New York

Jake Grossberg

Neo Persona

Jake Grossberg belongs to the generation of sculptors who began working in steel during the late ’50s. In contrast to his peers, however, he did not adhere to a strictly formalist esthetic. He avoided the Minimalists’ reductive response to David Smith’s late work and was less concerned with the idea of an individual work presenting discrete views than with the abstract representation of natural forms. This interest in pictorialism led Grossberg to deal with some of the same problems that Smith wrestled with in the ’40s. During the ’60s and ’70s, Grossberg welded steel plates and tubing together to evolve a wittily ironic sign system that referred to, among other things, waterfalls, flowers, and mountains. Then, in the early ’80s, he began reexamining the conventions underlying sculpture and painting while continuing to focus on nature as a source for both images and forms.

Entitled “Hudson River Romance,” Grossberg’s recent exhibition consisted of two groups of wall pieces: constructions of steel and painted wood, and “drawings” made primarily of thin forged-steel rods. His ambition, which is suggested by the exhibition’s title, is a reconsideration of the pictorial and sculptural conventions associated with the American landscape tradition, from the Hudson River School to David Smith. Each work in the first group presents a different configuration of elements representing clouds, light, and river (all of wood) and trees (steel). In Sunset, 1987, for example, the gradations of the sky from orange to blue are painted on two interlocking cloudlike shapes, while an inverted V made of steel extends one of its legs behind the “clouds” and the other in front of them. An undulating piece of blue-painted wood and a wooden right angle painted yellow echo both the “clouds” and the steel V. In these works, Grossberg conflates references to early Modernist sculpture (Arp’s clouds), Frederick Church’s transcendental views, different modes of depiction and abstraction, and the various roles that geometry has played in 20th-century art.

The forged-steel pieces or “drawings,” as Grossberg calls them, are both more evocative and more successful than the constructions of steel and painted wood. They shift easily and gracefully between linear depiction and calligraphic gesture without ever settling into either realm. This shifting quality mirrors the world of clouds, rain, and wind evoked by the sculptures. The twisted and bent rods go from contours containing forms to arabesques embodying direction and motion. Through his process of discovering forms, rhymes, and allusions, Grossberg is able to reclaim nature from its historicized conventions. In doing so, he revitalizes a Modernist practice with considerable wit and élan. The forged-steel “drawings” embody a vision of the world in constant flux. Grossberg makes us aware of the ceaseless motion that surrounds us by directing our attention to what is on the wall. Nature is brought inside.

John Yau

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