New York

John Duff

Knoedler & Company

The works in New York–based artist John Duff’s recent exhibition “Designed with You in Mind: Various Sculptures, Variously Entailed” are constructed according to the basic principles of geometry. Inclined Form, 2001, is a plaster tetrahedron whose four triangular sides are each paired with a rectangle of steel rods, which together create a sort of cage for the inner structure (the shape of the sculpture was “entailed,” or determined, by this basic formula). Formally, the procedure could not be simpler, but the visual mystery occasioned within such transparency is captivating. As the viewer moves around Inclined Form, the tetrahedron appears both dynamic and poised; from certain perspectives it’s difficult to believe that the interior form is symmetrical. In spite of the visual austerity of the materials, the work feels alive—an abstract spider, legs bundled about itself.

If high modernism’s impulse toward abstraction was based on a need to apprehend and participate in the energy essential to both art and life, Duff draws his forms from mathematics for the same reason. For Renaissance artists as well as the ancients, geometry was a prevailing fascination; Thomas Taylor’s assertion that “all mathematical forms have a primary subsistence in the soul” perhaps helps put into words the life possessed by Duff’s initially stolid-seeming constructions.

Triangular Torus, Three Rectangles I, 2001, is made up, as its title indicates, of three rectangles dividing the torus’s flattened doughnut shape into perfect thirds. The top surface looks like weathered copper, though it’s made of wax, while the bottom shell is concrete and steel and the inner curve, plaster—all materials about which, at least in Duff’s work, there’s something both homely and elegant. Typically, the textures are unfinished and unpolished and contribute to the objects’ “worked-with” feeling.

Triangular Torus, Three Rectangles II, 2002, is the lampshade-shape formal inverse of Triangular Torus, Three Rectangles I. It sits at a peculiar tilt, evoking some anonymous industrial component or a UFO. But one shouldn’t make too much of such associations other than to note their role in the demure affability and discreet humor of these works. Equilateral Torus II, 2002, also contributes to the mildly tongue-in-cheek nostalgia for “the modern” that characterizes this show. Tilted as well and beautifully simple, this plaster-and-steel structure is shaped like an inner tube that’s had symmetrical sections of skin cut away. Each curved section touches the two others at only a single point, and the three different levels of steel ring that support them are perfectly concentric.

Duff’s sculptures carefully imply both intimacy and distance—perhaps the distance necessary for intimacy. This could be taken for not only his subject but the subject of classical mathematics—regarded by Duff, if this exhibition is any indication, as a living science. Working against the contemporary grain, Duff offers work with “us in mind” that’s no more than it need be.

Tom Breidenbach