New York

Cristopher Wilmarth

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

Christopher Wilmarth was a master of what might be called expressive Minimalism, in that he searched for subjective resonance without surrendering to any predetermined sense of the subjective. In Wilmarth’s sculpture, elementary geometrical shapes—usually flat rectangular planes of glass and steel, in various combinations—possess a surface intonation that makes them seem endowed with an indwelling, unnamable, brooding aura. The central issue of expressive Minimalism is the restoration of aura—not as a spiritual radiance emerging from the object, but as a material radiance that seems to drop steeply into it, as though its material were an abyss and the aura its emanation.

Indeed, color seems to emanate from, as well as inhabit, Wilmarth’s glass, as in Nine Clearings for a Standard Man #6, 1973. In several works, particularly those that utilize the oval shape, light permeates the glass, which becomes simultaneously transparent and opaque. This impacted light, which has something of both the deep sea and the open sky about it, was Wilmarth’s real subject matter. Chiaroscuro is a constant of his art. Sometimes, as in his various “drawings” with cable or other linear materials, the surface is both penetrated and drawn upon—simply divided or “mapped” in a schematic way that gives it an aura of latent complexity. It is as though the idea of the grid is sidestepped while being acknowledged. Wilmarth also etched his glass, making the lines seem an inevitable part of it.

Wilmarth often utilized standard rust to give his surfaces elegiac interest and nuance, but this made his works all too matter-of-factly expressive. No doubt the combination of rusted steel and atmospheric glass plate that appears in many works—Street Leaf (Mayaguez), 1978-86, is a major example—creates a subtle tension, but still the rust seems too predictable. The work becomes perceptually unbalanced, one-sided—interest tips to the glass. Balance is an important part of Wilmarth’s work, but it sometimes seems a gratuitious effect because of the tendency to downplay the familiar rust.

The attempt to merge the two- and three-dimensional, generating a new sense of the transcendent “thereness” of the object, is a standing ambition of 20th-century art. Wilmarth gave it new passion and sublimity and clarified its import. He seemed to want to sum up the whole soul in an object that is, in effect, a materialized dense sigh. Wilmarth’s works subliminally convey the transcience and poignancy of that sigh; they become an echo of deep reflection and interiority. Indeed, they articulate time in their textures and in the shifts within their structures; the tension between rust and light, for instance, reflects the different atmospheres of time and timelessness. In Wilmarth’s last incommunicado works (Do Not Go Gently and Self-Portrait with Sliding Light, both 1987) the sense of self and of time fuse, become inseparable, and the sense of time that is implicit in the self becomes increasingly explicit. These pieces maintain a formal , all-over sense of structural completeness and coherence, while being internally disintegrated. Each broken part has its own poetic, even dramatic, integrity. Nothing is lost or left to chance.

Donald Kuspit