New York

Ibram Lassaw

Zabriskie Gallery

To say that Ibram Lassaw’s new work remains within Abstract Expressionist parameters is not to devalue it. Free of the pressures of avant-gardism, Lassaw, in his first show in 10 years, is able to renew and refine what to many is a dead sculptural language, hardly a lesser task for one of its prophets.

Most of the 17 pieces in the present show are cagelike in form, welded grids of thin brass rods. “Cage,” the connotation, is wrong; though labyrinthine, the sculpture liberates. Bright, aerated, it is a magical design of reflection and shadow. It seems to form itself through the interplay of linear relations. The chemical corrosion of the brass exposes the material as the welded joints expose the process. The sculpture is at once natural and surreal (the cage imagery), expressive and constructed.

Indeed these are the bases of Abstract Expressionist sculpture which Rosalind Krauss outlines in Passages in Modern Sculpture: the formal syntax is Cubist-Constructivist, the symbolic vocabulary is Surrealist, the expression is gestural. This seems a bit forced: the history of sculpture is not as neat as that of painting. Since sculptors like Lassaw, Smith, Hare, and Lipton were a “school” largely by association with Abstract Expressionist painters, it was natural that they be subject to critical norms defined for painting; the transference is not illegitimate. In both, process is evident; the constitutive elements are exposed as such; and there is a tension between the material contingencies of art and the transcendent desires of the artist. Yet Lassaw’s work reflects a deeper influence of painting upon sculpture.

First I should say that Lassaw’s sculpture is not traditional. It is not volumetric: as an open grid of metal it does not displace space; it is also dematerialized by the high reflectivity of the surface. (There are a few solid pieces, like Labyrinth VII and the Caryatids, but the former, booklike with apertures, has to do with interior space, and the Caryatids are not central to his work, done as an abstract painter may draw the figure, to sharpen his perception of form.)

Except for the Caryatid, there are no figural or totemic works (as in David Smith), no mass to be anchored, so the stands seem improper. The sculptures want to be suspended (indeed one is, to good effect); suspended, they replace, not displace, becoming a spatial substitute much like perspectival painting. Content and context are coterminous: the rectilinear format—what we may call the frame—is echoed by the inner grid or what we may call the drawing, also very much like painting. Thus pictorial norms, broader than those of Abstract Expressionism, relate to the sculpture.

Lassaw’s sculpture learns from painting. The linear projection of three-dimensional space that we find in perspectival painting is here made literal; as in Cubist sculpture the language of pictorial space becomes the language of actual space. But the sculpture has more to do with Constructivism and the stereometry of Gabo. The work is more or less axial; that is, when we walk around it or when it is rotated from its x- to its y-axis, the sculpture remains roughly the same: there is a continuity of views as in painting.

If it is part of the Constructivist project to see “each aspect of a three-dimensional object as the symmetrical and redundant expression of a central idea,” it is not too far-fetched to posit an inner matrix in the work that functions like the vantage point of painting, a center or point of intersection from which all planes radiate. Moreover, the work is governed by “Constructivist transparency,” the wish to see past the surface to the core of the object. This is not unlike the transparency of the picture plane, which in traditional painting allows us to see past the surface into deep space. In effect Lassaw has taken pictorial propositions and made them the bases for sculpture. One could in turn make this the basis for a negative judgment on the grounds that each art must be purist. Nevertheless, it is hard not to delight in the sculpture, in the way it transgresses the medium—a physical construct made a pictorial experience.

An abstracted work (like a sketch) is often a notation for patterns that lie behind or beyond existence, patterns that are immanent or ideal. In the show Lassaw has two sculptures with the title Inscape. “Inscape” is a term coined by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to mean the design or order imparted to each thing and to all creation by God. For Hopkins to reinform that order, to “instress” the “inscape,” is a teleological act, a way to know God through art. Lassaw seems to agree. There is another set of sculptures entitled Spaceloom. Here sculpture is a kind of project for an ideal universe, as if Lassaw were after a cosmology that transcends the dialectic of subject and object, artist and nature.

Hal Foster