Christopher Wilmarth’s sculptures do not speak volumes, but individual lines of poetry. His visual vocabulary is sparse, gentle, and considered; its preciousness telegraphs Wilmarth’s minimalism with an aura of affection, a unique warmth that alludes to the linguistic dexterity of Mallarmé. Like the French poet (a translation of whose work Wilmarth illustrated in 1978) Wilmarth endeavors to abstract the formal elements of his medium to capture the essences of light, space, and time. And despite the artist’s reliance on rugged industrial materials like folded steel and opaque glass, Wilmarth’s sculptures exude a quixotic weightlessness that is absent from the work of other steel benders (like Richard Serra, whose massive structures loom heftier and more hulking.)
During the ’70s and ’80s, Wilmarth’s talent for the intangible catapulted him to minor celebrity status in the art world. Critics proclaimed him the sculptor of his generation. Before he was 30, major museums (e.g. MoMA, SFMoMA, and the Wadsworth Athaneum) had purchased his work. But Wilmarth was uncomfortable with such quick, grandiose praise (and besides, he loathed the art market). Witnessing the boom-and-bust economics of the ’80s only confirmed Wilmarth’s suspicion that dealers and collectors were corrupt businessmen interested in art solely as a turnaround investment. Gradually, Wilmarth would indulge his anger by writing protest letters and organizing fervent demonstrations, such as the picketing of a resale exhibition of his own work at André Emmerich gallery. He marched in front of the gallery’s storefront with a sign reading, “Fight feudalism in the arts.” Severe depression underscored Wilmarth’s disillusionment with the art world; he committed suicide in 1987 at the age of 44, having made approximately 150 sculptures in his short lifetime.
30 years after his death, Betty Cunningham Gallery in Chinatown hopes to introduce a new generation to Wilmarth and expand our understanding of the artist’s work. Interestingly, the solo exhibition foregoes the artist’s larger sculptures, presenting instead two lesser known components of his oeuvre: drawings and maquettes. These not-so-preliminary sketches and models show a clarity of concept in each of Wilmarth’s sculptural works. The drawings read like a topography of light, training the viewer’s uninitiated eye in the spartan depths of Wilmarth’s exchange of material and brightness. In “Drawing for City Willows” (1978), for example, Wilmarth uses blue and purple watercolors to denote the absorption and radiation of light from his contraptions. Additionally, the drawing’s top-down view exposes a rigorous symmetrical trigonometry that can sometimes get lost in the three-dimension volumes of his work. This measured perfectionism echoes Wilmarth’s desire to capture the essences that make life a curious thing.
Yet my appreciation for the artist’s maquettes remains somewhat limited. By their nature, the miniature scale of these mock-ups fails to impress the way his larger sculptures do. The latter are temples to Wilmarth’s heartfelt existentialism, while these are silent reliquaries, facsimiles of exactitude. On his aesthetic, Wilmarth once remarked, “It is an instrument of evocation and requires as catalyst the soul of a sensitive person to engage its process of release, its story, its use.” Well, perhaps my soul is not sensitive enough to grasp the holiness of Wilmarth’s maquettes. More sympathetically, however, I think that Wilmarth’s Space Age aesthetic — once trailblazing — today runs the risk of looking like contemporary commercial design: clean industrial lines and tall glass windows. This is not to denigrate the merits of Wilmarth’s enthralling work, but to note that the modern viewer might need more time with the maquettes to grasp exactly what Wilmarth is doing.
The exhibition culminates with a compelling shift, from rigid formalism to the imperfections of bodily dimensions. “Untitled” (1987) teases the sculptor’s late transition into portraiture and abstract figuration. Drawing with graphite, Wilmarth composes a spectral portrait that outlines the shape of a face with the negative space. In the foreground of this face, Wilmarth has illustrated a harsh, pitch-black mask. Wilmarth also played with these foreboding elements in some of his later sculpture, which aims to dismantle the balanced geometries of the maquettes and other drawings seen in the show. Here, I get the strong sense of Wilmarth’s inner monologue, his poetry on finding spaces of meditation and balance within the darkness.