Richard Fleischner

Installation In Providence

Richard Fleischner’s most recent work, in Providence, R.I., is impressive in its material presence alone—several tons of pink and gray granite composed to indicate the schematic basis of what might be considered a prototypical house. Although a crane was necessary to move the granite units to his chosen site, a small island in a wooded park setting, Fleischner as always works delicately and carefully with the natural surface. Here, the subtle yet definitive effort of the finished project is inseparable from the beauty of its context.

The island is only reachable via a short, arching bridge, which the artist has used as the axis for his arrangement of architectonic components. Once on the island, the viewer first crosses a long granite bar, embedded halfway up a sloping rise—in Fleischner’s own words, the threshold of the piece. Crossing that, stepping into (or is it merely between?) the various other slabs and markers, one has the unique sense of being inside the work, although none of the granite rises more than a few inches off the gentle roll of the grassy slope. Interior and exterior mesh for Fleischner and his audience much as the artifice of his work is in unison with its natural context.

Continuing along the main axis, one proceeds to the largest configuration, situated at the top of the rise. Four massive slabs of pink Salisbury granite set at 90-degree angles to each other form a low, flat square with squat, thick walls. The solidity of the square, its heavy, inert, ground-hugging character, suggests a house foundation. Its shape and proportions are reminiscent of an atrium or well while the artist prefers to regard it as a hearth area. Whether all or only some of these equivalencies are perceived, each—hearth, atrium, well or foundation—is at the literal or figurative core of the concept “house.” Here the artist’s central concern begins to coalesce. The project is about basic communication, the minimal units that connote house. His granite units are the architectural phonemes of details, distances, measurements and relationships that when pared down continue to signify.

Proceeding around or over the monumental square, a third, more open area lies before the viewer, delimited along the same axis by two long strips of gray granite. Walking within these two strips is to leave again the implied enclosure of the hearth area. The definition of “place” sensed near the “threshold” and “hearth” units is now dominated by a heightened sense of “vista.” The view from this long, granite-bounded area is directed away from the other components in Fleischner’s arrangement to the surrounding foliage across an expanse of water.

Other markers surround these three major symbolic areas, revealing secondary and tertiary axes, tangents and orientations. As in many of his most visually appealing works, like the Newport Sod Maze (1974) or the more recent project at Documenta 6 (1977), Fleischner uses his surrounding site as surface, context and structure. The elements do not clash with the landscape but become part of it, taking at least some of their orientations from the local ground swells. These are not merely pieces of manmade forms, intentionally carved and composed by an artist; they become transformed into natural, indigenous ingredients of the site.

He has placed his architectonic schema lightly into the environment, evoking as he does the fading remnants of some ancient ruin or a harbinger of some future edifice. While it will always have a quality of being in process, as a kind of enduring and elegant construction site, its visual manifestation is clearly and completely resolved. Distilling the nominal category of “house” to its traditional origins, Fleischner creates a timeless sense, general not particular, elemental not contrived, simultaneously created and found. It is a truly “post-movement” monument, encapsulating definitions and explanations more than it does styles and critical theories. Yet, wonderfully, it is still a work that can be walked through, looked at, considered and understood.

Ronald J. Onorato