New York

John Duff

Blum Helman Gallery

I associate fiberglass with John Duff in much the same way that steel and David Smith are, in my mind, inextricably linked. Like Smith, Duff has taken a contemporary industrial material and transformed it into a sculptural material. Duff’s accomplishments and influence were among the most profound to emerge in the late 1960s. More than anticipating the concerns of many younger sculptors who emerged during the last decade, his work showed and continues to show a way past the two most widely sanctioned sculptural approaches—Minimalism’s obsession with holistic presence and the Constructivist/assemblagist use of improvisation and found materials.

Duff is the only sculptor I know who is unafraid of making work that is awkward and vulnerable. This is all the more impressive because he accomplishes these possibilities without trying to be heroic. In contrast to many contemporary painters, he does not appeal to the viewer’s sympathy by connecting awkwardness with sincerity and vulnerability with heroism. In works such as Red Queen and Marlin Blue, both 1985, the sculptor develops an unresolved relationship between the wall and the object. There is something clunky and even homely about the way these works are attached to the wall while hanging in space. Yet their clunkiness is essential to their identity. At the same time, the painterly surface, which ranges from delicate to rough, works both with and in counterpoint to the rumpled surface.

Figural in scale and verticality, Red Queen and Marlin Blue stretch our perceptions by being complete in a way that’s incomplete, and vice versa. This tension is difficult to accomplish, but Duff seems to do so effortlessly. Consequently, the viewer is confronted by sculptures that assert their identity without establishing a reference either to something specific or to a sanctioned style. They do not empty content out the way Minimalism did, but convey an indelible presence. They do not, in other words, look like something else, nor do they allude to such familiar narratives as science fiction, archaeology, nature, or post-Modernist or formalist criticism.

The spaces Duff's sculptures open up in our perceptions are not ones we should close, but places to explore. These pieces are evidence that such spaces still exist, despite much of contemporary criticism’s attempts to prove otherwise. The work challenges the rigid belief that all experience is available to discursive language. Rather than give us answers, they compel us to ask questions.

John Yau