New York

Richard Stankiewicz

Zabriskie Gallery

Richard Stankiewicz brought the force of his imagination to bear on reality and during a distinguished thirty-year career created an original body of work which continues to impress. As revealed by this retrospective of reliefs from 1953 to 1981, the artist, who died in 1983, at the age of 60, left a considerable mark on contemporary sculpture.

Stankiewicz took an inherently pictorial and boldly improvisational approach to relief. The frame, that primordial symbol of painting, was a running motif in his art in this mode, turning up in different guises through various periods of the work. In an early iron-and-steel piece from 1955 a large horizontal frame serves as the compositional support for several separate relief elements, which are displayed across it in a rhythmically spaced line. In a group of small works from 1979, each one measuring 6 by 6 inches, Stankiewicz pursues the issue of the frame as mask: thin layers of steel of various sizes and shapes are welded together to suggest a frame that has been opened up, unmasked, to reveal the dangling, sexually suggestive piece inside. Several of Stankiewicz’s most fluid and elegant works from the ’80s are constructed around an open, broken frame, but never does the frame appear as an end in itself. It serves instead to trigger both formal and thematic trains of responses. The recognition of a reference to the frame, a recognition that the viewer of Western art may almost be said to be trained to make automatically, sends thoughts racing to painting, to the function of relief as a medium between painting and sculpture, and to the realization that Stankiewicz both denies and reinforces the illusionistic integrity of the picture plane. Examination of the pictorial qualities of any of his works leads to the discovery of its wonderfully individualistic aspect, the product of his improvisational method.

At the heart of this method lie chance and metamorphosis. Stankiewicz was one of the first sculptors to fully exploit the expressive potential of industrial junk, the nuts and bolts of modern industrial culture that are thrown away to decay once they outlive their usefulness. Even the most hard-nosed constructivist would be pressed to state a convincing case for the beauty of this rusty stuff, but it was Stankiewicz’s special ability to take found things as they were and to transform them, not by cleaning them or altering their appearances, but through assemblage. A powerful artistic control is necessary in this kind of work, and it comes through in the best of Stankiewicz’s works here. One of them is a steel relief from 1963, an assemblage of steel caps, covers, gears, and pipes, welded piece to-piece around a single framing element, a horizontal bar, so that the composition gradually comes off the wall to invade the viewer’s space.The rusty parts may be difficult to identify, but they’re obviously some sort of industrial junk; yet what’s finally engaging about this sculpture, and about many others in the show, is the perception that the whole composition, in the deepest, romantic sense, is an object with presence and even soul. Stankiewicz makes you believe in the reliefs not just as ideas, or critiques of 20th-century materialism and consumerism—which seems to be the concern of much of the conceptually influenced junk based sculpture of the ’80s—but as art.

Ronny Cohen