New York

Martin Silverman

Willard Gallery

In Woody Allen’s film Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), the misanthropic painter Frederick (Max von Sydow) exclaims, “Imagine the mentality that watches wrestling [on television],” implying that it is the height of degeneracy. Allen may or may not know that Pablo Picasso had such a “degenerate” mentality; he would turn off the sound and sketch the writhing bodies. So there’s something of a modem tradition for Martin Silverman to step into here with his collection of painted-bronze sumo wrestlers, not to mention the continuation of the physical-fitness theme—the divers and dancers—of his own previous body of work. In this series, the shift to active sumo figures from solitary, still ones effectively recalls the suddenness of moves in sumo itself.

Wrestling has a long tradition as a subject for art. To move randomly through art history, a few early depictions of wrestlers include those decorating the 13th-century cathedrals at Lausanne, Chartres, and Exeter; those on the Middle Kingdom Egyptian tombs at Bani Hasan, which possibly date from 2500 BC; and an Egyptian copper statuette dating from 3000 BC. And, of course, there is the favored-subject status of the Antaeus-and-Hercules match in classical sculpture. Silverman included two sculptures of paired figures, Kailxi vs. Yuji and Toryu vs. Kotogaume, both 1985.

It is partly the time-honored quality of its theme that creates a rather soothing effect in Silverman's new body of work, an intimation of firmly weighted classical poise. The combination of gross physicality and extreme agility in sumo wrestlers themselves, of aggressiveness and genteel reserve in its country of origin (where it became a substitute for combat to the death in leadership squabbles), parallel the process and traditional function of sculpture: its concerns to establish and then transcend mass, its venerable role as commemorator or validator of history, its enshrinement of the power of religion, the state, the empire. Power and sculpture have always courted each other.

On Silverman’s part, there’s a new move away from awkwardness toward an almost beaux-arts conception of finish that reinforces the works’ sense of contrast; he insists on the chunky body of the wrestler, yet greatly refines it through contouring. Some sort of balance of extremes is implied, exemplified by the inclusion here of a single bronze head of a geisha, an emblem of the ritual of beauty offered, no doubt, as a foil to the ritual of strength. Aside from what seem humorous references to Bryan Hunt’s waterfalls in the expressionistic folds and textures of the wrestlers’ loincloths in Hokutenyo, 1985, and Takanosato, 1985, these sculptures are like a momentary pause, mixing the inevitability of le mot juste with the perhaps illusory reassurance of cyclical return in an experience of déjà vu.

Jeanne Silverthorne