New York

Betty Parsons

Truman and Kornblee galleries

Betty Parsons made sculpture in Paris years before she opened her gallery. Today, it turns out, she is still putting sculptures together out of the flotsam that turns up on the beach outside her Long Island house. They are small, cockeyed, craftsy-looking pieces, painted chaotically. Part of their aim, I think, is to look amateurish, and most important, precedentless—to seem to stand outside the polemic-filled arena where so many professional artists feel obliged to work. They are nonetheless filled with vague references of all kinds, and also make one think of the work of certain younger artists—Rafael Ferrer, for instance.

The wood Parsons scavenges for her pieces is not driftwood, even though it has floated to shore, but carpenters’ scraps. Thus it looks at once raw, eroded and natural, and precisely, intelligently cut. She only rarely gets hold of an object which represents something explicitly—one of her pieces involves a wooden silhouette of a duck that was obviously once part of a sign—but everything in her work seems to be tending toward representation. Often this has to do with her methods of construction. In some, sections are stacked like a totem pole so that one keeps looking for the animals and faces; others suggest signboards (with one object framed dramatically by another) so one imagines that the framed item must represent something specific.

This illusion is often so strong that one will glance back at a piece one has already looked at carefully, still expecting to see a face, figure, or bit of writing. In one way, this makes her pieces mock themselves lightly—for while they take the forms of fetishes, they always end up in a thoroughly secular clownish-ness. At the same time, it suggests a sort of fetishism of abstract art—a worshipping of the stripes, shapes and concentric circles that have been so central to contemporary esthetics. Whatever Parsons gives us that seems worshipful, of course, she states in heavy accents of tongue-in-cheek. There is nothing in these pieces that cannot be explained as innocent play.

Not for a minute am I saying that Parsons’ pieces aren’t quite intelligent and tasteful. If anything, she may have chosen a crude and craftlike form in order to balance a hypertrophy of taste. The difficulty is that there is little fundamental content to her work. It is elegant, it is clownish; it takes from the most primitive and most sophisticated kinds of art; it collages historical references with ease; it perfectly suits a time when people are welcoming eccentric, apparently crude, tremendously ironic kinds of art. But it reveals no strong central motive for bringing these varied impulses together.

Leo Rubinfien