Ed Rothfarb

An exhibition long overdue in Boston, Six Sculptors reflected various modes of sculpture-making, running the gamut of current idioms from free-standing objects and wall reliefs to architectonic constructions and ephemeral installations.

By far the two most impressive efforts in the exhibition were created by artists who constructed their own spaces. ED ROTHFARB’s In leiunio et Fletu is a freestanding unit in one corner of the largest gallery built of gray plasterboard panels over a wooden frame. Within a primarily architectural idiom, Rothfarb’s piece addresses his participatory audience theatrically, through texts, sounds and spaces. The small chapellike edifice is built with formal, ceremonial equilibrium. The symmetry of the forms and details is maintained with a cruciform plan and false doors—even as access and egress (or is it the other way around?) is clearly demarcated for his audience. Unlike the masterful adjustments of scale and mass that were inherent in Rothfarb’s earlier MIT installation, the ICA piece is less dependent on its surrounds. It doesn’t seize the space but instead provides a subtle respite from the otherwise predictable gallery experience. The work is, after all, not about the visceral experience of architectonic space, nor is it about the human impulse to construct and protectively enclose. Rothfarb’s structures are more like archaeological finds, anthropological ruminations that take into account layers of past cultures and private mythologies.

Thus, space is not as crucial here as is the information garnered while we walk through his environment. As we enter the arcade we are surrounded by the walls and simultaneously enveloped by soft music and written texts. Seeing, hearing, moving, thinking are all present as a metaphoric condensation of actual past experience—or more precisely, historical experience. He stratifies that past—a renaissance motet related to several ancient language sources inscribed on the processional architecture suggests a common heritage of forms and meaning. In leiunio et Fletu is the artist’s own reevaluation of hallowed motifs that have themselves been reinterpreted and reevaluated throughout history. He gives us an instant intellectual lineage as sensory experience, the beginnings of an architectonic hermeneutics.

The most visually exciting piece in the exhibition was that of JEFFREY SCHIFF. Like Rothfarb, Schiff created his own space but with more ephemeral means—he made no objects, he built no structures. In one sense, the space Schiff used was given as he chose to rework part of the remodeled interior of the institute’s 19th-century building. His chosen area, the main staircase leading to the second floor where the rest of the exhibition was held, is not a very well defined space. It is really a large, open, multisided well cutting between floors. Several turns, a landing, open and closed bannisters and the fact that all second floor galleries open onto the well make the space confusing and incoherent. Schiff brings to this awkward architecture a rational clarity—in an unexpected way, by hand rubbing graphite in a predetermined pattern around the case. Schiff demarcates a cylinder centered on an extant structural column. As a simple, strong vertical rising through the amorphous well, the column provides the pinion on which the rest of Schiff’s conception revolves. All the architecture that falls within his cylindrical boundary—walls, floors, overhead exposed steel beams, bannisters, etc.—is covered with the dark powder.

At no single point do Schiff’s shadowed walls resolve completely, but they frame voids, reveal connections between spaces and even pick out various nuances of proportion and detail usually hidden by the homogeneity of white gallery walls. Schiff plays with the space. He wrests it out of its doldrums and gives it back to his audience as his own. With the most evanescent means, Schiff provides an experience spatially startling and visually sensitive.

Ronald J. Onorato