Cambridge, MA

Christopher Wilmarth

Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums

Christopher Wilmarth (1943–87) is best known for his spare and sensuous sheets of etched plate glass and steel, sculpted in a style described by Donald Kuspit in these pages as “expressive Minimalism.” This show of fifty-eight drawings, sketchbooks, paper and card maquettes, and technical-specification sheets is the first to examine the artist’s practice through his career-long reliance on drawing. Dotted with quotations from the artist’s private papers, this exhibition demonstrates that Wilmarth was a romantic soul who moved as fluidly between drawing and sculpture as he did between reality and the imagination.

The show is divided roughly into three sections: student and other work from the ’60s; hybrid “drawings” from the early ’70s, constructed from etched glass and steel cables; and drawings executed between the mid-’70s and 1987 (when Wilmarth committed suicide at age forty-four). From his earliest days as a student at Cooper Union, Wilmarth merged a love for the gritty bridges of New York City with an admiration for the fluid contour and sense of humanity in the work of his heroes Matisse, Brancusi, and Giacometti. Wilmarth’s tendency to anthropomorphize architecture is evident in one of the earliest works in the show, Platform Dream #5, 1963. Though inspired by the Queensboro Bridge, with its angles, curves, and shadings, the work is more evocative of the fecund lower torso and leg of a nude in silhouette. The luscious charcoal drawing Shifrah, 1964, a Matisse-like nude of his then-new bride, artist Susan Wilmarth-Rabineau, can barely contain the woman’s sensuous energy as she strides across the page, with abstract ovoid head and powerful legs cropped.

Minimalism was ascendant as Wilmarth came of age, and, after spending the late ’60s as assistant to Tony Smith, he began to make sculpture from square and rectangular panes of glass, etching an expressive surface with hydrofluoric acid. The scraped surface of Drawing, 1970, is reminiscent of Cy Twombly’s lively schematic scribbles. The piece is also as solid as an ice cube and marked the beginnings of Wilmarth’s explorations into atmospheric space. Crosscut Drawing, 1972, is a perfect balance between geometry and luminous, aqueous color: Two panels of glass, notched along their sides, are bound by thin black Roebling steel cables that serve as both structural support and linear formal components of the work.

In 1978, Wilmarth received a pivotal commission to make work for a book of poetry by Stéphane Mallarmé, whose belief that “reverie and imagination are more real than the outside world” became a continuing inspiration. Settling on the motif of the oval (which could be a disembodied head, heart, or spirit), Wilmarth created a series of dark, resonant images in charcoal and pastel. “Breath,” 1979–82, a series also inspired by Mallarmé, comprises watercolors, charcoals, pastels, and glass spheres, including a delicate watercolor with a central cutout oval haloed with graphite and green paint. A hole cut in the top sheet of two layered pieces of creamy paper allows the blank lower sheet to suggest a ghostly ovoid space.

Wilmarth continued to make use of the evocative oval form until his death. As his mood darkened toward the end of his life, the ovals became more shadowy, closer perhaps to self-portraiture. In Untitled, 1987, a numinous graphite shape bleeds from the center out over the gessoed page; in another work made a few months before his death, a similar graphite center has been violently eradicated. In these diaristic and richly fabricated drawings, the depth and elegance of Wilmarth’s work are plainly evident. As this moving tribute reveals, his attempts to bring the two- and three-dimensional into sublime dialogue succeeded marvelously.

Francine Koslow Miller