New York

“Developments In Recent Sculpture”

This show looked at the ’70s, the decade of pluralism, with works by Lynda Benglis, Scott Burton, Donna Dennis, John Duff, and Alan Saret. All of the artists belong to the generation that reacted against Minimalism, hitting it where it hurt the most: where Minimalism said that sculpture should be abstract and regular in shape—think of Donald Judd’s boxes or Carl Andre’s squares—Lynda Benglis said that sculpture could be abstract and wildly irregular. Where Minimalism said that it was all right for sculpture to have and to stress the qualities of objects and things, Scott Burton said that sculpture could look and function like a specific class of objects, like furniture. In other words, each of the artists here offers a strong and highly distinctive statement of sculpture—one that both rejects and retains certain aspects of Minimalism. Such double-edged references abound in the fiberglass and steel works of John Duff (which, given their symmetrical, abstract shapes, appear the most Minimalist of the group) and in the architectural constructions of Donna Dennis and the wire clusters of Alan Saret (none of which, owing to their theatrical and evocative qualities, appear Minimalist). What’s not Minimalist about Duff is the emphasis on individual qualities in each piece, the evidence of personal touch, while what’s Minimalist about both Dennis and Saret are the emphases on process and presentation.

The show, curated by Richard Marshall, unfolded artist by artist in a series of mini-retrospectives, each of which focused attention on the artist’s development. In the cases of Benglis, Duff, and Burton, the task of assessing developments led directly to consideration of their influences on and connections to the currently emerging artists of the ’80s. Benglis’ work, which here included poured and cast lead floor pieces and three-dimensional plastic wall sculptures from the early and mid ’70s along with gold leaf and mixed-media reliefs from the late ’70s, reveals interests in a wide range of materials, including industrial ones, and modes of presentation that bring out the emotive potential in forms that combine pictorial and constructive properties. What separates the Benglis work of the ’70s from, say, the freestanding fiberglass constructions of Tom Butter or the colored polyester reliefs of Nancy Arlen (both from the ’80s) are issues of scale and specificity. Differences in scale and image qualities also distinguish Duff’s curved-wedge fiberglass reliefs as ’70s work and, for example, Richard Beckett’s encaustic reliefs as ’80s work. Burton’s importance to the current crop of young sculptors/furniture makers was revealed by the display of his chairs and chair-and-table ensembles, which are loaded in every case with the multiple references to art and culture currently in vogue. Burton’s most recent works, the “Granite Chairs,” 1978–81, were among the show’s highlights. Emanating a pyramidlike weight and gravity and a formal generality appropriate to Minimalism, these sharp-edged forms have the kind of specific and high-profile good looks that scream ’80s.

What this show left viewers with was evidence that the 70’s, far from being a period of decline for modernism, as some defenders of the pure Minimalist faith and the avant-garde would have us believe, was a period of serious experimentation, the importance of which will, for my money, be demonstrated by the progress of the ’80s.

Ronny H. Cohen