New York

Richard Stankiewicz

Zabriskie Gallery

By the time of his death last year, Richard Stankiewicz’s sculpture had long secured a place in postwar American art. By age he was between the first generation of New York School sculptors, as personified by David Smith, and the second, as personified by John Chamberlain, Donald Judd, et al. But Stankiewicz’s esthetic put him somewhere to the side of the main developments in sculpture of the past 35 years. Although he was among the best of the period’s welder assemblagists, he only sometimes overcame the distractingly literal connotations of his chosen medium. More often than not, he seemed unwilling to master the formulaic surrealism inherent in the additive objet trouvé. This show, an abbreviated overview of work from 1951 to 1981, inadvertently made this point more than once.

An untitled piece from 1951 set the show’s revelatory tone. Delicately small, a thin, airy, attenuation of plaster, string, wire, and pearl buttons, this eccentric and highly drawn assemblage shows Stankiewicz’s early and distinct compositional touches. It suggests an awareness of Alexander Calder, as well as of European work from the ’30s; these were the twin roots for all that the artist was to make. In the long run he seems to have had greater empathy with the former than with the latter, and, as much of the work here evinced, he decidedly lacked Calder’s magically transformative powers. Unlike Calder, of course, Stankiewicz worked with found objects, and so began with forms that signify more heavily than Calder’s, chains and other mechanical parts figuring prominently among them. The most overtly figurative pieces included in this show, for example Chain People, 1960, never get beyond a not very intriguing compilation of body-scaled junk stacked up or draped over an anthropomorphically skeletal structure. The work from the ’50s staggers under even more trite allusions—to insects, birds, plant forms. The worst (or best) of these have a Dr. Seuss zaniness about them, but the rest are painfully apologetic of their abstract origins and aspirations. Nonetheless, these are the sculptures that made Stankiewicz’s considerable reputation right from the time of his first shows.

My preference was for two related untitled works from 1960, each roughly 3 by 3 by 3 feet. In both, Stankiewicz constructs space by means of point-to-point connections between cylindrical volumes or curved planes. The classically Hans Hofmannesque push-pull composition of the pieces rendered them the most ambitious of the groups here. That Stankiewicz could so persuasively incorporate such elements as the discarded gas tanks he uses in these sculptures into his work makes his tacit compromise with the instant archaeological overtones of the found objects elsewhere all the more intolerable. Seen in the company of the earliest small sculptures and the large, gyrating Kabuki Dancer, 1954, these two pieces hint at the peculiarly fluid and complex spatial values Stankiewicz could achieve.

The stark beauty of the Guggenheim Museum’s Untitled, 1975, three cylindrical volumes stacked askew on a diagonal cylinder atop a base, shows the purification and reconstitution Stankiewicz’s work enjoyed after a stay in Australia in 1969. While there he made a series of pieces from precast industrial elements, many of them utilizing I-beams and other such “neutral” components. Not all of what followed was of comparable strength to the Guggenheim piece, but it was all a significant move away from junk nostalgic for a paradise of the subconscious toward junk at home in the present.

Richard Armstrong