Chicago

Christopher Wilmarth

Christopher Wilmarth developed a kind of melancholic minimalism during his brief career. Bending plates of steel and glass into new profiles, he offered the hallmarks of sturdy modernist rectangularity as fragile and evanescent. He suffused the plates with a brooding intensity by altering their pristine surfaces, weathering steel with painterly stains and rust, frosting glass with atmospheric washes of hydrfluoric acid. Glass—simultaneously weighty and weightless, present and absent, cool solid and hot liquid—particularly fascinated him. Wilmarth saw in the indeterminacy of glass an ambiguity and inconstancy that paralleled his own intuitive take on geometric abstraction. His work constantly shuttles between literal and poetic, modern and timeless, machine and human.

This exhibition included sculptures and works on paper realized between 1969 and 1987, the year of the artist's suicide at the age of forty-four. A large installation, Tina Turner, 1970–71, formed a kind of centerpiece. Four curved, freestanding green-glass plates, one set atop a stack of thirteen thin glass slabs, create an arc that sweeps decisively through space. Three of the four standing plates are spongily etched with acid washes, while one remains glossily transparent. Wilmarth often resorted to a kind of highly visible, low-tech process to connect his components. Here strands of steel cable threaded through small drilled holes tie the plates together. The rectangles formed by these cables in their journey through and among the plates echo and reinforce the individual glass slabs and the sculpture as a whole. In other works, bits of wire connect glass to metal, twist-tie sheets of glass together, or secure the whole to the wall. This emphasis on utility, on steel cable as the nuts and bolts of art presentation, so to speak, suggests that for Wilmarth abstraction is logical and efficient, not obscure and formal—a function of gravity as well as the artifice of design.

Wilmarth started using blown glass in the late '70s. In Her Sides of Me, 1983–86, two largish, bulbous pieces of dark glass, roughly organic in form, are set amid four planes of bronze and steel joined at various angles. The richly worked brownish metal surfaces, stained and perforated, and the interplay of metal rectangles and globs of glass lend the piece an absorbing and suggestive solemnity and an internal logic that seems somehow incontestable.

The exhibition culminated in seven drawings Wilmarth made a few months before his death. Almost effaced portraits, these scribbled and scratched drawings are nearly consigned to pictorial oblivion by an intense crust of black gesso. They speak to Wilmarth's ambition to find a way to invest the abstract with a residue of the human, to make artmaking germane and personal, a platform for human experience.

James Yood

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