Christopher Wilmarth at Betty Cuningham, Barry Le Va at Mary Boone
Betty Cuningham Gallery through December 3 (541 W 25 Street between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 242 2772)
BARRY LE VA
Mary Boone Gallery through December 17 (745 Fifth Avenue at 57 Street, 212 752 2929)
Think of Minimalism, the extremist art revolution of the 1960s, and what comes to mind are austere reduction and expressive denial: The work might take the form of found or radically limited industrial materials arranged in mute geometric, as often as not serial patterns. Does this make Post-Minimalism, the tendency of ever so slightly reinvesting minimal forms and strategies with a personal touch, a counter-revolution? Reasons to think not are that the modifying tendency happened almost simultaneously; many of the practioners were friendly with the echt Minimalists; and that however much the avantgarde might focus on what the Post-Minimalists were putting back, to the rest of the world the severe, streamlined results still seemed about empyting out. The Post-Minimalist is almost, by definition, at the tipping point of reduction and reinvestment.
Two current shows are devoted to the work of significant artists who took Minimalism as the starting point for personal, expressive styles: Christopher Wilmarth, the Chatterton of Post-Minimalism, who tragically committed suicide aged 44 in 1987, is represented at Betty Cuningham by ten sculptures made between 1969 and 1983 and a selection of drawings, while Barry Le Va, who is counted as a pioneer of both minimal and conceptual art, has an overview of drawings at Mary Boone dating from 1967 to the present. Both artists reveal not just how to squeeze personal expressivity out of starkly reduced means, but how to make of reduction itself something richly ambiguous and imbued with poetry.
It is hard to know, sometimes, with Wilmarth, whether it is possible to look at his work with a truly fresh eye, knowing the circumstances of his demise. “Sonoma Corners” (1971) for instance, which suspends an arc of etched glass on the wall from steel cable that in turn forms a double square behind it, can read as an almost fey essay in vulnerability—but is that a romantic reading, offered with hindsight? There is a similar tendency to project a sense of pathos onto the loose, hanging works in manipulated, often soft materials of another doomed youth of Post-Minimalism, Eva Hesse, who died of cancer in 1970, aged 34.
Many of Wilmarth’s works balance opposing qualities of robustness and fragility, a dichotomy epitomised by his favorite combination of materials: steel and glass. In contrast to the Minimalist preference for unmediated, basic, raw materials (bricks, steel plates, white-painted woodwork, felt) Wilmarth both worked and expressively milked his materials for all they and he were worth. He was a consumate craftsman, achieving a particular mastery in glass. The opposite of Dale Chihully in tone and sensibility, he was none the less his equal in terms of original understanding of the material. Equally theatrical in his way, Wilmarth was Cistercian to Mr. Chihully’s Baroque.
Wilmarth himself might not have approved of this comparison: he was opposed to curators and critics focusing on materials rather than the ends to which they are put. He is quoted by Ms. Cuningham in her catalogue essay rejecting an invitation to participate in an exhibition devoted to artists working in glass: “I do not wish my art explored in material terms. The materials I use are a vehicle for poetic metaphor, the medium is light, and the subject is experience.”
“Gnomon’s Parade (Noon)” (1980) is from a series of nine stark, vertical pieces in steel and glass that take their title from the column on a sundial whose shadow determines the hour. A rectangle of etched glass is held in place, parallel to the wall, by two rods. A piece of steel bends twice so that one plate is against the wall, the other at the bottom third of the glass. Other times of day in this series gave rise to more lyrical convolutions of the metal, but noon has an almost bland simplicity. Its stark verticality make it an enigmatic object. Without its title and some awareness of the poetic and spiritual ambitions of the artist it could read as an abandoned architectural element (like a booth of some sort in a bank lobby.)
This subjective reading responds to a chilly alienation in Wilmarth’s work that runs counter to its poetic aspirations. In palette and structure alike Wilmarths often resist empathy. Despite its title, for instance, the steel and glass “Invitation I” (1975-76) keeps the viewer at a distance, forcing—like a majority of his sculptures—a frontal, pictorial view. The invested treatment of the flat materials (his glass is always frosted or etched, so although it has lightness it isn’t transparent) has them operate as surfaces rather than forms which also makes them more pictorial than sculptural. An exception on this count, in the present show, is his blown glass piece, “When Winter on Forgotten Wood Moves Somber” (1979-80), a roughly oval, organic form with a single aperture that invites penetration and a sense of in-the-roundness, even though it is wall-mounted.
You could call Barry Le Va the messy minimalist. His sprawling wall and floor installations, such as those seen in the inagural show of the Danese Gallery’s new space in Chelsea last month, use harsh, austere, repeating forms, but in dense arrangements and with complex inner relationships that delay and involve the viewer in ways alien to reductive art. His works on paper, exquisitely mounted at Mary Boone, reveal a mind bent on complication as much as on resolution.
The earliest drawings, from the 1960s, are working sketches on squared paper, perparatory for installations. The magnificent, often paired later works, jumping up in scale and forward to 1989, are much more ends in themselves, while retaining a sense of the artist trying to work things out. All the titles suggest thought for sculpture.
Like Wilmarth, Mr. Le Va recalls Minimalism’s roots in a deeper, longer history of pared down form—Brancusi is a common ancestor to both artists. Mr. Le Va also brings to mind the Russian Constructivists, although their progressive idealism is replaced by an altogether more existentialist sense of grappling with difficulties, what the painter Carroll Dunham described recently as “a scruffy, pessimistic point of view that skews his work away from any heroic or meditative readings.”
In a pair of drawings, “Study for Sculpture Occupying Two Areas” (1990), each about four foot wide, the artist uses cutout schematic shapes in inked carton that read a bit like military stripes. He builds up a sense of slippage, with these forms moving around the page looking for their correct location, through an expressive use of pentimenti. It gives the page an uneasy, contingent sense of a lived-in space, adding elements of doubt and struggle without resorting to expressionist gestures.
The two most streamlined drawings in the show, from 1974, on pale green sheets, have inked, stencil-like arcs and right angles: these read like punch cards from a prehistoric computer or pianola roll. Something of their precisionist aesthetic comes across in the most recent works, his “Tachycardia” series from 2005 of plan views for sculpture involving enigmatic plug- and socket-like shapes arranged with menacing insistence in a complex circuitry, seemingly rigorous according to their own logic.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, October 27, 2005