New York Times
LedisFlam March 3, 1989
“Beyond Slickness: Sculptors Get Back to Basics”
By Michael Brenson
In a season when the New York art world may seem to be wrapped in
slick surfaces, status, and money, three surprising sculpture shows,
in three different boroughs, zero in on a more naked and physical
reality. Each show is, in a way, exclusive. All 11 artists in one
are black; all six artists in another are women; in the third, the
four artists are men. Yet all three shows are involved with big
feelings and a search for experience that is shared and elemental.
“Traditions and Transformations: Contemporary Afro-American
Sculpture,” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, uses the work
of black artists- as familiar as Martin Puryear, Sam Gillliam and
Richard Hunt, and as unfamiliar as Maren Hassinger and Tyrone Mitchell-
to call attention to the vitality of sculpture by black Americans.
“In a Dark Vein,” at the sculpture center in Manhattan,
presents work by women who use the human figure to shape feelings
of fear, loss, and pain.
“Four Americans: Aspects of Current Sculpture,” at the
Brooklyn Museum, catches Joel Fisher, Mel Kendrick, Robert Lobe
and John Newman at or near mid-career, a the precise point when
all of them are working toward a more inclusive and monumental statement.
Almost all of the artists in these three shows use a hands-on approach
and remain involved in the entire sculptural process. For all of
them, the idea of a particularly American art makes little or no
sense. They move easily across cultures and through the history
of art, and within their work build an artistic community that is
Within all three shows, terms like radical and conservative are
inappropriate. For example, if you are going to hold up these black
sculptors to the tradition of the new, you are not going to bridge
cultures and navigate the turbulent and liberating water of memory.
Melvin Edwards’s “Lynch Fragments” are at the
heart of the Bronx Museum show, and they are a remarkable achievement.
In these small reliefs, around a foot tall and installed at eye
level, Western traditions of welding and assemblage are combined
with African traditions of fetishes and masks. Objects used as tools
by slaves and as instruments of violence against slaves- including
ax heads, stakes, hammers, vises and chains- are cut and welded
into eloquent expressions of rage, warning, hope and joy.
The terms radical and conservative cannot help with the Sculpture
Center show either. If you are going to reject figurative sculpture
out of hand, you are going to miss the ability of sculptors to use
the figure to recreate man and woman in their own image and to pressure
visitors to face the way they feel about themselves. With so much
attention paid to super-sophisticated, super-self-conscious new
art, it may be the kind of “old” art at the Sculpture
Center that is most difficult to bear.
The artist Mary Ann Unger is the curator, and the struggle with
cancer that inspired the show informs her work. Her “Eve Cast
Out” is a woman in a skirt, bending over elegantly like a
danced- or like a German Expressionist refugee by Ernst Barlach-
her mouth open, her fire-black hands reaching for the middle of
her back. In Ms. Unger’s “Guardian,” a naked woman
cut off below the waist, hands on hips, her mouth a pit facing the
sky, suggests a Degas ironer or dancer. But this earthly figure
has arms like wings and breasts like missiles. This is a fertility
goddess, but of a peculiar kind- one who is both insisting on her
fecundity and crying to get out of her skin.
Charlotta Kotik, the curator of the Brooklyn Museum show, believes
that right now there is something of a return back to basics. “Most
of the sculptors whose work commends our attention are neither trying
to create radically new concepts nor trying to dissociate themselves
from those created in the past,” she writes in the catalogue.
“Rather a deeply felt need, anchored within a solid knowledge
of the evolution of the sculptural medium of this century, propels
a large number of these artists to reinvestigate the intricacies
of space, volume and mass.”
The tension within contemporary sculpture between a commitment to
a high degree of self-consciousness and a need to deal with feelings
in a raw and immediate manner is one of the currents running through
her show. The best example is Mr. Kendrick, who cuts up trees and
then recombines them to give the sculpture a Cubistic, figurative
and often tribal presence. He wants the viewer to be conscious of
everything. He wants us to see wood as wood, base as base, sculpture
But he also wants something more. As much as he makes a point of
disjunctiveness and disunity, he is also drawn to organic growth
and wholeness. What is revealing about the current artistic moment
is that his most recent sculpture is one of the largest, simplest,
and most personal he has done. “Big Tree” is seven feet
tall. It is cut and reassembled, but in big chunks, and it seems
as heavy and shaggy as wood in the wild. In the catalogue, Mr. Kendrick
discusses this alert, chopped-up, dignified creature as “my
The increasing concern with large-scale and psychological and sculptural
gravity can be felt in the work of the three other artists in the
show. Mt Fisher is after everything. Together his works refer to
the four elements. While he may be best known for his raucous, whiplash
stick figures, he also makes fully three-dimensional sculptures,
like “S,” with its cylindrical head and low-slung body
shifting elegantly in space.
“Wave,” Mr. Fisher’s newest work, is 7 feet long
and 6 feet wide. It is like a headless reclining figure or a sea
monster, but its big slithering body also has arms or legs. Mr.
Fisher, like William Tucker and Alain Kirili, is trying to reinvent
monumental sculpture through modeling, a method that leads away
from welded steel sculpture and Minimalism, and back to Rodin. In
“Wave,” he uses clay to create a flamelike, earthy sculpture
about air and water.
Mr. Newman started out even closer to Minimalism. His work, influenced
by science and linguistics as well as music and art, has become
an increasingly personal and expressive. His 1986 “Trumpeter’s
Case”- lying on the floor like a coffin, or a fallen figure,
or a chrch bell waiting to be raised and rung- was inspired by his
mother’s death. “Inside the Cylinders that are never
silent and a molecular, terra-cotta heart- was inspired by the death
of his father.
One theme of “In a Dark Vein” at the Sculpture Center
is sculpture and crisis. Nancy Fried, Arlene Love, Deborah Masters,
Louise McCagg, Alison Saar and Ms. Unger use numerous sculpture
traditions in their search for images that can both express and
stop suffering. The prototypes for Ms. Fried’s sculptures
are Asian and South American. Her terra-cotta heads- one spewing
tiny breasts, another with miniature breasts set in wounds like
jewels in a chain and a third, called “Life’s Bitter
Pill,” with a face like a cookie on its defiantly extended
tongue- are deliberate, sometimes witty renderings of extreme emotional
Ms. Love makes skulls, some grotesque, some sinister, some comic,
some moronic, and places them on pedestals, like the fabric heads
by Magdalena Abakanowicz, or mounts them on a wall, like Maura Sheehad,
who, along with Ms. Love, has first-hand knowledge of Mexican art.
Ms. McCagg’s quirky, troubling, oracular “Figures I
and II” are almost Bruegelseque. Modeled with real flair and
plaster and coated with shoe polish, each of these short, skinny,
armless and headless women is at a point of intersection between
heaven and hell.
Another theme of the show is mythology and the female body shaped
by a woman’s hand. For example, Ms. Masters’s “Jesse”
suggests classical images of the Good Sheperd, or Picasso’s
“Man With Sheep,” but her classical figure is a woman,
and she is holding, carrying or offering her dying dog. Ms. Saar’s
Lazarus is not male but female. It was inspired not by Christianity
but African legend. Dark blue and larger than life, made of wood
and metal, with sores of cheap glass and breasts and buttocks held
in place by tape and tacks. This is a funny and pointed work.
Ms. Saar is also in “Traditions and Transformations,”
at the Bronx Museum. The exhibition, organized by its chief curator,
Philip Verre, spans three generations, from Elizabeth Catlett to
Ms. Saar. Although not all the artists are well represented and
the art is very uneven, the show makes two important points. One
is the contribution of blacks to American sculpture. And with work
by black artists responding to other black artists, the show also
demonstrates that a tradition of sculpture by black Americans is
firmly in place.
The tone of the show is suggested by the complex multimedia constructions
of Howardena Pindell. They were formed by slicing up postcards-
many gathered in Japan and India- then attaching them to museum
board and painting in and around them. While they are travelogues
and fans, they are also personal narratives and disembodied faces,
shoulders and breasts; and they are pieces of armor and shields.
These works are international in scope. They are confident, curious,
soft and sharp.
This feeling for synthesis, ritual and conflict is present in Mr.
Puryear’s 1974 “Raqhide Cone,” a wall piece that
looks like a breast with a tattered nipple. It is present in Ms.
Hassinger’s exposed trees, made with cable and planted in
cement- two industrial materials identified with the destruction
of nature. It is present in the archeological installations by Houston
Conwill, with its dusty ring and mirrors and its symbols embedded
in compartments for the future to excavate. It is present as well
in the black architectural sculptures of George Smith, whose “Labyrinth
Mastaba for S.B.” is a maquette for a flat-top temple offering
sacrifice and redemption.
It is clear from this show that these artists couldn’t care
less about most of the issues that have been hotly debated in influential
American galleries and museums this decade. It is not that the artists
are uninformed. All are knowledgeable, and all feel a real connection
with postwar American art. But almost all of them trust other artistic
traditions, particularly those of Africa and Asia, as much as if
not more. With an institutionalized art world that has had so little
capacity or will to acknowledge what black artists have accomplished,
it is easy to understand why.
Together these three exhibitions cut away some of the slickness
of the current scene. And if many of these artists are involved
in some kind of search for basics, there are undoubtedly plenty
more. A shake-up is needed, and these shows suggest that it has