Willard Boepple continues through July 31 at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries (20 E 79th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, 212-879-6606)
“Abstract sculpture has the wonderful potential of catching people coming around a corner and making them say, ‘what the hell is that?’”
So says Willard Boepple (pronounced BUP-lee), whose point is proven at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries where he is staging his first solo New York show since 2000. Enter the marble foyer of this tony, Upper Eastside establishment, and glaring away in the downstairs room is what at first looks like the frame of a prefab garden hut. An impractical array of slats and beams and the dazzling metallic glare of burnished aluminum put paid to that idea, and initial familiarity gives way to deep sense of otherness.
Incongruous as it is, this nine-foot square open cube is not a pop-surreal artefact after all. In fact, the more you engage with it, the more drawn in you are by the intuitive decisions about placement and space. You can walk right through it, but that doesn’t let you off the hook: there is work to do, putting aesthetic flesh on this sculptural skeleton.
Shock may be vital, but for Mr. Boepple it is only a starter. “This thing, this object, this collection of wood or steel, has to justify its existence. This thing- does it make toast? does it hold open the door?- or is it just meant to be looked at? I love that engagement. What a test, to have to justify itself.”
Mr. Boepple is an unabashed modernist: an innovator within a strong, defined sculptural tradition that renews itself through passion and surprise. The artist once spoke of wanting his sculpture to be as naked as music, an ambition that makes sense of the strange mix of complexity and streamlining that characterizes his work. His aesthetic is refined, with enormous emphasis on economy and restraint, but he is no minimalist. He is not interested in reduction per se. In fact, the tighter the work, the more packed it is with formal intrigue.
Willard Boepple was born in Bennington, VT in 1945. For a modernist sculptor who started out in welded metal this is rather like being born in Nasheville, TN for a country and western singer. In his youth, Bennington, with its legendary, progressive arts college, attracted some of the leading figures of the second generation New York School: the British sculptor Anthony Caro, taught there, while Jules Olitski and Kenneth Noland lived nearby. The critical guru to this group, Clement Greenberg, gave his famous “Homemade Esthetics” seminars at the college, which was dubbed “Clemsville” by foes of his strict formalism.
“I came from it, like it or not,” says Mr. Boepple about growing up amidst this modernist powerhouse. “It has all got such a bad name in the last twenty years, but what an education, what a group. What a vital, live time it was for art.”
Mr. Boepple, who thought at first he would be a painter, was setting off to New York to find a loft in his nineteenth summer when the sculptor Isaac Witkin detained him with an offer to work as his assistant. “The first day I worked for Isaac I knew sculpture was where I belonged. It was the very physicality, the material, spatial facts of gravity, thickness, it was a bolt from above.” He went on to fabricate many of the tough, spare sculptures Jules Olitski made in the 1960s.
But Tony Caro was “the scuptor to contend with,” says Mr. Boepple in a phrase redolent of the macho, oedipal sense of moving forward through aesthetic struggle. Mr. Boepple’s first series of direct welded steel sculptures were his fireplaces. Like all his work, the commonplace objects they resemble only became clear during the creative process: It wasn’t that he set out to depict fireplaces. Distinguished debut though they were, his fireplaces were very much in harmony with the efforts of Mr. Caro’s countless disciples. “I was looking for a way to get out of the Caro School. Basically, horizontality was his solution to staying abstract. I wanted to go vertical and find a way of standing up that was not figurative. That’s where the stepladder came from.”
The ladder form became the first of three highly distinctive sculptural idioms. Later would come his shelves, and then the rooms. In all these works, there is a striking resemblance to a form utterly familiar in day to day life, and that relate closely to the workings of the body. We climb ladders, put things on shelves, enter and inhabit rooms: all are shaped around ourselves without being bodies themselves.
“If you take a broom and stick it in the ground, you read it as a figure, as you do almost anything vertical, a bottle, whereas a ladder, because of its structural logic, plus its familiarity as something we know and use and feel, escapes that. Maybe it is just having three or four legs which makes them less figuratively read. If you schematize it, ladders probably relate more to architecture than the body.”
It is disconcerting to hear him comment that the ladder is less figural for having three or four legs because Mr. Boepple in fact walks with aid of crutches. This is the legacy of Guillain-Barré Syndrome which struck in 1982 and totally changed his life, and the way he would make art. He was totally paralysed for many months and was left with seriously restricted dexterity.
“When I am asked this question, which I often am, ‘Was there a big break?’ I would almost viscerally answer, No! When I picked up the activity of sculpture again, after that “interlude”, the ladders were where I began. But of course there were changes and differences not simply driven by the medium and the way of working.” He had to give up welding in metal and turn to wood, working through assistants. “As it happens, there is a logic to making ladders in wood, yet I would not have done them in wood were it not for the illness.”
He resumed his work on the ladders, but when a sense of things bursting out of each step took hold, his interest segued into a new form: the shelf. Perhaps his new physical realities conditioned the shift from a form which engages the whole body to one that relates to the hand. “The first of these things started with letter boxes, ‘in-out’ boxes that you have on a desk or shelf, very hand scaled, that you reach into and put things in,” he observes. “Much like the step ladder, it relates to the body with a visual logic that helps build the sculpture.”
The shelves, like the ladders, varied enormously from one piece to the next in terms of complexity or simplicity, movement or stasis. “They come out of the world of mechanical objects, sewing machines, stamping machines, paddles on a steamer, some kind of castanet, who the hell knows?” Often they have a sense of velocity, as if the elements were caught in the act of flapping around or rotating. But he was never tempted to make actual kinetic sculpture. “I want it to be seen the way it is when it is made. I don’t want it controlled by the wind or the viewer. I want the viewer’s participation in it to be driven by the object as it is seen, not by an arbitrary variety.”
Mounted on the wall, often forming a rectangle, the shelves can be read in theatrical terms, with incidents filling the proscenium like action on a stage. And then the rooms can be walked through, or even, in the case of a gazebo he has constructed at his Bennington property, inhabited. What does all this do the viewing experience: are his sculptures objects or environments? “Given the choice, gun to my head, I would say object,” he replies, but then he goes further: “It seems to me that the environment/stage notion is a pictorial way of looking at these objects, and I don’t think they are pictorial.”
They are sculptural in the sense of being involved with three dimensions, and yet there is a striking absence of tactility about the work. Perhaps this reflects the mediated way in which they are made, through assistants. It also goes to the heart of an aesthetic which emphasizes transparency. He was so curious about the inner life of his constructions that he took to casting them in resin, with ethereal, otherworldly and at the same time very empirical results. The rooms also grew out of a desire to make sculpture see-through.
“The rooms came out of a dumb idea. Thinking of the shelves in terms of domestic scale, I wanted to build a structure in which such objects could reside, but the structure itself stopped me and took over. It said, ‘Wait a sec- This is it!’ I did put one shelf in an early one but it looked liked an airconditioner hanging in a window.”
The way he colors or treats his surfaces also makes sculptural experience more visual than tactile. Color is always a late, and secondary decision. It often has to do with “pushing the woodiness of the wood into the distance so that you are aware of the form first and the wood second.” He resents it when people way, “What gorgeous wood, I love wood. And oh! It’s a sculpture.” It should be the other way around. Similarly, the brazen, electric dazzle of the metal surface of “Room” at Salander-O’Reilly dematerializes the aluminum. “You see through it more than you would if the surfaces were dark or solid.”
His career path can look as neat and in its place as his individual sculptures, with ladders evolving through shelves to the open rooms, and finding a synthesis in his calmly enigmatic “temples,” as he has reluctantly named the last group of freestanding wooden constructions. But Mr. Boepple doesn’t see his progress in anything like such placid terms. “Very often, the discoveries come from desperation, from not knowing where to turn or what to do.”
Does he wake up in the morning with a sculptural idea? “Often a sensation: Let’s do this with it.” With “it” implies that the sculpture is already underway. “I say ‘with it’ because a sculpture almost always comes out of the one before, reaction, variation. If the idea is not directly related to the last one then it is the sensation of getting physical–’get boisterous, come on, these are too placid.’ It’s reacting: Attentuate, pound and pack, or Lift open, slam shut, jam.”
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, July 8, 2004