I am tired of critics characterizing George Sugarman (1912–1999) — whose work was either overlooked or marginalized during his lifetime — as an idiosyncratic sculptor. By labeling him in this way, they are able to suggest that the neglect was partially his own doing, and to imply that he wasn’t interested in formal issues thought to be integral to sculpture, and which had been explored by his innovative forebears: Constantin Brancusi, Julio Gonzalez, Alberto Giacometti and David Smith. If those are the measures of idiosyncrasy, then he clearly wasn’t that at all. In fact, the opposite seems more true to me — he was at the center of things, but hardly anyone dared to notice.
Sugarman, who was born the same year as Jackson Pollock, completed his first painted-wood piece, “Yellow Top,” in 1959, three years after Pollock had died and just as Minimalism, Pop Art and Color Field painting were moving toward center stage. Integral to this shift away from Abstract Expressionism was the Minimalist and Color Field belief in essentialism — which the two movements defined differently — and Pop Art’s reliance on images derived from Pop culture and the mass media. Sugarman cannot be aligned with any of these tendencies. Although he seems to have taken a long time to arrive at his first mature work, focusing on that ignores exactly how radical “Yellow Top” is, and how he was able to further extend the thinking implicit in this work.
During the rise of Minimalism, a number of received tropes continued to prevail — that sculpture had a central spine (or what Sugarman called “the concept of the core”) as it sat on the floor, rose off it, or was attached to the wall; that its material (steel, bronze, wood) could not be covered over with paint, because that would be a form of disguise, a betrayal of the materials; that the forms in a sculpture had to come from the same family, as in David Smith’s series Cubi (1961–65). In their work, despite all the claims of radicality, Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Ronald Bladen, Tony Smith, Richard Serra, Robert Morris and even Anne Truit, who painted her sculptures, agreed with at least two of these assumptions.
That Sugarman successfully challenged all of these touchstones, which sculptors of very different alliances accepted seemingly without question, is a mark of both his radical innovations and his greatness. He literally rethought sculpture from the inside out. This is why his work has been neglected for so long; he challenged convention on the deepest level and, more importantly, made work that fully embodied his alternative vision. With few exceptions, almost no one knew how to look at it, much less write about it. Perhaps it is time we think of the early reception (or non-reception) of Sugarman’s work of the 1960s as a cautionary tale. More than anyone else, his work proves that not every artist had to be aligned with Minimalism, Pop Art, Color Field painting or Abstract Expressionism in order to be good.
George Sugarman: Painted Wood at Gary Snyder Gallery (May 8–June 15, 2013) should help begin to set the record straight. The exhibition consists of five sculptures the artist completed between 1964 and ’69, the year before he started concentrating his attention on large public sculptures. The provocatively titled “Threesome” (1968–69) stands in the center of the gallery, each form different in both shape and in color (sea-green, traffic-cone orange and fluorescent yellow and white). Like the love triangle of Krazy Kat, Ignatz Mouse and Offisa Pup in George Herriman’s comic strip, Krazy Kat, Sugarman’s inimitable forms never find their partner.
The orange form seems to have spilled onto something flat and invisible before plummeting to the floor and spreading to form a “u,” the sea-green form is a three-sided structure rising from the floor, containing a catenary, while the yellow form with the white underbelly slopes down like highway barriers. The construction of these forms is masterful and meticulous, but Sugarman doesn’t seem to take them too seriously. One senses the sculptor’s joyousness in figuring things out.
Each form rises to the same height, a shade above seven feet, and, by their physical size, are evocative of a standing individual. In each form, something both rising and descending has been compressed into a single distinct structure. The descent in each unit is graceful, suggesting an acceptance of the inevitable that is rare in contemporary art. That all three units are completely different — but somehow related — conveys the ultimate irreducibility of both human beings and nature. Art cannot reduce reality to a rational expression; Sugarman’s argument with Minimalism is philosophical rather than purely aesthetic.
Whether it was his intention or not, “The Shape of Change” (1964) can be read as Sugarman’s rejoinder to Brancusi’s desire to depict “not the outer form but the idea, the essence of things.” Rather than clean lines and a column pointing upward as straight as a steeple, a blue, three-dimensional line rises off of a seemingly haphazard pile of semi-circular red forms, then knots itself through two black circular forms, proceeding to get more twisted and convoluted as it drifts without ever becoming fully erect. “Change,” the title suggests, is inevitable, something we cannot escape and must ultimately succumb to, without knowing what we pass through before reaching our final destination. That Sugarman paints the structure blue, red and black further distances the work from Brancusi’s purity.
Between 1959 and the ’70s, as the art world celebrated the achievements of Minimalism, Pop Art and Color Field painting, emphasizing the literal, or what Frank Stella summed up in his statement, “what you see is what you see,” over all other possibilities, Sugarman kept bringing the imagination and its capacity for allusion and freedom into play. Whereas the literalism of Minimalism and the ready-mades of Pop Art devolved into the conservatism of Jeff Koons, Sugarman offers another possibility. From the outset of his career, he was a central figure in a current of art making that has long been pushed to the sidelines. Perhaps that is starting to change.
George Sugarman: Painted Wood is on view at Gary Snyder Gallery (529 West 20th Street, 10th floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 15.