New York

Thirteen Sculptors

Robert Freidus Gallery

Jean Feinberg, who was formerly curator at the now comatose Nassau County Museum of Fine Arts, brought together the work of 13 sculptors at the Robert Freidus loft. Most were relatively unfamiliar, some unknown in New York. The show consisted of 32 sculptures, both large and small in scale, models and full-size pieces commissioned for this exhibition, and 11 drawings, most of which were related to the sculptures shown. It was a special event because so much contemporary sculpture is anonymous and intimidating; it rarely informs or comforts us. At best, it softens the hard edges of modern life.

In the loft—which is Freidus’ home as well as gallery—the sculptures were hung from the walls, placed on table tops and in vitrines and on pedestals, and some were free-standing. The lack of a formal division between exhibition and living spaces somehow helped to extend the definition of a work of art. The large multi-level black tile master bathroom-cum-sauna, although not out of bounds, wasn’t part of the exhibition either. On the other hand, the more modest guest bathroom was distinguished by what I originally thought was a particularly effective storage system for toilet paper (ten rolls installed vertically). It was actually Alan Finkel’s Toilet Paper Tower. An important aspect of the exhibition was just this quality of being off balance, of not knowing what was “art” and what was not, like Joe Neill’s two beautifully constructed and refined ladder pieces, 120° Function Object and 3 Way Function Object, wooden structures which tempt one to climb, and yet are totally nonfunctional. Would we feel the same urge if we encountered these ladders elsewhere?

Donna Byars’ wall pieces, George Grant’s plaster houses, and Jerome Zimmerman’s plywood laminate architectural stages all seemed to have as their subject definitions of “place,” “containment” and “enclosure.” Roland Reiss’ Dancing Lessons (plexiglass boxes) are miniature room settings of great precision (down to cigarette butts and discarded copies of Playboy magazine), wit and mystery. These pieces depend upon the viewer’s active participation in a physical or an intellectual sense, either within or outside the piece. It was not enough to view the Reiss pieces as amazing doll-house environments, because each room contains clues to an event whose comprehension demands that we get inside those boxes and examine each object.

The large-scale pieces on the roof offered even more insistent invitations to participate. On a particularly clear summer day, Winifred Lutz’s Trap was absolutely dazzling: low blue-stained sloping wooden walls surrounded a red sand trap with a blue pyramid in it. The sculpture formed a base for the brilliant blue sky and the surrounding cityscape of the 19th-century cast iron district above Canal Street, which rose and fell as one approached and intercepted it. The color was almost unreal in its intensity. It made me remember how I felt years ago after seeing Antonioni’s first color film, Red Desert: convinced that I had just seen the most static film ever made, yet overwhelmed by the power of it and the sense that I had never really looked at the world before, that I had never seen color until I saw it through Antonioni’s eyes/lens.

Michael Norton’s Wooden Tower was a 21-foot-tall, square wooden building whose presence was an implicit challenge to climb straight up through the inside of the tower, to experience the effort—for some of us, the terror—to reach the observation platform at the top, to experience the height of it, the different sensations at the top and the bottom, to see all around, to feel faint and dizzy looking down, exhilarated, and going down to experience all the anxieties in reverse.

Patsy Norvell’s almost-maze of snow fencing engaged a bend in the roof. Each length of fence radiated out from the inside corner and each was interrupted at a different place so that one was prevented from rounding the bend easily. One had to search for the opening, walking up and down between the waist-high fences which waved, twisted and climbed up the sides of the roof, one’s progress gauged by the colors of the fences which were graded from yellow-green to white. The experience was frustrating but delightful, trying to get through it, being momentarily lost, wanting to mow down the whole fragile piece which was both seductive and infuriating, and totally engaging.

Why this show was so successful had less to do with the quality or importance of each of the pieces included than with the way they were presented, with an overriding—perhaps inadvertent—sense of playfulness, a lack of absolute seriousness. The show addressed the child that is a part of each one of us. All together, the pieces exerted a great attraction, an ease of entry, an irresistible challenge. The selection was a serious one; the sculptures are serious works of art, but they do not depend upon a difficult grammar to make their significance felt. What was so special about the show was that it was a selection of sculpture which had the courage to forego the defensive posture of much contemporary art.

Stuart Greenspan