ArtWeekend

The How Is the What: The Essential Harry Leigh

Harry Leigh, “Untitled (Oval)” (2007), 111 x 125 x 30 inches (left) and “Untitled” (2007), 92 x 50 x 9 inches (right) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Since the early 1970s, Harry Leigh has been producing distinctive, elegant, deceptively simple wall-based sculptures, mainly of wood. Incorporating thin strips or bands of hardwood and bent plywood — and in some cases heavier stock or red bricks — they often frame, bracket, or otherwise ensconce a section of the wall they hang on.

Fifteen of these works constitute a stunningly beautiful exhibition, titled Harry Leigh: Essential Form, on view through October 20th at the Amelie A. Wallace Gallery at SUNY Old Westbury. The show, organized by the gallery’s Director and Curator Hyewon Yi, presents ample evidence that Leigh is a major, albeit under-recognized, American sculptor who has transformed the Minimalist penchant for reductive form and flat-footed fabrication into something of exquisite lightness, sensuality and grace.

While the exhibition is thoroughly engaging, for me the most convincing works are among the more austere — those that align with the exhibition title’s promise of formal essentials. From a distance, “Untitled” (1974) presents itself as a horizontal rectangle nearly seven feet wide; at closer range, the viewer sees that the short sides arch out from the walls to a maximum depth of eight inches.

Harry Leigh, “Untitled” (1975), 82 x 257 inches (click to enlarge)

A great loop of spliced wood strips, some ten feet across,Untitled (Oval)” (2007) rests on the floor and leans — or rather, lolls — against the wall, as if it had just rolled in from out of town. In “Untitled (The Shape of Sound)” (2002), an otherwise unadorned 10-foot-wide rectangle of wood supports a loose, vaguely wreath-like tangle of nailed-together slats, a bristling form that harks back to Leigh’s freestanding sculptures of the 1960s.

A native of Buffalo, Leigh graduated from SUNY College Buffalo in 1953 and settled with his wife in Suffern, New York, where he still lives. Leigh was then a painter working with architectural forms, and was especially impressed by the work of Abstract Expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart, whom he would later meet and informally study with. Peter Voulkos, the Abstract Expressionist ceramicist, piqued Leigh’s interest in sculpture in the late 1950s, when Voulkos taught summers at Columbia University Teacher’s College, which Leigh attended on the G.I. Bill following his Army service. Around the time he graduated, in 1959, Leigh began to work in three dimensions while continuing to paint.

Leigh was involved in the legendary 10th Street gallery scene, where he showed both painting and sculpture. (For decades, the artist kept a studio in downtown Manhattan, including one at the corner of Rivington Street and the Bowery.) By the time of his first solo show, at Brata Gallery in 1967, Leigh felt he should commit to one medium or the other; he chose sculpture. His painted plywood constructions, often cantilevered with hidden weights such as gravel or bricks, received critical notice. A few years later, a spontaneous experiment in placement yielded his first wall-based sculpture — the idiom for which he would become somewhat better-known by way of exhibitions at O.K. Harris and elsewhere.

Harry Leigh, “Untitled” (2004), 96 x 96 x 11 inches (click to enlarge)

In the 1960s, of course, sculptors began to avail themselves of a wide range of techniques and materials, from those used in heavy industry and construction to the natural and ephemeral. Leigh recalls that these material choices would also stake out conceptual territory: “People would ask, ‘well, what is the work about?’ and we would reply that the how is the ‘what.’ You heard that often, in those days.” An artist’s attitude toward process and materials would convey the feeling and content of the piece; Leigh’s work is assembled in a workmanlike manner, with assiduous attention to detail but without undue fuss.

Some of the wood looks slightly battered, as if it were found, repurposed, or recycled from earlier projects. Leigh’s approach to joinery and the hardware used to attach works to the wall also assert a no-nonsense functionalism that gets the job done without making a fetish of craft. The eccentric, compound angles that join the wood require custom-fabricated metal plates. Leigh makes these himself, and yet they do not merit mention in the accounting of materials given for each piece. This suggests that they are purely a matter of necessity — as aesthetically invisible as the glue in a collage.

The wall works repurpose the artist’s long-standing concerns with architectural forms and scale alongside the pictorial space of painting. “Untitled” (2003), at three-and-a-half by four feet the smallest work in the Wallace Gallery show, has the look of both a floor plan and an eccentric window frame, complete with two bricks bolted to its outside edge. The allusion to a frame in “Untitled” (2004) is tweaked a bit with concave interruptions to the top right and lower left corners. On this armature, two plywood rings of differing sizes occupy different planes parallel to the wall, in an achromatic, three-dimensional echo of painting’s spatial illusionism. The bottom edge of many of these larger works hangs just a few inches from the floor, so that despite their expansive scale they seem vulnerable somehow, their relation to the viewer intimate.

Harry Leigh, “Untitled (Cascade)” (1992-96), 132 x 72 x 18 inches

More deliberately grand in effect is “Untitled (Cascade)” (1992-96), an atypical if undeniably photogenic work that appears in the exhibition’s publicity materials. Made of strips descending vertically from a ledge-like protrusion overhead and tapering to a V shape, it does indeed somewhat resemble a waterfall — or cluster of stalactites, or Rapunzel having let down her hair. Opposite hangs the predominantly linear, roughly triangular “Untitled” (2007), of which (most of) the horizontal top side fits tightly against the wall while the other two, arcing sides converge at the bottom corner, a sharply acute angle that meets the wall. As impressive as “Cascade” is, its commanding presence is achieved through an abundance of materials; the 2007 piece, by contrast, does a lot with very little by compelling the viewer to examine every inch of it.

Drafted into the Army in 1953, Leigh was stationed in West Germany and served as a radio operator. He recently told me that he sees in his sculpture a relation to “the intervals of openness and density” that characterize Morse code: “letters are combinations of long and short signals, and if you want to make yourself understandable, there needs to be proper spacing between the words, too.” It seems to me that the directness of Leigh’s sculpture — its high signal-to-noise ratio and elimination of extraneous visual detail — might at least in part be traced to the same source.

Harry Leigh, “Untitled (detail)” (2007), 44 x 80 x 10 inches

Information about the works on view in the Wallace Gallery is provided via installation images printed in an accompanying brochure — a smart decision that leaves walls free of labels. But other exhibition conditions handicap the work. There is little natural or other ambient light in the cave-like space; illumination is strictly by means of spotlights, which are too harsh and cast shadows that are so emphatic that they disrupt the viewer’s understanding of the sculpture, particularly in its calibrated relationship to the wall and floor. Too much work has been included; if allowed the elbowroom they require to find their proper scale, any ten or 11 pieces would have constituted a stronger show than the 15 here. And (this is not a small matter) an overabundance of electrical outlets is seriously distracting, interfering visually with the expanses of neutral white wall space these works call for.

Fortunately, Leigh’s visual intelligence is so supple, and his delight in the expressive potential of abstract form so clearly conveyed, that his work shines even in these inadequate circumstances. And it may be that the epic, rectangular corner piece “Untitled” (1975) actually benefits from them. Nearly eight feet high and over 21 feet long, this understated showstopper occupies and activates a low-ceilinged section of the gallery that, in visual terms, fits it like a glove.

The horizontals round the corner with delicate 90-degree curves that are no less lovely for being structurally necessary. There is considerably more — of both material and enclosed space — to the left than to the right of the vertical where the walls meet, but in the context of this particular architecture the work achieves a gently dynamic equilibrium. Drawing, sculpture, and architecture merge with abstract, volumetric space in this astounding, supremely economical work, which is an early, formative iteration in the subsequent evolution of this veteran artist’s singular vision.

Harry Leigh: Essential Form continues at the Amelie A. Wallace Gallery (Campus Center, SUNY Old Westbury) through October 20.

The Amelie A. Wallace Gallery is open Monday through Thursday from noon to 5pm, and by appointment.

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