New York

Lucas Samaras, Barbara Schwartz, Alain Kirili

Pace Gallery/Willard Gallery/Sonnabend

Much is said about LUCAS SAMARAS’ “Reconstructions” as being a prophetic challenge to the ideologies of modernist painting in the ’70s. Thread and fabric do brazenly take the place of brush and paint on the canvas, but when viewing Samaras’ latest slew of materials and patterns, I question his allegedly ripping “attack” on modernist painting. Carter Ratcliff calls these conglomerations “violent” indictments of modern painting. Kim Levin writes in the catalogue for the show that they are glaring “reconstructions of modern art objects precisely at the moment that modernism has become untenable.” If in truth these are Samaras’ intentions, I wonder about how the pieces really fit together.

For if the “Reconstructions” “must,” as Levin in the catalogue submits, “be seen as paintings, highly sophisticated and completely perverse,” they “might” be other than mockeries of modernist ideologies. And if they are incisive critique, then implicitly, they regard their own form with respect. Samaras may well have the dubious honor of the last laugh, but what strikes me about these new “Reconstructions” is their formality and seriousness, not as paintings, but as the curiously esthetic, ultimately unsatisfying material objects that they are.

The new “Reconstructions” are as much about painting and “modernist” ideology as they are about fabric and its layers of personal and social ideology. Materials are appropriated for their personalized symbolic meaning as well as for their impersonal appeal as commodities. Sparkled opaques and transparent chiffons exist for their audience as symbols of desire: frivolous, extravagant, but everyday bourgeois “needs.”

While the extensive variety of content (loads of different textures and patterns) and composition (Samaras is now sewing together all kinds of different shapes and sizes to create images that are not repetitive, unlike his earlier reconstructions) parallel similar ideas explored in abstract painting, the audience is more conscious of the seductive materials as potential possessions. Even the hems of the chiffons are evident through the material; no matter how reminiscent of abstract painting techniques (nuances of depth and flatness, color and light), the audience responds to the attention-seeking materials as they would to pretty dresses, decorations or ornamentations. What is not paint does not pose as paint; it doesn’t really want to become paint.

Like paint, however, different properties of materials are stressed according to the desired effect. Reconstruction #59 and Reconstruction #53 are very different in feeling, being very different in content and composition. Reconstruction #59 is made with materials to be worn on the body, materials sought after by the eager consumer. Composed most noticeably of chiffons and dazzling patterns, the wide, stretched shapes seem to ripple back and forth across the canvas (which is visible underneath). Reconstruction #53, on the other hand, is not out to dazzle. The composition is rigid, the surface is broken diagonally into parts. Bold black and white, modern sheetlike pattern cuts across a background of subdued pink and blue wallpaper. In the upper left hand corner, floating in the pink and blue is a square patchwork quilt that mirrors a myriad of tastes, two extremes of which might be seen in the black and white and the pink and blue.

These are the patterns and textures that surround us, dislocate us, appall us, excite us, and finally reflect or threaten our own sense of (inherent? taught? studied?) taste. Paint is not a social symbol or a desirable commodity until it is made into a painting; Samaras’ materials, anyone’s materials, before they ever reach the sewing machine or the canvas, are.

Although Samaras’ new “Reconstructions” cannot help challenging the ideals of modern abstract painting, they do not challenge, but accept, quite unabashedly, contemporary desire. If they are only mockery, do they mock the walls that they hang on and the glossy catalogue about them with its partial pink-glitter cover? Levin in the catalogue speaks of narcissism, saying that in the “Reconstructions” Samaras has “managed to obscure the boundaries between himself and the world of objects.” His new materials are keenly aware of audience; so is the audience keenly aware of material.

The organic, even primitive shapes of BARBARA SCHWARTZ’s earlier painted wall sculpture were shrouded with enigma because in their reductive simplicity they evoked a world of references to nature (i.e., animals, parts of the human body, etc.). Their subtlety endured; they were simple enough to be haunting, “pure” enough to embody universal life and death symbols. So much for that.

Schwartz no longer seems to be so directly abstracting or perhaps spiritualizing real-life form; in her new works she energetically and joyously creates large abstract forms that exist by and for themselves. Her latest wall sculptures are composed of multiple references, like some of her more complex earlier pieces, but, like siblings recognizable only by vague and inexplicable family resemblance, their distinct personalities obscure their inherent connection. The cultural baggage in the new pieces is more complicated, but because it is more streamlined it is finally less penetrating.

Quenestre is one of several vertical pieces almost seven feet in height, approximately two feet in width, and emerging almost two feet from the wall. Unlike earlier pieces, which were of plaster molded over wire mesh, these are of handmade paper molded over wire mesh and painted with casein. These continuous strips (although broken with different vibrant colors) wind down and around, in and out, and back up again to create, from the front, variations on the basic structure of three diamond shapes, some of which recall giant cobra heads. From the side, the undulating curves appear charged with movement. And from the front, they are nothing short of commanding, although some do tread between the majestic and the farcical.

The energized form and imposing scale of these new pieces allows them to assume a somewhat threatening, almost human presence on the verge of lunging from the wall. Schwartz does not seem to be terribly concerned, as she appeared to be with the earlier Affabandi II, with incorporating the wall into her sculpture. Affabandi II seemed to grow organically from the wall; its ambiguous relationship with the wall contributed to its elusiveness. Lototos, Cobello, and particularly the leaning, figureheadlike Prymora (the middle of which forms a hollowed-out heart shape) don’t rely on their relationship to the wall as a source of intrigue; their separateness is clear. However, because their curves cast shadows, and because they pull so strongly from the wall, there is a dynamic relationship between the wall and form.

Schwartz is now focusing on forms infused with instantaneous vitality, instead of objects that quietly suggest an inner, peculiar life not specifically their own. She is evidently having a perfectly delightful time celebrating new forms and materials; the mood has changed. In developing a more highly personalized style, however, she is inadvertently risking more reflective audience responses.

In an essay in this magazine on Samuel Yellin and blacksmithing, ALAIN KIRILI wrote: “It is the pulsation of handmade marks on the surface that allows the emergence of the artist’s subconscious. . . . These marks are the remains of acts not entirely consciously governed, which relates to Freudian analysis and shows how deep an involvement in the making of a sculpture can be.”

Kirili’s new work indicates that he is deeply involved still in the “making” of his hand-forged iron sculpture; there is a certain reverence for the craft, for the process. Unlike Yellin, however, Kirili is not primarily a craftsman, nor might he be content to be thought of as only a craftsman. If Yellin’s “marks” have deeply psychological meaning, Yellin was certainly not aware of it, for he was not trying to instill them with such “meaning.” What Kirili the sculptor admires in Yellin’s craftsmanship then, may not arrive in his own work via the same route, for the goal is not the same. Kirili with his “marks” is trying to do what the artist (not necessarily the craftsman) traditionally does: to record, preserve and create the inexpressible in a sensory object. The process by which the individual artist achieves this is almost as elusive as the end product itself. However, it does seem that there are elements of both the unconscious and the conscious when the inexpressible is given expression. I don’t think that Kirili wants necessarily to escape the deliberate (to do this would be, in part, to deny his own personal style), but there are contradictions apparent in his new work, confusion as to how his conscious choices and unconscious, self-revelatory gestures should mesh. For in his attempt to focus on the unconscious, he becomes too self-consciously deliberate.

Many of the distinguishing “marks” of Kirili’s new hand-forged pieces do not seem to be the results of unconscious acts; their existence is central to Kirili’s work, and they appear deliberate. There are five “Vertical” pieces, numbered accordingly, that are simply individual squared poles reaching approximately eight feet in height, the four sides of which are approximately two inches wide. These poles stand slightly elevated from the ground on heavy iron circular or rectangular bases that have been divided equally in their centers and rejoined so that their outside edges (which are circular or rectangular) are askew. The audience’s attention is drawn to the upper parts of these poles (at varying points, some beginning at eye level, some further up), for it is here that Kirili has bent, twisted and melted the poles so that, although they are evidently a continuation of the iron with which the pole is molded, their form (or formlessness) exists in sharp contrast to the squared parts of the poles. Four of these poles standing distanced from one another in the same room are dramatic, but they run the risk of being close to formalist exercise, if not bordering on the contrived, because of the emphatic attention given to the self-conscious juxtaposition of the solid squared pole with the formless mass of iron. There is little that seems the result of the unconscious; even the contortions of the formless iron seem deliberately varied from “Vertical” to “Vertical.”

Along with one of the “Verticals” in another room is Commandment, an intriguing piece which is burdened with its own symbolism. In a sense Commandment is, oddly enough, “about” something; it almost invites interpretation. Commandment consists of twenty-six separate pieces, each approximately a foot high, each consisting of a short pole topped by arcs (or other endowed shapes) resting on small platforms. These poles are arranged several inches apart, in a gridlike pattern so that its outside dimension is almost square, and approximately 10 by 12 feet. The viewer looks down, walks carefully if not timidly around what could be a miniature model for a monument to the dead—the arcs and half-suns resting atop the posts evoking Egyptian life and death symbols. The sculptor’s “marks” take second place to these weighty, culturally locked forms. Still, Commandment does not command; the cultural references are only in the facades. The “message,” if there is one, is unclear.

In two smaller pieces, Chant and Arco, Kirili uses both evocative form and personal “marks” with more ease. The audience does not lose sight of the sculptor’s “marks” in Chant, which is more personal and more haunting than Commandment. Somehow there is more to contemplate, for what is there is done with more intensity, deliberately or not.

If Kirili is a craftsman, he is not always comfortable with the simplicity of his craft. With a piece like Commandment, he is too self-consciously deliberate; perhaps he is attempting to justify the integrity of the self-revelatory “mark.” Surely, a mark that is deeply personal to the artist may not have any effect upon the art audience at all the process must have many variations—but if the audience can impose a constricting category upon a piece too readily, the vitality of audience response ceases. Perhaps if Kirili were less consciously aware of the subconscious, his deliberateness would contain more of the inexplicable.

Joan Casademont