New York

Tom Butter

Grace Borgenicht Gallery

There’s a little bit of everybody in Tom Butter’s new sculpture. First and foremost of all, there’s Eva Hesse—not only because of the use of fiberglass, but also because these seamed cylinders bear a resemblance to her Repetition Nineteen III of 1968—also fiberglass cylinders and, like Butter’s, slightly deformed and dented. Hesse’s were not obviously seamed, but, in fact, two of her other pieces deal almost exclusively with that motif: Seam and Area, both 1968. What’s Butter’s own? The color (both Hesse’s and Butter’s volumes look like the kind of translucent plastic water glasses used in diners, but while Hesse’s are clear, Butter’s are pale versions of the imitation ruby and emerald sort) and the height (his forms are over six feet high, hers are not quite two).

Yet that anthropomorphic size too has been very much on view recently. Think of Rosemarie Castoro’s “flashers” (also slightly crumpled) and Barbara Zucker’s flocked pipes and beams. Indeed, one of the Butter steles boasts flesh-colored blades of fiberglass piercing its top in a manner reminiscent of Zucker’s fans; if her quirky detail looks like a rooster’s comb, his looks like the deracinated teeth of a Woolworth’s comb. Most of the other works are capped as well, by unformed remnants of cloth, waving like pompadours or, more relevantly, like the floppy material remaindered by a hem stitching. I say relevantly because the references to sewing are distinct: still another detail, the jagged edges sticking out from the seams, recall pinking shears. These associations, and Butter’s shapes, bring to mind some of Maureen Connor’s cloth columns in her “Linens” show of almost two years ago. And speaking of columns, columnar is another adjective shared by nearly all of the aforementioned work—to which one might add Bryan Hunt’s waterfalls.

The point of this nitpicking is to show why these tubes work. They are successful because, unlike Ripps’ pieces, they are timely, and for a number of reasons. When a work “clicks” into place, it’s usually because it’s been expected—not in the way one expects the commonplace but in the way one expects the next step in a syllogism, or to use a less dead-ended metaphor, the next permutation in a series. Thus all of the elements in Butter’s sculptures look familiar, are familiar, but they’ve never been arranged in precisely this combination. Luckily for sculptors, sculpture evolves at a much slower rate than painting, probably because there is less of it done, probably because (not so luckily) it’s less saleable. For that reason, too, a new-looking material can still have an impact; fiberglass isn’t new, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen it around, and, thanks to its toxic properties, it was never fully explored.

Then there’s the problem of when the art is seen. No doubt there are artists whose productions conform only to the eccentric strain in American art, and who needn’t worry about the scheduling of their exhibits (if they can get one). Had this one been postponed for too long, however, or immediately preceded by a rash of like-minded work, or had it not put sufficient temporal distance between it and its sources, the sense of fulfilled expectation would have changed into one of déjà vu. That it did not is due partly to savvy and partly, frankly, to just plain chance.

Jeanne Silverthorne