On Sculpture Today
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
A cornucopia of sculpture shows in the galleries this month represents a moment of optimism for a medium that for some time looked like it was in trouble.
Whereas painting is always being pronounced dead or miraculously brought to life again, sculpture has a more insidious malaise. Painting has strenuous, medium-specific criteria, usually entailing pigment and a static support. But catchall definitions of sculpture have marginalized its meaning as entities worked, volumetrically, in the round. The great 20th-century addition to carving and modeling, harking back to an equally primordial method, was assemblage: sticking found things together, rather than chipping away stone or pummeling clay.
After a big push toward assemblage in the 1950s and 1960s, with hundreds of artists taking to welding in metal or synthetic materials, there came a backlash that departed even more radically from traditional sculptural craft.Though welding had seemed the beginning of a new sculpture, it turned out to be the swan song for the old kind. People trained as sculptors, influenced by the prevailing counterculture, took the discipline beyond crafting three-dimensional objects to include areas such as installation, performance, and video.
Isn’t disaffection with a meaningfully defined sculpture just a problem for these individuals, not for the medium per se? No, because museum budgets, art school departments, and a whole art-world infrastructure bought the line of this new “expanded field” of sculpture. Inevitably, so did subsequent generations of students, trained by the first generation of rebels.
But the urge to make things in the round, and to impress materials with thoughts and feelings, won’t disappear just because the avant garde is in the mood for a paradigm shift. What is striking about the resilience of sculpture is that some of the players involved in the revival of traditional processes were earlier in their careers participants in the overhaul of the medium. What has to be admitted, however, is such artists are now — in that diplomatic phrase — “of a certain age.” Critics who love carving, modeling, and truly sculpturally inventive assemblage are still scouring the horizon for the next generation. Perhaps this season’s ad hoc sculpture fest will inspire young practitioners.
URSULA VON RYDINGSVARD
Madison Square Park
The unique resonance and charge of Ursula von Ryndingsvard’s sculpture has to do with certain inherent contradictions. Her forms are at one level archetypal — they have a sense of being primordial, of relating to the kinds of vessels or contraptions that humans have surrounded themselves with because they need them — but at the same time they are enigmatic: You can’t put an immediate name to them. Yet while her sculpture invariably takes monumental shape, it is worked as much intuitively as it is preconceived.
At Madison Square Park she is showing several large-scale pieces for the first time, including one sensational piece,” Damski Czepek” (2006), in polyurethane resin. That is a distinct departure in material for an artist who since 1975 has been known for her distinctive use of cedar. Ms. von Rydingsvard’s forms are overtly made, and yet could pass as natural. You sense the originating hand, the impact of power tools, but the surfaces are never weighed down by personal expressionism. On the contrary, you get a simultaneous sense of fabrication and natural erosion.
Her typical cedar pieces are made of layer upon layer of joined strips of roughly hewn wood. The result is therefore simultaneously a solid object and a grid. Cedar is notoriously difficult to carve because it splits and fissures, but this elusive nature suits her purpose, imbuing the work with a life of its own. Her surfaces expose the rough ends of sheets or columns of wood, creating multifaceted textures that are rich with nebulous forms and figures.
The polyurethane piece in the park takes its form from a traditional Polish head-dress. (Many of her motifs are inspired by her childhood spent in a Polish refugee camp.) It is cast from a wood model and thus has her trademark layering and faceting, but has a translucence that adds an entirely new dimension to her work. Despite its sartorial origin, the piece — a hollowed out, 12-foot-high chamber you can walk into, flanked by two snake forms embracing an esplanade in the grass — has the feeling of a magical grotto.
MIA WESTERLUND ROOSEN
Betty Cuningham Gallery
Mia Westerlund Roosen shares with Ms. von Ryndingsvard a penchant for the archetypal and the monumental. Some of her most memorable work to date has been temporary outdoor sculptural happenings on a very large scale. Until this show, her principal medium has been concrete, worked in ways that traverse the traditional boundary between carving and modeling by incorporating elements of both processes.
“The Tweedle Twins” (2006) is the work here that relates to her earlier body of sculpture. Referring no doubt to Dee and Dum, it presents Siamese twins of conjoined circular forms tapering to a head-like stalk. The work has a hefty, plodding awkwardness that puts you in mind of Alfred Jarry’s character Ubu Roi — as drawn by the writer and arriving via Louise Bourgeois.
Despite its archaic and primitive character, and its overt sense of mass, Ms. Westerlund Roosen’s language actually evolved from early interests in process and installation art — scatter being the opposite of mass. Her newest pieces connect to early experimentation with found materials, and are worked in felt and resin. Felt has connotations of the process art of Robert Morris, but the visual impact of her work is an unnerving mix of solidity and ephemera, of lightness and weight. The resin gives her material a chunky, permanent sculptural look, recalling her use of concrete, while the fluttering shapes in works like “Little Falls” (2005) and “Carmelite II,” looking like shavings from the solid forms from which they issue, explore sensations of wind or water.
FABIENNE LASSERRE: OTHERS
Virgil de Voldère Gallery
Ms. Westerlund Roosen has a new soul sister, it seems, in the young Canadian Fabienne Lasserre. Her striking installation of sculpture and drawing in her debut New York exhibition has a distinctly Surrealist feel, with weird personages made from stuffed gray wool with such embellishments as fingernails, abalone, and coral. Her stuffed toys, with titles like “Tentacle Blob” and “Elephant with Leash,” have an oafish otherness that is at once sci-fi and ethnographic. With their soft core and menacing, disagreeable tentacles and encrustations, you don’t quite know whether to cuddle them or run.
Lori Bookstein Fine Art
Garth Evans’s abstract sculpture shares with Ms. Westerlund Roosen and Ms. Lasserre a zoomorphic tendency. The British sculptor, who has lived in America since 1979, was highly regarded with early work that explored open systems. A typical work, like “Untitled No 3” (1975) in the Tate, was a web of rubber strips arranged in a loose grid on the ground.To now be creating individual sculptural pieces with strong figural connotations marks are rediscovery of sculptural roots, or an abandonment of an experimental path, depending on your aesthetic politics.
His first show at Bookstein presents eight works in fiberglass over cardboard. Despite such down-at-heel materials, which retain the street life of the carton boxes with occasional markings, the voluptuous biomorphism of these forms, and the rich glazes, can deceive the eye at some distance into thinking of these as cast in bronze, or carved from porphry. On closer inspection, the surfaces are punctuated with strips of tape, holding geometric shapes in place to achieve surprising curvaciousness. The DNA of his organic forms is geometric—like our own.
Evans’s bestiary recalls Henry Moore or early, Surrealist Giacometti. Titles are generally phenomenal: “Through,” “Tend,” “Reach,” “Beyond.” The sculptures seem driven by some inner growth demons; protuberances could equally be limbs or tumors, with correspondingly disparate connotations of wholesomeness and menace, empathy and horror, humor and pity. You could say they inhabit a space beyond good and evil.
“Milk” (1993–95) has four balls raised from the ground at the end of centrally joined limbs to recall, massively blown up and frozen in time, a drop of liquid hitting a surface. The sculpture makes the case for the interrelationship of forms and phenomena, for the sense of growth and decay following patterns that transcend materials or circumstances.
JUDY PFAFF: BUCKETS OF RAIN
In 1992, Judy Pfaff and Ms. von Rydingsvard collaborated on a piece in a SoHo loft space that tested the boundaries between unified object and total environment: between sculpture and installation. Ms. von Rydingsvard — despite her monumentality and experiments with sculpture that moves, or that you walk through — is resolutely for the object. Ms. Pfaff is one of the pioneers of installation, credited with adding a feminist edge to assemblage that influenced such widely and justly admired contemporary artists as Jessica Stockholder (her current show is reviewed by Maureen Mullarkey on the next page) and Sarah Sze.
But Ms. Pfaff’s installations — though embracing big amounts of space, doing wacky things with existing architecture like punching holes in walls and ceilings, and entailing the collision and scatter of wayward materials — somehow always feel politely contained, and, in a funny way, traditional.
Her exuberant and visually absorbing new installation brings whole trees and root complexes into the gallery. As in her last show at this gallery, there are four distinct, loosely interrelated areas. One is populated with the tree parts, painted black and white and augmented with foam. Another has a huge hourglass-like structure of an Arabian dome and its double, inverted. These found or fabricated things are isolated, and despite the plethora of other things happening around them, ask to be viewed sculpturally: as worked entities, made and to be viewed in the round.
But equally Ms. Pfaff has a painterly sensibility. Her walls and ceilings (and the gallery’s windows) are coated with sprayed paint, dripped paint, flourescent light strips, either colored or hand painted, strips of corrugated plastic, painted tubing, steel wires, tapes, and foils. For many in the 1960s and afterwards, installation art was a rebellion not only against traditional artistic mediums, but against aesthetic expectations. For Ms. Pfaff, on the contrary, installation is a means to enhance the visual and tactile, to marry painting and sculpture, and have them multiply.
Von Rydingsvard at Madison Square Park until December 31 (Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street;); at Lelong until October 21 (528 W. 26th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-315-0470).
Roosen until October 14 (541 W. 25th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-242-2772).
Lasserre until October 7 (526 W. 26th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, fourth floor, 212-343-9694).
Evans until October 21 (37 W. 57th St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-750-0949).
Pfaff until October 7 (20 W. 57th St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-445-0051).