nine sculptors were given a free hand in choosing the sites for their work. This meant, in effect, that a variety of contemporary artists were given a chance to play their sophistications off against that of late-19th-century architectural and landscape traditions. No competition took place; rather, a setting charged with complex stylistic meaning was provided, and individual sculptors’ responses tended to add interest to their work. The Nassau County Museum is part of a trend away from the “neutrality” of gallery exhibition spaces, for which it is to be applauded—especially since its 19th-century departures from neutrality are in themselves so rich.

David Von Schlegell had two pieces in this exhibition. One of them, installed on the terraced back lawn of the museum building, consisted of two low-lying, wedge-shaped stainless steel elements. The first had a sharply angled face; the angle of the other was more gradual. They were placed on the ground so that imaginary lines drawn through their medians crossed at an acute angle which reconciled the angles built into their forms: shape and the placement of shape were made to produce reciprocal commentaries. This, to be sure, would also come across in a neutral gallery space. Nonetheless, the formality of the terrace, with its carefully proportioned relationship to the mansion’s facade, offered a visual clarity which enhanced von Schlegell’s work without intruding on it. The sculptor’s other piece was also made of two elements; in this case, the materials were steel and granite. Clearly angled forms were joined with modeled curves in a way that alluded, with finesse, to a carefully landscaped passage from one picturesque meadow to another.

Sylvia Stone chose to play off her elegantly transparent plexiglas forms against a highly structured corner of the estate’s formal gardens. James Hagan found a shaggy, untended place in the gardens for his massive, rough-hewn forms. Another piece of his was set in a partially overgrown path through a grove of trees. That setting was more appropriate for his work, which makes much of its intentionally unfinished look.

Michael Singer, too, is interested in natural material—in this case, thin oak strips interwoven to achieve a complex airiness. Two sets of these strips were placed just above the surface of a pond. This was, in effect, a single piece, each part offering variations on the other. The entire piece was clearly reflected in the water. This provided another view of the work, and blended it with its setting—there was often difficulty in sorting out actual oak strips from their reflections. An elegant, intimate maze of image and mirror image appeared, all the more tantalizingly because it was distanced by the water, the “medium” which made these effects possible in the first place. Further, the oak strips made reference, with their sinuous curves, to the landscaped hills and meadows surrounding the work and the pond.

Two pieces in poured lead by Linda Benglis brought out the formality of the museum’s neo-Georgian building. One of them sat near the front entrance; the other was suspended from an outer surface of the gazebo which forms one wing of the building. The latter’s stylistic formality was a perfect foil for Benglis’ polymorphic spew. There is a quality of protest, flavored by a self-conscious childishness, in this artist’s poured forms—a quality made clearer in this setting than it usually is in neutral gallery spaces, which provide no contrasts (or only subliminal ones) to what they contain.

Two rather small marble pieces by Louise Bourgeois were placed beneath the branches of a magnolia grove. This placement is interesting because it suggests that outdoor settings for sculpture needn’t be large—the trees enclose an intimate space, one appropriate to Bourgeois’ biomorphism, which is both secretive and obsessive. Outdoor spaces of this kind bring into question much recent discussion of public sculpture, especially that beginning with the notion that “public” means “urban” and “grandiose.” The Nassau County Museum provides an extraordinarily wide range of sites for sculpture, some more intimate than gallery spaces, some vaster than any to be found in a city.

Of the nine sculptors in the show, three responded more to one another than to the place. Charles Ginnever, Ronald Bladen and Mark di Suvero, finding themselves together in a group show for the first time, decided to cluster their works together some distance from the museum building. The result was an impressive—and impressively economical—display of postwar sculptural heroics. The shared site, a lawn bounded by pine trees and a curving drive, was overwhelmed. Thus, the estate of the Nassau County Museum can provide an active engagement with sculpture, or its contribution can be limited to open air and a lot of room. Of all the outdoor exhibition spaces that have appeared in recent years, this is perhaps the most versatile.

––Carter Ratcliff