S. Thomas Scarff

Studio Show

S. Thomas Scarff does interesting things with some of his large-scale sculpture; big, heavy objects are given the quality of an immanent performance. Enormous though many of them are, they are all concerned with action rather than form.

His characteristic symbol is a saillike aluminum shape, a sort of triangle which may be flat or folded and which curves slightly forward at the tip. Its elongated point stretches like taffy until it won’t get any thinner. In a recent piece at the Chicago Cultural Center, two such forms rose 20 feet into the air, bisected by a strip of bluish purple neon which made the aluminum look even less solid. The sculpture seemed to document a thrust of air.

In other works this angular symbol has occurred folded and in rows, withheld in tension via long, taut cables, and actually physically shakeable. In the large-scale works wind often budges these angles slightly, and in Scarff’s models, which serve as three-dimensional “drawings” for the large-scale sculpture, those angular points actually do shake and tinkle. A word about Scarff’s models: they are fragile and fine. The blades become lacey details threaded by the support cables and pitted against zig-zagged, pancake-flat surfaces that are meant to portray the shape of the plaza over which the actual large-scale “blades” will hang.

Scarff has also worked extensively with neon. Some of his neon-in-nature installations carry on with this effect of implicit movement—crawling over tree trunks, wiggling under sand, or squirming inside of caves. This illusion, however, is attributable largely to the masterly photodocuments taken by Scarff’s wife, Signe Varco. For the most part, neon sculpture Scarff has done alone has suffered because he avoids any random effects or complex circuitries and relies too much upon the unaltered commercial material. He effectively transforms his aluminum, but he leaves his neon as neon. His installation at the Museum of Science and Industry, which years ago might have been taken for a “painting in space,” now comes across simply as neon tubes strung around the gallery.

But Scarff’s work is uneven. He has also produced corny, low-brow painted sculptures covered with tacky black enamel—airplanes soaring with neon exhaust fumes, or outer-space flying saucers landing on plaster sculpture stands. The strongest emotion here is a concern that the work might fall over and wound a viewer.

Scarff told me that he wants all his sculpture to capture “the instant before motion,” but I don’t understand how some can be so “right” and some so “wrong.” In his studio, he displayed a big configuration of steps from some aluminum stairway fastened to a cylindrical cable. I stood waiting for those steps to climb the cable. The best of Scarff’s work undeniably wants to move.

C. L. Morrison