If an artist has a spouse, partner, or family member who is also an artist, as a rule I don’t bring it up in a review; to do so would seem a disservice to all involved, especially when — as is usually the case — one is more established than the other.
But the double exhibition of Eva Hesse and John Chamberlain (Forms Larger and Bolder: EVA HESSE DRAWINGS and John Chamberlain Baby Tycoons) currently at Hauser & Wirth’s East 69th Street outpost brings up an interesting question: what would be the effect if Hesse had been paired not with Chamberlain, but with her one-time husband, Tom Doyle?
As I wrote in my Hyperallergic post on the shows:
While [the Hesse and Chamberlain exhibitions] are clearly separate shows, their proximity nonetheless sets up inevitable — if unintended — comparisons between two artists who seem to share little more than an ingrained rebelliousness.
Chamberlain’s tabletop steel sculptures — the Baby Tycoons, made during the final decades of his life — exist on a separate plane from the fragile works on paper spanning Hesse’s abbreviated career. Bent and welded, the Baby Tycoons feel lively and improvisational, but not particularly organic.
Hesse’s drawings, by contrast, especially the group of abstracted collages from 1962, seem to well up from a deep fount of emotion. What if these works were lent context by the sometimes humble, sometimes swaggering sculptures of the man who shared her life from 1962 to 1966?
Doyle (1928–2016) was eight years older than Hesse and outlived her by 46; they divorced three years before she was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor. Coincidentally, his art bears a relationship to Chamberlain’s in that both were characterized as Minimalist by dint of their material focus (Chamberlain worked primarily in steel; Doyle in wood) while their sweeping, even violent gestures were also associated with Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism’s polar opposite.
The warm tones and elegantly erratic forms of Doyle’s objects, however, feel much more of a piece with the multifarious, biomorphic Postminimalism explored by Hesse. Despite her reliance on such industrial materials as fiberglass and polyester resin, her structures, like Doyle’s, throb with the suppleness of living matter.
The Return of Tom Doyle is the name of an exhibition currently on display at Zürcher Gallery on Bleecker Street, and while Doyle never exactly went away — in the past decade he has had solo shows in Philadelphia (Larry Becker Contemporary Art, 2014) and New York City (Sundaram Tagore, 2011, and Lesley Heller, 2009) — this is the first since his death in 2016.
And, for anyone who is unfamiliar with his work, it is revelatory. The gallery itself, with its quasi-raw loft space, offers the kind of backdrop that Doyle would have expected when he showed at Bill Bace Gallery in the 1990s and at 55 Mercer Gallery in the 1970s. His array of cobbled-together wood shards alongside small, richly patinated bronzes offers a warm and inviting, even cozy, opportunity to contemplate pure form in silence.
But the deliberate awkwardness of the forms, and the seemingly random selection of elements that Doyle used to construct them, undercut any drift toward nostalgia. The sculptures are gnarly, sassy, shambling, and funny. They reflect a creative restlessness, the pinball movement of one idea firing into the next.
The artist’s inventiveness wasn’t limited to sculpture. A set of a dozen drawings mounted along one wall (all untitled, from 1961) were made by abrading Marlite, a laminate wall panel. Their blurred, scruffy interactions of line and form, light and shadow, depict twisting, overlapping, three-dimensional abstract shapes, but, unlike many of Hesse’s drawings at Hauser & Wirth, they aren’t working sketches; rather, they are pictures of sculptures in the manner of Alberto Giacometti’s studio views. In his essay for the exhibition catalogue, the critic and novelist Mark von Schlegell writes, “Doyle never drew his works. They were composed in the moment.”
Many of the objects rendered on the Marlite panels seem to defy gravity, but so do many of the actual objects in the room. Von Schlegell recalls: “More than once Tom Doyle compared his works to dolmens,” the prehistoric slabs “held impossibly aloft by two or more smaller granite stones, positioned as needed for support.”
Doyle encountered these enigmatic structures on his travels in the west of Ireland, where he was stirred by their mystical abstraction. In many of his sculptures, he references his journeys with titles taken from Irish locales, such as “Taghmon” (2005), “Ballygally” (2008), and “Dowth” (2010), which are all in the current exhibition.
Formally, the relationship between the dolmens and the majority of Doyle’s artworks is manifest in the three contact points between the object and its base, whether it’s a pedestal, table, or floor, resulting in an unvarying gracefulness from work to work, no matter how oddly put-together the forms happen to be.
In a 2008 interview with Phong Bui of The Brooklyn Rail, Doyle cites the practicality of three supports, which “will stand anywhere,” while four legs demand a level surface. He also makes a reference to “all the magical things about [the number] three such as the trinity.”
The ethereal and convulsed “Butternut Crossing,” however, a large cherry wood sculpture from 1991, is capable of balancing on just two of its three tapered feet, simultaneously thrusting its core forward and backward, like a jazz dancer en pointe. (Doyle tells Bui that he loves to dance.)
The wood sculptures, which seem to scuttle, squat, split, heave, tumble, sprout wings, and spiral around themselves, feature rough-hewn shapes with refined finishes, more reminiscent of George Nakashima’s biomorphic tabletops than of any postwar sculptor’s body of work. (There is also a playful series of hand-size bas-reliefs made from wood scraps and clementine boxes that resemble tiny stage sets populated by abstracted versions of Pablo Picasso’s Surrealist bathers — perhaps taking Michael Fried’s critique of Minimalism’s theatricality to heart.)
Arguably the most potent part of the exhibition is a group of six small, unique bronze casts created by burning away the original wood and replacing it with metal, followed by the application of two or three darkly colored patinas. While Doyle’s improvisational wood constructions, held together by bolts and glue — no fancy dowel joints here — bear traces of their making, the bronzes are seamless objects approaching a Platonic idea of those more earthbound sculptures, subtly sublime transformations of one skin into another by an artist with a profound understanding of his materials.
Curiously, near the end of Doyle’s interview with Bui, the conversation takes a turn toward John Chamberlain; Doyle’s terse, materials-based insight into the older sculptor’s work nails the experience of the Baby Tycoons at Hauser & Wirth in 21 words: “I always say that John used to work with Fords and Chevys and now he works with Maseratis and Rolls Royces.”
Despite the thick wood and hard metal on display in The Return of Tom Doyle, there is a sense of vulnerability to the work, which perhaps springs partially from our changing perception of wood itself, from a symbol of strength to an endangered, even vanishing resource. But whatever the stimulus, it’s a quality he shares with Hesse: a quavering instability expressed through an art form rooted in the monumental, a contradiction that accentuates the force of the work.
To have seen their art side-by-side uptown at Hauser & Wirth (in the building that once housed the Martha Jackson Gallery, where Doyle and Chamberlain both showed their work) would have felt like a more consonant interchange between toughness and delicacy, surety and doubt — a continuum shaped by the movement of the hand through the flicker of thought and the pulse of the heart.
The Return of Tom Doyle continues at Zürcher Gallery (33 Bleecker Street, Bowery, Manhattan) though November 1.