New York

Christopher Wilmarth

Grey Art Gallery, N.Y.U. and Studio For The First Amendment

Christopher Wilmarth makes heavy wall and floor sculptures out of dark, roughly pocked steel and delicately scraped glass plates. His thick, rectangular masses of metal are bent at oblique angles, and from certain vantages only their vague outlines are visible through the bluish windows attached to them. These are elegant, seductive, somber pieces that take themselves very seriously and that, according to Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott (whose collaborative essay on Wilmarth accompanies his Grey Gallery show) are steeped in references to the work of such masters as Matisse and Brancusi. Such “literacy” may or may not be conducive to good art, however, which depends not on the richness of one’s education but on what one does with it.

The central mechanism in Wilmarth’s work is the opposition it sets up between the leadenness of its steel and the light, airy quality of its glass and the light that the glass transmits. Geldzahler and Scott see this opposition as Manichaean, profound and possibly violent. These are in fact attributes that could very well emerge from a strong contention between materials. They could proceed equally well from shaping a single material into a paradox as, for instance, David Smith did when he burnished his steel until it became soft and intangible behind the celestial brightness it took on in strong light.

The problem with Wilmarth’s work is that the antithesis between hardness and delicacy on which it relies is not terribly potent. I think this failure results from the sculptor’s two materials’ being so utterly different that they cannot really exchange much of either quality with each other. The glass retains its gentleness for itself, as the steel retains its ponderousness, and we come out with a tame juxtaposition.

Wilmarth’s materials imply the possibility of an antagonistic relationship, and Geldzahler and Scott seem to be able to find one. To me this possible relationship seems not only unrealized, but consciously avoided. The overall clanishness and resolvedness of Wilmarth’s work precludes any sense of steel splintering glass or glass rendering steel. There is simply far too much harmoniousness here.

I should emphasize that both materials are fascinating ones, filled with possibilities of metaphor and emotional resonance. They have been too minimally exploited in Wilmarth’s work, which is hardly weak, but which is frustrating because it is not as strong as it seems it might easily be.

Leo Rubinfien