Omaha

George Sugarman

Joslyn Art Museum

Pedestals lift and protect sculptures, guarding them from the clumsy and the clumsy from them. But pedestals, besides signaling “beware” or “look,” tend to enforce a false unity. Why must sculpture, unlike life, be so self-contained? Beginning in the early ’60s, sculpture came down off its pedestal. Some give credit to Anthony Caro for this move; a rougher, more dramatic, and perhaps more influential leap was accomplished almost simultaneously by a yet-underacknowledged American, George Sugarman. Doing away with the pedestal and its traditional distancing may have been a notion whose time had come; sculpture needed more space. Suggestions of endlessness, whether mathematical and geometrical as in Minimalism or organic as in Sugar-man’s bright sprawls, needed room. When Minimalism emerged—removing the statues and leaving their pedestals at center stage, as wits of the time put it—Sugarman had already been exploring “depedestalization” on his own. According to the chronology in the show’s catalogue, Sugarman did his first “floor sculpture” in 1953.

This retrospective, including such works as the unpainted Six Forms in Pine, 1959, the masterful polychrome “field” sculptures of the mid-’60s, outdoor works in metal, and the more recent collage reliefs, made it clear that Sugarman is due for a re-evaluation. Seeing Sugarman’s Inscape, 1964, and Two in One, 1966, again—Inscape with its loopy, chainlike sprawl and Two in One with its V-like lineup of lyrical forms—was a reminder of how adventurous Sugarman’s inventiveness was, how daring and ahead of its time. These two floor sculptures in particular now have the look of masterpieces. What happened? Did the artist, already in his fifties then and with a Carnegie Prize under his belt, not have the right art dealers, the right critical backing? It is still amazing that neither piece is on permanent display in a major museum. Yet one suspects that this benign or notso-benign neglect was caused by nothing more conspiratorial than an unaccepting hegemony of taste. In the ’60s the strictly geometric was having its day; Sugarman’s forms are usually curvaceous, squiggly, and jazzy.

To make matters worse—or, in retrospect, better—Sugarman painted his laminated wood forms with smooth skins of bright color, “truth to materials” be damned. Not only was Sugarman a pioneer of depedestalization, he was also a pioneer of the reintroduction of polychrome sculpture. He did not paint the disparate forms of his floor sculptures a unifying monochrome, but instead used a bright and varied palette to separate the components of his scattered lineups and tense romps across the floor. He was also able to free sculpture from its bias toward the upright figure, proposing instead a kind of Stuart Davis landscape of intuitively related but not always joined forms. There is nothing insouciant or lax about his handling of horizontal space, as often happened when Minimalism branched out or off into so-called anti-form piles and spreads of unadulterated or mixed materials. Sugarman’s sculptural components—partial progressions, sinewy lumps, alphabets of color—are held together by arbitrary acts of will and an elusive logic which escapes analysis yet energizes and enlivens an area that is more a zone or a place than a negative space.

In the ’70s Sugarman shifted gears, abandoned wood, and began to work on outdoor metal sculptures. Some years from now, will these look as advanced, by virtue of hindsight, as his floor sculptures do now? Sugarman’s work is sometimes seen as a predecessor of the new Decorative Art, but, more important in the long run, he is an artist who has remained above fads and fashions—committed to his own explorations, whether or not they coincide with larger trends. Not everything he has ever made is entirely “successful”; the awkwardness of some works can be hard to take, but it makes his struggle visible. It is very difficult indeed to make something that is not like anything seen before, yet several times Sugarman has managed to do just this.

Apparently Sugarman considers himself a formalist, which is an odd self-designation for someone whose works are so exuberant and sometimes witty, sometimes poetic. Perhaps, in trying to come to grips with Sugarman’s “formalism,” we will have to redefine this usually deadening term. Form that denies reference to figuration may have its own music—isn’t that its goal?—but everyone knows that music, although abstract, has meaning.

John Perreault