New York

Keith Sonnier

Barbara Gladstone Gallery; Leo Castelli Gallery

This doubleheader was a genuine tour de force: at Barbara Gladstone, Keith Sonnier showed his earliest sculptures, which date back to the mid ’60s, and at Leo Castelli, new works. The differences in material and methods are startling. The early works are invariably of soft material (satin, cheesecloth, latex, rubber, flocking) used in a seemingly casual, innocent way, while the later works, of steel and fluorescent light, have a militant high-tech look. The times have indeed changed, but the principle is the same: constructivism in search of a wider expressive resonance. The “feminine sensibility” (remember that?) of Sonnier’s early works has been much noted, while the later works have been said to be more masculine. These categories obscure what they mean to reveal: the early works have an inviting tactile quality that suggests intimacy, while the later works are more bluntly physical—their gleaming metal and fluorescent lights put us off. All of Sonnier’s sculptures have the elusive look of ritual objects. In Between, 1968, gives off an incandescent light; a soft glow that bathes the later work continues the idea, if not quite the reality of touch.

Sonnier has a rare sensibility: he uses the resources of modern technology for private emotional ends. This has been connected to his Arcadian background in Louisiana. But he is dealing with larger issues, not simply transmuting Southern sensations into relaxed materials and soft luminosity. His sculpture implicitly acknowledges the difficulty of generating a sense of irreducible personal being in an increasingly technologized world. By “irreducible” I mean a quality that endures beyond the signature look, which quickly dissipates, leaving us with dead material. In Western culture the sense of the personal is constantly being reinvented; it is an inconvenient illusion in a world of efficiency, but it is also felt to be necessary if life is to seem more than a case study in survival. Whatever his work is about stylistically—it is Minimalist in orientation—Sonnier creates the sense of personalizing his material. Whatever that might finally mean, it initially means that his sculptures signal corporeality. The early material suggests a kind of skin; in the later works, the ambiguously lush and delicate light brings a robotic body to youthful life. Indeed, previous constructions have been read as surreal bodies. I think Sonnier is trying to evoke a sense of the mysterious organic through the unmysterious mechanical. He makes explicit efficiency into enigma, which is one way of generating a sense that the world is more personal than it looks.

Donald Kuspit