New Bedford

John Willenbecher

University Art Gallery, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

John Willenbecher’s recent exhibition at the University of Massachusetts marked a clear turning point in his career, away from familiar elements toward newer, more distilled themes. As one of the earliest artists to adopt the fertile motif of the labyrinth in the late 1960s, Willenbecher developed it fully through formal, metaphorical and environmental manifestations during the first half of this decade. The Amherst show mapped out different paths and demonstrated that the artist had already begun to explore them by 1975.

In a large show at the Everson Museum a few years ago, this development was suggested by two works which were also in the Massachusetts exhibition. Table, with its small geometric solids composed on a low, flat platform, might remind us of some godlike chess set with all the surfaces treated to suggest the starry heavens. More emphatically, Sea, a large room-scaled environment of waist-high tetrahedrons and their random interstices, can be considered the initial work of this new phase. It is at once object and environment, a quasi-scientific universe where one might expect to see Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges around the next triangular form.

Willenbecher conjures for his audience the solidity of the real world in the poetical spaces of literature. In 1975, these works distinguished themselves through their interest in geometric solids and the suppression of graphic gestures, two characteristics of Willenbecher’s earlier, pre-labyrinthine oeuvre. As the Amherst show reveals, however, they were only harbingers of things to come.

Between 1975 and the present, another archetypal form began to intrigue him—the bridge. A group of works at Amherst documents the artist’s delight with panels large and small, collaged or painted, segmented or serialized, that depict this motif. The linear scallop of a curving arch rivets our attention as the exquisite reductio ad extremum of an otherwise familiar form. We are engrossed by the variety of formats and manipulations, while being offered only the barest bones of a white line that might still be considered a bridge. As with many of Willenbecher’s earlier themes, the bridge magically traverses two and three dimensions simultaneously. It becomes line and mass, volume and surface, connecting form and meaning.

One wall is particularly striking, with several strips of multi-panelled studies that comprise a single work. The viewer almost becomes a listener here as the panels of various shapes and lengths, conceived across a full range of gray tonalities, act as the visual representation of a sonorous musical scale. Although several other wall pieces and many works on paper were included at Amherst, the most impressive were those completed this year: the large geometric ensemble of Kiva, a series of reliefs, Truth Revealed by Time and the large wall environment The Defeat of Atalanta (I).

Inspired by a Renaissance reverence for solid geometric perfection (which has always informed Willenbecher’s work), Kiva is a tour de force of compositional resolution. Three geometric solids, as arcane as a truncated rhomboid, mundane as a ladder (whose scale is enlarged toward immensity) and perfect as a sphere, are congealed into a single, unified composition that is neither distracting nor convoluted in its complexity. Willenbecher’s celestial surfaces, familiar to all who know his art, begin to pale here, and instead his grisailled grays allow us to experience the purity of the forms, reducing texture and modulation toward mass. The effect is of a universal solution with space and form intertwined. Kiva is a manifesto of symbols gravitating somewhere between the pleasures of optic experience and pure intellect.

The series of small wall reliefs of Truth Revealed by Time make literal concepts that have occupied Willenbecher for several years. Here too questions of reality and illusion, perception and understanding are addressed, but as always a poetical sense sets the tone for the inquiries. The geometric nature of the panels is evident, but here the artist quite literally pulls back the small, sculpted drapery to reveal the infinite depth of his illusions. The balance of solid and void, depth and wall, reality and representation, is masterful even on so small a scale. The expected tensions from such juxtapositions dissolve into a synthesis of intentional design and random variables. The panels of Truth Revealed by Time must be seen as studies culminating in the singular Defeat of Atalanta.

In this large, wall-sized installation, Willenbecher distills earlier ideas into their most refined, subliminal form. Two large, flat surfaces placed one before the other hug the wall and create a subtle relief articulation that never strays far from the solidity of its architectural support. Elements seen before reappear, but The Defeat of Atalanta is no simple-minded pastiche. In fact this may be regarded as the culmination of much work from the past decade, the full realization of several themes.

The dreamy celestial surfaces here penetrate the smoothest of solids, a wall. The space hinted at by Willenbecher’s scumbling is made literal and alive by the placement of a single golden sphere, less than a foot in diameter, before the vastness of his wall. Through the manipulation of this single focal point, which shimmers with light in an otherwise darkened space, Willenbecher merges the idealism of his infinity with the physical reality of our own space. This is a relief sculpture so fully developed that the artist enables us to walk through and into the enveloping space as it filters away from the wall in both directions.

As with much art that moves us emotionally and intellectually, The Defeat of Atalanta succeeds within theatrical boundaries. The work can engage the viewer’s attention physically as well as psychologically, because Willenbecher is not afraid to allow the setting to become an integral part of the piece. His Minimal forms move far beyond the Minimalist dictum that to be theatrically dramatic is to belie inherent truths about the forms and meanings of the visual world. His objects, so primary and elemental, are like performers on a stage; his vertical nebulae are backdrops that use a metaphorical instead of a perspectival illusion. One senses a goal has been achieved with The Defeat of Atalanta; a rich historical vocabulary is fused with the time and space of the present. Willenbecher invites his viewers to partake of visual pleasures and to become additional elements in the macrocosm, or the microcosm of his esthetic system.

Ronald J. Onorato