San Francisco/Santa Clara

Alan Saret and “Fabricated to be Photographed”

Daniel Weinberg Gallery/San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

If nothing else, ALAN SARET continues to reinvigorate the sculptural notion of drawing in space. Here, for example, all but one of the seven wire clusters being shown suspended from the ceiling seem immutably whole, correct and passionately beautiful. However, Saret aspires to much more than formal accomplishment. He is seeking to infuse his work with spirituality and he nearly succeeds. The one weak piece, A B White Among Black Permutation Clusters, resembles a shrunken head and introduces the problem of anthropomorphism and, by extension, of ego. Otherwise, where he substitutes intuition for logic, he is incomparable.

Sculpture, itself, is often laden with any number of technical requirements which at once limit its expressive options and make legitimate, however briefly, witless virtuosity. Its repertoire of materials and, to some extent, its scale are rooted in certain ambient periods. Steel assemblages of human size recall the ’50s, whereas ignoble materials, closely ordered or jumbled, advertise themselves as mid-to-late-’60s handiwork. Plywood and 2x4s in any kind of domestic configuration will pass henceforth as a ’70s stereotype. Within this simplistic analysis of the medium, anomalous visionaries appear: Smithson certainly, de Maria perhaps. Saret could well be of their caliber.

His work embodies an entropic, anti-formal comprehension of art that is common to much of the best work of the generation of sculptors born in the 1940s, from Serra to Benglis. But Saret. in his deliberate turning away from mass, either in reforming it as art (the Earthworks ethos) or from joining it together in unlikely, effective ways (Constructivism), distinguishes both his method and his product. That was definitely my impression last summer when faced with his 6 foot high folded chicken wire construction in the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture collection show. The piece’s kinship with Rodin’s Balzac was striking.

Saret is probably the only artist of our time who has made sense of and peace with ecology. He successfully harnesses and transforms the inchoate back-to-the-earth instinct of the past fifteen years without reverting to the artist-as-Luddite stance that invalidates a whole gang of mud daubers, rock scrapers,and cave builders. Some undated notes from Saret’s notebooks, that Michael Auping quoted in a brochure for his Matrix exhibition at the University Art Museum, Berkeley, affirm Saret’s profound symbiosis with his work. He wrote, “The flexure of each material draws a line in space which corresponds identically to its physical properties. Nature, therefore, draws the final line in art.” This cooperation is so unaffected and complete that Saret can fashion an amorphous clot of red- and green-coated wires into a remarkably evocative metaphor for walking in nature, or so I see in Green and Scarlet Mountain Triumph Permutation Cluster Cloud.

Every color and thickness of wire in these pieces can be decoded for specific and symbolic meaning. For all their seeming randomness, I suspect their litheness comes from discipline. Saret knows what he is about. His fervor, allied as it is with a greater force, has helped him avoid the morass of contrived expressionism that can so easily consume this kind of slightly mad, completely inspired art.

As a visual prelude to the exhibition, “Fabricated to be Photographed,” curator Van Deren Coke has installed a few examples of historical antecendents to the work of the ten contemporary photographers shown. This spotty mélange includes photographs by Gyorgy Kepes, Ruth Bernhard, Edward Weston, and Herbert Bayer and does little to enhance an understanding of the ten photographers in question: Ellen Brooks, James Casebere, Stephen Collins, Robert Cumming, Phillip Galgiani, Leslie Krims, John Pfahl, Don Rodan, Victor Schrager and Carl Toth. However, it does buttress Coke’s catalogue analysis in which he suggests the earlier material be seen as representative of at least two distinct styles within the “fabricated” genre. He cites Julia Margaret Cameron as an example of photographers conspicuously employing symbols and symbolic subjects in their work and mentions Ralph Meatyard’s and Frederick Sommer’s affinity to that esthetic. He sees the other style as an adaptation of collage to photography, and therefore akin to Cubism or Constructivism. He picks Man Ray, Kepes, Bayer, and Florence Henri as important figures and includes work by each in the entrance to the exhibition. The symbolists are not so well served—neither Cameron nor Meatyard is actually shown—thus weakening an already enfeebled set of pictures. The prospect of seeing persuasive proof of some common idea among the group of older artists is tantalizing, but tantalizing only.

Coke alludes to the profound disjunction of the work he has assembled from its supposed precursors noting, “By the 1970s, the relative ease with which realism and a degree of artistic stylization could be mastered led tougher, more intellectual photographers to explore new directions.” Unfortunately, there the matter remains. That Toth’s constructivism can so superficially resemble that of Kepes, or that any of the contemporaries working with symbols can do so with little or no reference to their history seems to me the single most engaging idea in the exhibition. Can a style’s continuing appeal and accuracy be traced through generations? Or conversely, can people working in roughly the same time period escape or reinterpret the shared attitudes of their context?

For the uninitiated, it is clear that in this show a feeling of detachment from the object or scene being photographed and an accompanying feeling of disregard, even disdain, for beauty is common among the ten younger photographers. Excepting Pfahl (who to my reckoning is too dependent on a preexistent ground—nature—for his work properly to be included anyway), none of the ten chooses to photograph anything well-made or formally distinguished, preferring instead to use everyday detritus in compositions that are further allied, consciously or not, alternately by their very inscrutability or inherent nonsense.

Cumming and Krims are of far more interest on both counts than any of the others. Cumming’s trenchant double entendres and poetically arbitrary assignations of meanings make him without peer in today’s photographic world. Coke has chosen, among others, a 1971 print, 120 Alternatives, which shows 120 handbills printed to read “Plurally or in a pile we are sculpture/Singularly I am a print” scattered over a sofa, and a photo made in 1978, Two Objects of Oppression and a Gift for Christmas, wherein a typewriter, a bamboo rake and a long-handled cutting tool have been posed in the very unlikely setting of a suburban backyard.

From Krims’ tongue-in-cheek “Academic Art” series two sets of nudes come to mind: Repetitive Significant Cultural Symbols, two naked women holding up a string of paper dolls between them; and Rebuses, two hitch-hikers each on a chair at either side of a blackboard with a symbol-laden puzzle warning against taking rides from strangers.

In the other collage-like vein, Victor Schrager’s crowded and spatially complex color photos are distinguishable by force of their pictorial intelligence. Schrager skillfully exploits his materials—printed reproductions of paintings and sculpture and loose pages of texts—and seems to be proposing a peculiarly resonant, unalterably photographic counterpart to the patterning and illusionism revivals in current painting.

Richard Armstrong