New York

Don Gummer

Castle Clinton and Sperone Westwater Fischer

Don Gummer combines a Cubist vocabulary of interpenetrating planes and geometric shapes with a Constructivist use of painted wood and replacement of opaque volume by space. At his best, as in the site sculpture Surrounded by Divisions exhibited last summer at Castle Clinton, Gummer creates out of rigid lines and spatial geometry what Yeats called “intellectual music.” Rectangles, circles and hexagons function in a musical counterpoint with planes and shadows. The work had a subtly charged pace, a rhythm of rectilinear intervals that also relates the artist to Mondrian.

Constructed of bluestone slabs surmounted by wooden screenlike rectangles, Surrounded by Divisions had the taut elegance and implied movement of classical art. The sculpture was scaled with a boldly kinetic relation to the site and the castle itself. By placing the hexagonal structure at an angle to the curved ellipsoidal courtyard, the artist put the sculpture and our perception of it in motion; one could not grasp the work as a whole from any one point of view, but had to experience it incrementally.

A work which first seemed to devalue the sensorial, Surrounded by Divisions ultimately elicited both our sensory and kinetic response. In the relation of the gray-blue tones of stone to the castle’s slate roof, and contrast of textures and mass between wooden bars and stone, there was emotional as well as intellectual authority. The repeated movement of the bluestone slabs intersecting at right angles with the black-painted screens on top, and the rhythm of sequentially altered linear and planar divisions, created as emphatic a form of action as that in Baroque or Cubist sculpture. The changing of bluestone slab to empty space, of light to heavy, of flat surfaces crossing at right angles, implied a contour that was not literally there, a circle beyond and within the hexagon.

In certain wooden wall reliefs Gummer fuses aspects of the classical tradition with his own sensibility—specifically a subtle illusionistic awareness of light and shadow. Bramante’s Circle, 1977, was a direct reference, even homage, to the geometric configurations in Renaissance architecture; Surrounded by Divisions closely resembles the plan of Brunelleschi’s Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence—the first truly central plan of the 15th century.

There is in Gummer’s sculpture almost an obsession with the circle, with central space and centering one’s being. As in modern Cubist sculpture, our “reading” of the Castle Clinton work eventually depends on repeated takes, on centering ourselves conceptually as we walk around it. The rhythms of most of Gummer’s sculptures, even those which are built formally around straight lines and rectilinear forms, come back to the circle. For example, the Courtyard, 1978, a wall relief of lines and rectangles, is less dynamic, more mandala-like than the site sculpture. But as the lines are most dense and active at the edges and more open in the center, they heighten our awareness of a central space from which vitality radiates.

Bramante’s Circle and Surrounded by Divisions are related to configurations of the circle and the square in Italian Renaissance architecture. However, one of the finest wall reliefs in the recent show, Nara and Lanna, 1978, was influenced by the zig-zag movement of oriental architecture. Nara and Lanna, although delicate and open, has a concentrated vigor, a bold and eccentric space most other reliefs lack. A dynamic spatial motion and a subtle play of light and shadow derive from precise construction: 81/2 inches deep, thin white-painted strips of wood in the background plane are placed diagonally to join the black-painted rectilinear foreground intervals. Gummer exploits shadows in all of the reliefs, but here the dark and dramatic hard-edge shadows extend the work emphatically beyond its literal dimensions. At the bottom, these shadow bands enlarge the work by about a foot, through powerful geometric bands projected on the white wall that cannot be read except as part of the work.

Nara and Lanna and Locandina Triptych have the precision of Gummer’s Surrounded by Divisions, where the energy derives from understatement and economy. By comparison, other of Gummer’s interior sculptures seem cold and lifeless.

Fundamental to Gummer’s art is a rhythm of measured yet intuitively conceived intervals, a spare and rigorous elegance. While he does not always succeed in bringing this off, there are moments when he does. Then, his work recalls Alberti’s notion of beauty as existing when nothing can be added or taken away without destroying the effect. In these works, Gummer picks up aspects of Cubism and Constructivism and imbues them with his own sense of the Renaissance esthetic ideal.