New York

Tony Smith/Christopher Willmarth

Hirschl & Adler Galleries

Over the past decade, a handful of historians and critics have reexamined Minimalism, investigating the technological, political, and cultural factors that lay behind its hard-edged geometries. They have reevaluated individual careers as well as the nature of a “movement” based solely on visual and stylistic similarities.

Tony Smith and Christopher Wilmarth were friends and colleagues; Wilmarth worked briefly as Smith’s studio assistant, and he is sometimes referred to as the more well-known artist’s protégé. Yet the works they produced are quite different. Smith has frequently been categorized as “Minimalist,” and though he vigorously refuted that assessment, many of his works relate to the spectator in the theatrical, even confrontational manner characteristic of that style; Wilmarth’s pieces, on the other hand, more clearly share the conceits of Modernist abstraction, concentrating on opticality, reductivism, and composition. Organized in conjunction with Paula Cooper Gallery, this exhibition displayed five of Smith’s bronzes and four etched-glass-and-steel sculptures by Wilmarth that provided an opportunity to understand what these two artists had in common and how those commonalities mitigate the tendency to understand art according to neatly delineated movements.

The show was especially effective in shedding a different light on Smith, whose sculptures have most often been seen outdoors at a monumental scale. Yet he frequently created them in more than one size, and their presentation here in smaller casts, at close quarters, alongside Wilmarth’s more expressive, luminous works, brought out an unfamiliar sense of intimacy and lyricism. Tau, 1965, for example, is a typical polyhedral configuration best known as the unwieldy giant smothering the cramped quasi-quadrangle of Hunter College in Manhattan. In the comparatively miniscule scale (not much more than one foot high) of this installation, it functions quite differently. Placed on a pedestal against the far wall of the front gallery, deprived of space and size, Tau eschews the primary Minimalist dynamic of mind/body interaction, placing its emphasis instead on the reductivist nature of its form. The bronze’s mottled, lushly patinated black planes soften its hard-edged geometries. They never quite achieve a straight edge—this is barely perceptible, at first—giving the piece a subtly hand-wrought quality.

The tactility and formal mutability of Smith’s sculptures also permeate Wilmarth’s elegant yet powerful work, in which plates of green or bluish glass are etched and frosted with hydrofluoric acid and combined with sheets of steel. This often simple interplay can result in an extraordinary transformation of materials in which substance and shadow magically shift and merge. In contrast to Minimalist sculpture’s tendency to work in relation to the rectilinear box structure of the gallery, Wilmarth’s oeuvre continually alludes to vagaries of time and place. Many of the works, like Arcore End, 1973, or Calling, 1974, take as their subject the urban environment both physically—in terms of its skyline, water, lights, and shadows—and psychologically, as a terrain loaded with memory and presence. Similarly, Smith’s polyhedral variations allude to the indeterminate and irregular geography of nature, the unpredictable changes in land and sky.

In aligning the most Minimal of Wilmarth’s works with the essential humanism of Smith’s production, this exhibition demonstrated how the monumentality and theatricality of Minimalist sculpture might be reconciled with Modernist reductivism and expressionism—a strategy that convincingly questions the mutual exclusivity of art-historical categories.

Mason Klein