New York

Don Gummer

Sperone Westwater Gallery

Like many of the young sculptors who emerged in the late ’70s, Don Gummer mines the possibilities of architecture. Unlike his peers, however, he doesn’t combine architectural forms with narrative or fantasy. What Gummer absorbs from the vocabulary of architecture is its skeletal underpinning; in place of storytelling, he arranges his materials to form what he calls “mental labyrinths.”

Each of the four wall reliefs that were in the gallery’s front room is comprised of three projecting layers of wood slats. Each tier is painted a different color, but is related to the others in matters of proportion, rhythm, and ratio. In Summer Sanctuary, 1983, for example, the tier closest to the wall is a trapezoidal frame with two crossbars; the second or middle tier has four crossbars, while the outermost has six. Once one discovers these rectilinear intervals, one becomes engaged in finding the piece’s other compositional ratios, yet Gummer does not let these ratios dominate our experience. A graceful balance is always maintained between the part-to-part relationship and the overall configuration. The various relationships between the tiers are there as hooks to get us to examine the piece, move around it, view it from the side as well as the front.

In My Palace, 1983, the layering resembles archaeological finds of houses built on the foundations of earlier buildings, often echoing their floor plans but not their placement of windows and doorways. Rather than connecting the tiers through mathematical relationships, Gummer proceeds by intuition, maintaining an innate sense of balance and rhythm. A recurrent motif in Gummer’s wall reliefs is a central enclosure—in Summer Sanctuary an airy cage, in Grand Broadway Villa, 1983, an oval; these enclosures center our experience, offering both starting points and destinations.

Gummer has not only put an extensive knowledge of architecture, archaeology, and recent art at his disposal, but has also thoroughly absorbed Cubism’s structuring of space and Constructivism’s layering. (This awareness of painting should not surprise us, as Gummer, like David Smith, started out as a painter.) Yet none of this knowledge intrudes upon our overall experience. Everything is subsumed into the larger enterprise. Features of these “mental labyrinths” refer to various historical approaches to experiencing sculpture: the illusionism of the shadows cast by the slats, the spatial layering, ratios between part and whole, color and material, and the final configuration. Gummer’s work goes beyond story-telling. He explores the syntactical relationships upon which all narratives are built.

John Yau