New York

Willard Boepple

Acquavella Contemporary Art

During the ’70s Willard Boepple made sculptures from welded steel, cutting, bending, tearing, and, finally, arranging shapes in formally complex configurations. The works were based in a structural rhetoric by which spatial frameworks were built from counterpoints of rhyming and discordant parts. Some articulated inner space, stressing the century’s great sculptural discovery, while others were constructions of massed planes that accented solid rather than void. But all were allied by their internal complexity, favoring part-to-part over simple relations in the manner of the Bennington School. Indeed, Boepple and his colleagues were grouped in a kind of academy, billed as the third generation working with welded steel.

The problem with these works lay in their fixation on the formalist program of sculptural autonomy, a course which, once its axioms had been stated by Anthony Caro, offered little fruitful elaboration. The roundelay of shapes related to corresponding shapes might yield, in one instance, an “interesting” structure, or else works that tested the capacities of steel or expanded the repertory of forms. But the rhetoric was tired from its origins and depended on a misreading of sculptural Modernism, whose mission was to use spatial structure for spatial comment, linking inner and outer worlds. Instead Boepple seemed content to reinforce, through extension, a tradition whose premises were academic.

That problem adheres to Boepple’s recent works, all based on a linear format in which angled struts are joined like tripods at 8- or 9-foot heights. Most seem concerned with animating their interiors through swaths of steel placed in flat or bowed arrangements, and with setting up rhythms in surrounding space by protruding ribs. Occasionally Boepple indulges in dialectical plays, opposing frontal planes to space-defining structures; often he indulges in illusionistic games, working his surfaces with pictorial flourishes in the manner of David Smith. And these works are not without visual charm, or formal virtuosity, as with Luff, 1981, where the web of inner tensions yields different views from every angle, thus fully declaring its spatial state. But basically Boepple’s sculptures are like exercises. They cover common ground, define spaces already defined, and make attenuated formal points unsharpened by purpose. Their decorative effects show the tradition’s late Mannerist phase, indicating an impoverished, inner-directed language which fails to examine its terms.

Kate Linker