New York

John Duff

McKee Gallery

John Duff’s new enamel and fiberglass wall sculptures are among the most esthetically exquisite, precious work I’ve seen in a while. Some are abstract columns, the majority of which are wall-mounted, as in Ladder and Pale Madder Cone (both 1992) and sometimes freestanding, as in Translucent Column, 1992. Other works, such as Study for Double Fountain, 1990, and Black Floor Piece, 1992, while grounded and relatively flat, can be read as columnar slices elaborated as autonomous forms. The works are united by their curvilinearity, but they are not simply exercises in it. Duff’s acknowledgment of his sources in such titles as White Shield and the shield-like Mongolian Hat (both 1992) indicates that these pieces are fraught with esoteric, and finally spiritual, meaning. Single-Track Solomonic Column, 1992, its spiral reminiscent of the columns of Bernini’s Baldachin in St. Peter’s, 1624–33, makes the point succinctly: they are sacred objects. Form follows spiritual function, as it were, lending a man-made material a significance it would otherwise never have.

It should be noted that the columns of Solomon’s destroyed temple spiraled upward toward heaven. St. Peter’s, the temple of the “new dispensation,” confirms Rome as the new Jerusalem—the heavenly city on earth. The spiral has always been the difficult, ironic path to heaven, indeed, the “root” of the deconstructed “spiritual.” Do Duff’s columns and his other, more obviously emblematic shields and standards indicate his unconscious longing for a new spirituality—a third dispensation, as it were? His columns and shields seem to await their place in a third temple.

Duff uses fiberglass in a completely different way than Eva Hesse did. Where she exploited its molten possibilities to achieve an effect of random expression and involuted pathos, Duff finds delicate transcendence in its icy luminosity, often giving it colored tones that make the fiberglass seem as soft as the tones appear, however inflexible it actually is. We have gone from militant gesture to elevated sensibility, from operatic staging to the intimacy of chamber music, from flamboyant groupings to discrete objects, from the blatant, assertive, and expansive to the subtle, understated, and spare. Are Duff’s sculptures a retrenchment, or are they a sign that the esthetic—with its subliminal spiritual import—remains a necessary horizon for art? The latter, I think.

The fusion of the esthetic and the spiritual (that is, the discovery of the spiritual within the esthetic, the evocation of the spiritual through the esthetic) remains an incomplete Modernist project. “Reductivist” abstraction “represents” the invisible by pushing at the limits of the visible—reducing it to the fundamentals of color and form. Elementary markers of visibility, they—as much as the burning bush and pillar of smoke—can function, paradoxically, as unexpected manifestations and reminders of invisibility. With a minimum of geometry and color, Duff’s cryptic, elusive sculpture, deceptively simple in appearance and construction like all good reductivist abstraction, makes clear that the transformation of visible, sensuous material to evoke the immaterial, invisible, and transcendent remains a viable artistic goal.

Donald Kuspit