Criticism
Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

Fluttering like Flags, Swaying like Saplings: Sculptures of James Wolfe


James Wolfe: Recent Sculpture at the New York Studio School
July 10 to August 10, 2014
8 West 8th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues
New York City, 212-673-6466

James Wolfe, Expanded Metal Wicket, 2014.  Powder Coated Steel, 42 x 38 x 6 inches.  Courtesy of the Artist.

James Wolfe, Expanded Metal Wicket, 2014. Powder Coated Steel, 42 x 38 x 6 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when James Wolfe (b. 1944) was still an emerging East Coast artist, his sculpture was exhibited at André Emmerich in New York. Then in 1990, he moved to Los Angeles, and for the next two decades exhibited primarily (though not exclusively) on the West Coast. Now he has moved again—to Northport, Maine—and  New Yorkers are getting a chance to catch up with his development in a most lively, invigorating show, organized at the New York Studio School by Karen Wilkin.

Wolfe has always been known for the linearity of his sculptures, the way that their narrow strips of steel twist and twirl, but this unique capacity has become almost an obsession—and a most stimulating one. To be sure, his language belongs in the constructivist tradition that began with Picasso and Julio González in the 1920s, and continued on down through David Smith and Anthony Caro. And Wolfe was, in fact, one of several young American and Canadian sculptors who worked as Caro’s assistants in the early 1970s. But far more notable than Wolfe’s antecedents is his vigorous present stance, his work’s tremendous vitality.

His ribbons of steel appear to flutter like flags, sway like saplings, or wiggle like underwater plants, making his sculptures full of motion and life. All but two of the fourteen in this show are made of powder-coated steel, with a brightly colored, semi-gloss finish; the other two, the largest and most ambitious, are made of oiled steel, with a modest brown finish.

James Wolfe, Quartet Purple, 2012. Powder Coated Steel, 112 x 60 x 28 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.

James Wolfe, Quartet Purple, 2012. Powder Coated Steel, 112 x 60 x 28 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.

Not only do colors of works in this show vary, but so do placements.  Some sculptures, like the red, marvelously bird-like Just Right (2013), are screwed to the wall.  Some, like the copper-colored T Time (2014), sit sedately on pedestals that bring them up to chest-level. Spiral Yellow (2013), a congeries of saffron curlicues, “sits on a very low platform, forcing the viewer to stand back to admire its beauties.

While three works here have “wicket” in their titles with shapes suggestive of croquet or cricket wickets, there is no evidence that the artist meant to depict actual wickets.  More likely, in the search for satisfying abstractions, is that he named them upon completion, on the basis of what they reminded him of.

And, in the way of all abstractions, other associations also tie them to the natural world.  In no case is this truer than with Spread Wicket (2013). Resting on the ground and facing into a corner of the gallery, this seven foot high sculpture, one of the two oiled steel pieces, is nearly as wide as it is tall. It resembles not only a cricket wicket, but also a door or window facing into a house or church, a giant mask or helmet—none of these association detracting from its dignity, from its purely visual statement of elegance.

Of the four tall, tree-like sculptures  leaning against wallsfrom the “Quartet” series, two suggest further allusions to the natural world—conveyed through small additions, reminiscent of the poetic symbols that Joan Miró once used (though in other respects, these sculptures look nothing like Miró’s).  Midway from the top of Quartet Purple is a small square boxlike piece of metal enclosing an open hole. In the same position on Quartet Gray is a small ball sticking out at the top of a curly strip.  Female and male are thus impishly implied.

James Wolfe, Just Right, 2013.  Powder Coated Steel, 32 x 32 x 14 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.

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