New York

“Bronze: Sculpture in the Landscape”

Again the eternal—in nature, in the material of art; theoretically, the two came together in this important exhibition, which summarized a decade-long critique of the Modern tradition that allows the use of common, corruptible material in sculpture. Apart from the wood in Louise Bourgeois’ juggernaut—and it is the heavy-duty, “industrialized” wood of the giant spools on which cable is wound—every sculpture here was self-immortalized in bronze, that traditionally ennobling metal. There was no work that did not benefit from the transformation, no work not made more decisive by the decision to go the durable route. Indeed, one of the recognitions here was the appropriateness of the sense of permanence to the three-dimensional object; the feeling of constancy more than compensates for the consequent loss of familiarity. Bronze gives whatever is depicted a carrying power independent of its meaning, a positive presence that does not diminish what is represented but sets it at a distance. The work, then, becomes peculiarly self-alienated; its “vision” seems at odds with the material that embodies it, yet without that material the vision comes to seem paltry. Every one of these works succeeds in overcoming its self-alienation, however, for we come to realize that the eternal material forces what is eternal in the theme to the surface.

This is surely what is conveyed in J. Seward Johnson, Jr.’s couple sleeping in the Great Outdoors, Marisol’s Mark Twain and accompanying animal monsters, Jud Nelson’s Hefty 2-Ply, and Lucas Samaras’ Chair with One Figure, a sort of gargoyle stuck on a mundane plane. It is not simply that Johnson and Nelson give us works whose precise realistic detail is in the Zeuxisean tradition of illusionistic deception, or that Marisol and Samaras reveal the mundane mutated by the unconscious into the surrealistically marvelous, but that all four make their representations all the more uncanny by ennobling them in absolute material. The pieces gain in trenchancy and depth, and while their immediacy becomes homeless in the eternal, it also becomes freshly intelligible and powerful. The miracle of bronze is that it gives whatever it has preserved inner as well as outer “necessity.”

Bourgeois’ Shredder, Bryan Hunt’s evasively monumental, eccentric Terre Haute, Barry Flanagan’s Large Leaping Hare, Martin Silverman’s Vengeance, and Herk Van Tongeren’s Teatro XI seem appropriately metaphysical in their implications for bronze pieces. They deal with “extreme situations,” forms or events that seem on the verge of the incredible. In the Johnson, Marisol, Nelson, and Samaras works the ordinary, or slightly extraordinary, seems pushed toward metaphysical statement by the bronze; but Flanagan’s human-sized idol on its abstract pyramidal—approximately Mayan—pedestal, Van Tongeren’s splayed geometrical props moving up an inclined plane to an ambiguously tiered arch, Bourgeois’ runover figure, victim of a surrealist accident, Silverman’s archaic, allegorical hero locked in mortal combat with an evil bird, and Hunt’s elusively naturalistic archway (ropes of cascading water, the catalogue says) to an unknown world are profound themes in themselves. The bronze confirms rather than uncovers their profundity. Indeed, the change in subject matter—the return to certain traditions of representation—these pieces involve goes hand in hand with the change in material—the return to a traditional, durable medium—they are also involved in.

Mary Frank’s Sundial with Horse and Sundial, John Duff’s Wave Hill Piece, and Isaac Witkin’s Linden Tree drew attention to another important aspect of the exhibition: its landscape setting. Wave Hill is one of the few places in New York where one can forget the city’s mercilessly urban character; one is in a spacious nature, all the more idyllic and tonic for being well tended. All the pieces interacted with their environment, but the Frank, Duff, and Witkin pieces did so in a particularly direct way, as if they sought to be mistaken for unusually dense and eccentric aspects of it. Not just nature but also its permanence were evoked by these pieces, a sense of permanence synthesizing with that conveyed by the bronze to arouse in us a sense of the sacred. A good deal of the sculpture shows signs of human touch—Hunt’s painterliness, Silver-man’s use of hatching and gouging, Duff’s grainy texture, Samaras’ finger imprints—and at the same time avoids signs of its construction. This too contributes to a sense of the sacred, for it suggests the permanence of the human presence, if only as a certain kind of marking of the natural environment. However narratively inclined many of these pieces are, their importance as a whole is that they remind us of one of sculpture’s pre-Modern purposes: the exploration of the possibility of permanence that seems to lurk in nature. Bronze implies a belief in the constancy, and so sanctity, of our condition, whatever its complexity. It separates the symbolic from the creaturely side of the natural, leaving the latter, whether consciously or unconsciously experienced and articulated, as the shell of a possibility and hope.

Donald Kuspit