New York

Robert Lobe

Willard Gallery

Giving form to process has been one of the central problems of sculpture since at least the late ’60s. Robert Lobe’s work of the past few years, aluminum sheets hammered around preexistent things like trees and large rocks to assume their shape and volume, deftly solves it. Ironically, Lobe was one of the young New York–based artists (mostly sculptors) to participate in the landmark 1969 exhibition “Anti-Illusion: Procedure/Materials,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, a show which in effect institutionalized process work. Lobe’s pieces in that show were constructivist-oriented floor objects which played sinuously tangled cord off diagonals of interconnected wood strips. Visits to Ireland during the ’70s seem to have impressed on him the sculptural potential of natural as opposed to imaginary forms, and he has been fashioning these hollow metal things ever since.

The show brought together nine pieces (as well as a model for a large installation at one of Buffalo’s new rapid-transit stations) that collectively display two advances. The first is in the range of color and finish made available to Lobe by his new use of aluminum alloys and anodizations. Secondly, his recent adoption of a power-driven hammer has greatly speeded up the requisite working time per piece as well as producing a more finely, palpably indented surface. The thin-gauge aluminum sheets now seem more thoroughly tamed and fully nuanced. Lobe’s decision to work on a smaller scale in many of these recent pieces reinforces this impression. The giant clumps of rocky scenery in his last show have for the most part given way to contained wall-bound vignettes. Even the four floor pieces here emphasize the upright drawing of the partial tree trunks rather than the implied mass of the boulders. The effect is simultaneously more pictorial and, curiously, often more abstract.

A Nice Start and a Rotten Finish, 1983, was the grandest piece included; in it, two tree forms rise up in contraposto from a rocky mound. The metal’s dark reddish tint enhances a naturalist reading of the piece. Similarily the gritty finish of Fur House, 1983, a large wall relief of two stacked horizontal boulders joined at the right by the twisted trunk of a sapling, amplifies its stoniness. These are the prime works in which Lobe’s old depictions are concentric with his newly colored materials, but more ambiguous, nearly abstract formations abounded here; the tinfoil shine of one untitled wall piece all but eclipses its origins as a young double-trunked tree crowding into a rock sheet, while its ragged bottom lends it an air of motion, as if the metal had been poured rather than hammered.

Related kinesthetic effects appear in two other wall reliefs, a small dark green untitled piece from 1984, and the larger Slow Digestion, 1983. The latter, anodized to a dark blue/purple hue, almost suggests an animal: a muscular tree trunk, chopped slightly above ground level, spreads around and grasps an amorphously shaped mound of earth or rocks. Again, a ragged lower edge cavorts across the bottom, revealing the illusory volume and contradicting the static mass above it. The green piece goes even farther in denying its sources: here the rock-and-tree combination looks positively airborne.

Richard Armstrong