New York

Sculpture Garden

Ward’s Island

First of all, it’s hard to compete with the freshness of Wave Hill. Secondly, when the genii loci are outcasts, as are the psychiatric patients on Ward’s Island (however pleasant it would be to pretend that visitors to and inmates in these hospital grounds comprise one big family), and when the bucolic aspects of the place itself are overshadowed by the steel girders of the Triborough Bridge and by industrial structures of vague import, you fight a sense of purlieu panic just in visiting the other annual outdoor sculpture show. But, thirdly, when the art does little to capitalize on this edginess and seems tired and predictable to boot, then you’ve plain run out of excuses.

Well, perhaps not quite. Maybe the show is so big (110 sculptures on 122 acres) that, like the art scene in general, there can be only a handful of quality products. Looked at this way, the percentage of interesting work among the serial structures, primitive presences, monolith mommas, and so on, may actually be higher than usual.

Alphabetical would be a tempting order for the list of intriguing pieces, but in fact the better ones tend to cluster—in the “Roman Garden,” for instance, where the weedy ruin of a sunken enclosure is haunted by Penny Kaplan’s pro tem fluted columns and Lisa Roggli’s Henry Moore–like units, which in this site look like fragments of the moon fallen in the most poetically apt spot. Also here, but less obviously related to its situation, is Pedro Lujan’s Robert Walker. It’s a fairly standard cross between Carl Andre timbers and Ree Morton spindliness, the rough ties resting on a centipede of short wooden pins, until you see that the ends of the timbers have been gold-leafed; somehow that raises the whole equation exponentially, maybe because the vulnerability of such a precious, fragile medium to exposure from the elements makes it necessary to fight down a cynical desire to believe it’s really pyrite—surely only an (inspired) fool would squander gold on such a surface, in such a place.

The other cluster of interesting work seems to have been the result of an affinity of temperament among the artists rather than of the fascination exerted by a particular spot. Associative—that’s the descriptive adjective common to Rosemarie Castoro’s black-cloth-wrapped structures (with the frisson of people-sized spiders), Barbara Zucker’s luminous-paint-and-wood Another Try at a Night Piece, and Helene Brandt’s Gazebo. This last combines the futuristic shape of a space capsule with the old-fashioned look of wicker to create a summerhouse/cage.

Elsewhere there are sporadic flashes—not all the signs of life huddle together for comfort. As they say at the Academy Awards, there are more than can be mentioned here, but let me thank a few: Patricia Branstead for her eccentrically shaped hunks of concrete wall, complete with spiky reinforcing rods and fresco colors; Merle Temkin for her Walk-Thru arbor of mirrored strips, with its strobe-light-quick alternations of nature real and nature reflected, foresight and hindsight; and Michael Finklestein for Al and Flo, a steel abstraction that starts out knotty but ends up lyrical.

One of the impediments to going on with this roll call is a certain difficulty in linking pieces with owners. There are passages where the map provided is inadequate or just plain wrong. There’s no sense making the show more selective—its unpredictability is part of the fun, and besides, it’s nice to see that good work isn’t done only by those with “names.” But wouldn’t it be better if next year the visitors didn’t get lost?

Jeanne Silverthorne