George Sugarman: Painted Aluminum Sculpture, 1977-1996
Joan T. Washburn
20 West 57 Street, New York, N.Y., 10019
January 8-February 28, 2004
“Who would have thought that a schmuck like me would have become an international artist?” Did Sugarman’s modesty or the fact that he didn’t have a fetish for hands-off manufacturing techniques and power tools and equipment, lead to his being all but ignored by the art establishment after his death? Perhaps it was the fact that his work didn’t fit in with any historical isms. His wood sculptures of the 60s were painted in bold and distinct colors (something which set him apart from the Minimalists who ruled the roost at the time). He continued to invent forms that were imaginative and suggestive and not self consciously dehumanized and avant-garde, up until his death in August 1999. Clearly Sugarman wanted to go beyond the vestigial monumentalism found in the works of Modernist masters such as Brancusi, but he did not reject all that had come before. He made isolated art objects and interactive public works, some of which stirred up as much controversy as Serra’s Tilted Arc.
This exhibit includes colored aluminum sculptures from 1977-1990 (I am not sure why the show is titled Painted Aluminum Sculpture, 1977-1996). The room the works are in is tiny but the inadequate setting cannot suppress the energy, complexity, imaginative force, and beauty of the work.
In the 60s Sugarman made small and large, asymmetrical wood sculptures. They are intuitive forms, a fanciful blend of the organic and geometric. By painting them he covered the seams where separate parts were joined. This seamlessness strengthened the relationships between the individually colored sections. Sugarman explored horizontality and forced the viewer to relook at the sculpture while changing positions in the surrounding space. His sculptures spread and do not rise. They are celebrations of formal invention.
Sugarman believed in the symbolic power of abstract forms. These sculptures strike a perfect balance between the gestural and the figural. They suggest elemental forces, the body in motion. Their dynamism is crucial to their meaning. Sugarman uses enamel and acrylic paint to color the rounded and pointy aluminum shapes. Some of the aluminum sculptures were fabricated from paper maquettes. Sugarman made all of the sculptures in this show by cutting shapes out of aluminum sheets and welding or riveting them together to form an undulating whole.
You don’t know how to read Orange Around (1978) or Waltz (1985). Their paper thin, incised and bent segments, reminiscent of Matisse’s late decoupages, flatten out when viewed from a distance, but the twists and turns the shapes make and the way they overlap force us to register the sculpture as a three dimensional form when examined close-up. It is impossible not to circle around each of these pieces. Sugarman makes us curious to see where the meandering and intertwined shapes end up.
Sugarman is one of the few contemporary sculptors who used color successfully. Instead of simply covering the surface and detracting from the movement of forms, his colors vacillate between describing an interior and an exterior. Whether the sculpture is a convolution like Orange Around or a riff on one shape such as Five Points Small Versions (1982), the colorization (enamel or acrylic) is just as dynamic as the forms. The color is not inert, an afterthought. Orange Around is the most complex piece in the exhibit. A swirling funnel shape made of riveted aluminum cut-outs whips into space and falls in on itself. The mad jumble of leaf like shapes refuses to sit still. The incisions in the aluminum sheets allow light and the surrounding spaces to pass through the sculptures, and this increases the watery flow of the parts. For Sugarman, the spaces surrounding the art were just as full of meaning as the forms themselves. There are empty spaces where the shapes have been cut out of the aluminum. These empty spaces are framed and integrated into the whole. The viewer can see different parts of the sculpture through the cutouts. This makes the spatial relationships between the different parts of the sculpture more difficult to comprehend. The interplay between solid and void in a number of these sculptures is rhythmic and graceful.
Sugarman brilliantly uses overlap in the monochromatic Untitled (1977-1980) and Wings (1988) which hangs from the wall. If anything in this exhibit can be called abstract expressionist it is these two works. Separate parts of these sculptures converge and diverge in a mesmerizing way, conjuring forth images of the brushwork found in the best deKoonings.
Even a sculpture with distinct parts, Untitled (1982) is complex. Made up of an orange funnel shape with an asymmetrical wall of blue leaf shapes behind it, the complimentary colors blend before our eyes because of the many triangular and diamond shaped openings that form between the individual pieces of aluminum that are riveted together. Sugarman incorporates empty space into his work better than any sculptor I can think of.
This small exhibit is better than nothing, but it is sad that no monographs have been written about Sugarman. Except for the essays in the catalogs of two major shows, one at Hunter College in 1998 and a retrospective in 1982 at the Joslyn Art Museum of Omaha, and various other small-scale shows, we have nothing. Sugarman deserves more.