It’s been over twenty years since we’ve seen Joel Perlman’s large-scale sculptures on exhibition in New York City. The size and weight of his mighty works in welded steel can be a challenge to show, but Loretta Howard Gallery has pulled out all the stops with its current exhibition, bringing in five new large-scale works (four in welded steel and one in aluminum). The show also includes a small work in weathered steel, a hanging cast bronze, and a wall-mounted work in aluminum.
For much of the last forty years, Perlman has been creating towering sentinels in steel. His process has remained relatively unchanged since the very beginning: snapping huge industrial-grade planes of steel together with bold welds using a torch and his bare hands. Perlman is a stand-alone original preceded by Anthony Caro and David Smith.
Contemporary sculpture today can be defined by two extremes. One rooted in multiple points of reference as in the work of Paul McCarthy, which employs a mixed use of materials and crosses mediums where even the exhibition space can be appropriated as part of the ‘medium.’ The other rooted in singularity like the work of Richard Serra, whose massive large-scale works are specific to a direct exchange with the artwork. The first accentuates the artist’s strategy as a retort or response to an external societal change in the world. The second articulates the ambition of the individual through an attention to trueness in form and materials. The work of Joel Perlman belongs to the latter.
Perlman learned to weld alongside mechanics, farmers and trucker drivers at a night class offered at Ames Welding in downtown Ithaca while he was an undergraduate at Cornell University in the early 1960s. Welding was like “magic,” Perlman recalls, “You touch a rod to metal, there’s a flash and buzz, and two pieces become one.”
In 1964, before graduating from Cornell, he spent a year at the Central School of Art (now Central Saint Martin College of Art and Design) in London where he broadened his skills in industrial design and bronze casting. His mentors were Brian Wall, William Turnbull, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Looking back, Perlman’s free-wheeling motorcycle adventures throughout Europe were likely the most important part of this education. Perlman liked speed, torque, and the power of machines. Upon his return, he headed to the University of California at Berkeley and then landed a job at Bennington College where he would meet the critic Clement Greenberg and Perlman’s future dealer, André Emmerich.
While minimalism was the predominant style of his generation, Perlman had no interest in strapping his work down with theory. Instead, he found common ground among Post-Painterly abstraction, producing welded steel sculptures that evolve the intuitive geometric vocabulary established by David Smith (Smith was the first sculptor to understand the potential meaning of Post-Painterly abstraction as manifested in his late monumental style). Although massively three-dimensional, Perlman’s work functions as a pictorial arrangement like a painting. The installation at Loretta Howard only enforces this observation. The sculptures are relegated to the periphery of the gallery, flattening the viewing space and leaving them in a way impotent to their true dominating nature.
Since the late 1990s, and likely much prior, Perlman has been influenced by the Constructivism of the Russian avant-garde, churning out sculptural variations motivated by the machine aesthetic: motors, gears, and wheels. Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko have been his inspiration. In fact the giant monograph published on Perlman in 2006 and detailing nearly fifty years of his work bares a layout and design that looks as if Rodchenko had done it himself.
Perlman’s towering “Silver Shaper” (2013) at Loretta Howard, is the best example of Perlman’s fascination with hard-edge geometry of the Russian avant-garde. Constructed from a world of pure geometric forms, small precision-cut shapes compliment the overall straight-line architecture of the sculpture much like a Constructivist might compliment a painting with blocks of primary color. Standing under “Silver Shaper” there is a thrill of danger, a quality he shares with his peer, Richard Serra.
Circles are shapes that Perlman has only recently explored. In fact, he avoided them completely believing they were too “pure” for his macho aesthetic. “I don’t do circles,” the artist told Charlie Moore and his wife, when they commissioned him to create an outdoor sculpture that would inspire the spirit of the Olympics for the Robert J. Kane Sports Complex on the campus of Cornell University. Perlman soon warmed up to the idea and Dynamis (1996) became the first sculpture in a new and highly successful direction for Perlman. Soon he was cranking out works with titles like “Turbine” and “Twister” and “Tornado.” Works that accentuated his love of machines while harnessed the swirling energy of the universe.
In “Seven Ponds VI” (2011), the largest welded steel piece in the show, Perlman shows his sensitive side. Concentric rings echo over and over and on top of one another across a horizontal configuration like a stone rippling across a motionless pond.
“Big Wheel,” “Wide Wheel,” and “Hot Wheel” are large-scale steel works from 2013. In each, the multiple welds connecting circular and arcing planes are seamless and precise. Momentum and power is implied as well as a pumped up muscularity as if each had just bench-pressed twice their weight. With these works, more than any in recent years, it’s clear Perlman is at home harnessing the power of cranes, bending steel, and balancing bulky planes like a sexy baritone juggles page after page of an operatic score. “Big Wheel,” “Wide Wheel,” and “Hot Wheel” are true examples of Perlman’s blue-collar heroism, something he shares with his other peer, Mark di Suvero.
By today’s standards, Joel Perlman should be considered a brute classicist. Study any work by the artist and you’ll discover that the mystery to Perlman’s dynamism is in his cross-balance of lines, planes and shapes: a contemporary contrapposto. His entire oeuvre sets a precedent for truth, balance, and harmony without neglecting his manly side — to weld big stuff.
Joel Perlman: New Sculpture continues at Loretta Howard Gallery (525-531 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 14.
Editorial note: The author of this review was formerly the director of Kouros Gallery (2002–2004), which represented the work of Joel Perlman. In 1999, he mounted the exhibition “5” at Axis Gallery in Chelsea featuring the work of Judith Dolnick, Bruce Dorfman, Robert Natkin, Joel Perlman, and Larry Poons.