New York

“The Third Dimension: Sculpture of the New York School”

Whitney Museum of American Art

This was one of those artist-influencing shows that will probably result in an adaptive, Lamarckian revival of Abstract Expressionist sculpture. At the same time, its delicious aroma of rightness derived in part from a highly developed olfactory capacity to sniff what’s in the air: as organizer Lisa Phillips implied by including in the catalogue photographs of works by Mel Kendrick, Nancy Graves, and Bryan Hunt, some return to an abstract but antiminimal sculpture has already begun. Until this show, however, when one looked around for what hadn’t been curatorially anchored into place this chunk of the past floated loose. Seymour Lipton, Ibram Lassaw, Theodore Roszak, and Herbert Ferber represented one of the few schools remaining to be retrieved from limbo. It was inevitable that somebody would do this show, then, but the glory rightly belongs to Phillips since she coorganized a survey of the same subject at the Whitney Downtown in 1979, long before this moment of historical imperative.

Although the opportunity to see pieces so long out of the public eye would alone make one grateful for this exhibition, its elements were intelligently orchestrated to maximize effect—even down to the subtle matching of incidental details with the period, from the flecked walls to the flesh-pink and aquatones of the catalogue cover. As one moved deeper into the U-shaped set of five rooms the work arguably got correspondingly more inward, the rooms more cloistered, until at the most interior or deepest point of the U, the third and fourth rooms in the sequence, the walls had darkened and the floors been padded with purple plush. Among other works in the third room were Louise Nevelson’s Tender Being, 1956, and Black Majesty, 1955, and Louise Bourgeois’ One and Others, 1955, and Mortise, 1950. Through other works in this room the installation argued for an equation of the figural and the introspective that also held for the fourth room, which was full of anthropomorphic totems as well—including David Smith’s Tanktotem IV, 1953, and Richard Stankiewicz’s Kabuki Dancer, 1956. Despite their similarity, the two rooms disagreed over the terms of human existence. The lone columnar sculptures of room four embraced an existentialist isolation, though one not necessarily poised on the brink. Their humor allied them less to anxiety than to the absurd. The sculptures of room three, on the other hand, were groupings or were otherwise embedded in social context, like Gabriel Kohn’s tacklike “presence” on a chair. (One of the few disappointments was that more components of Nevelson’s The Forest environment, 1957, could not be included; the meaning of a stele like Tender Being is syntactical.) Bourgeois’ Mortise virtually demonstrates "fitting in”—it is a stack of wooden blocks secured with mortise and tenon in the mutuality of guest and host or prisoner and stock. Centered in the room, a symbol of the general articulation, was David Hares The Dinner Table, 1950, its literally highly strung construction a reflection of the theme of the nightmare web of social relations.

With room five, which seemed to concentrate on engineering feats, we were abruptly in the bright, bare, spacious realm, on the polished parquet floor, of the rational. Moreover, John Chamberlain’s Johnnybird, 1959, George Sugarman’s Yellow Top, 1960, and Mark di Suverds Che Faro Senza Eurydice, 1959, brought us also into the light of the relative present, less tenebrous because not yet forgotten. Works stretched, balanced, squashed, unfolded, and limbered up; one would say they disported acrobatically but for the fact that they were emphatically not humanly referred. They shared the ambitions of suspension bridges to extend horizontally and vertically, without obvious support, through a system of tensile checks and balances—in fact, Sugarman’s Six Forms in Pine, 1959, spans two long separated pedestals. This mood matched that of the first room, in which the constructions were overwhelmingly more linear but still were obsessed with structural engineering. Wire and string dominated; Lassaw’s and Ferber’s roofed but open and gridded compositions were typical. Thus whether one took the righthand tip of the U on entering the exhibition or the left, as I did, the procession through the rooms provided similar experiences.

It was the second room, however, that was most riveting. Seen as a prologue to the figural works further on, this was a last outpost before entering the brooding heart of darkness; if one took the rooms in the reverse order, it was a postcatastrophic return to prehistory. In any case, this aviary of “apocalyptic birds” was a small essay in itself. It was where the real rediscoveries were concentrated—Roszak, Lipton, and Ferber—and their impact partly resulted from their high contrast with the rest of the show, thanks to their combination of imagistic suggestiveness and relative unfamiliarity. Other recovered artists who were emphasized elsewhere in the installation—Lassaw, for example, or even Ferber on occasion—seemed less surprising because their small model environments were reminiscent of the glut of such architectural presentations both during the Bauhaus and in the ’70s. Another factor in the freshness of Roszak, Lipton, and the Ferber work in the second room was the incidence of interior event, of mini episode located physically within the maxi episode of the sculpture, a development of Henry Moore’s “pregnant” biomorphisms. This nesting, subsequently dropped from sculptors’ vocabulary, along with the works’ extreme tactility of surface and strongly metaphoric associations, is both forgotten enough and close enough to contemporary interests to provide practical inspiration.

Jeanne Silverthorne