Christopher Wilmarth: Sculpture and Drawings from the 1970s, a gallery-scale retrospective at Craig F. Starr, includes seven sculptures and seven drawings. At the start of his career, Wilmarth (1943-1989) was a studio assistant for Tony Smith. Then he came of age as an artist in the 1970s, in the era of Minimalism. That said, his work, with its conjunction of steel cable and etched glass plates, is devilishly difficulty to place, for it’s not much like anyone else’s.
“Half Open Drawing” (1971) mounts on the wall a piece of etched glass, relatively transparent at the top and bottom, more translucent at the center, on a steel cable. “Untitled” (ca. 1974), which suspends a sheet of transparent glass on the left side, with a heavily etched glass on the right, in front of a rectangle cable, is hung from two wall pins.
And “INVITATION #3” (1975-76), the only floor piece in the show, consists of a pane of etched glass conjoined with a steel plate. Wilmarth’s drawings, of which “Late Drawing of Wyoming” (1975), made with graphite on layered paper with staples that are gorgeous in their own right, is a good example, were used to plan his sculptures.
Great sculptors use the physical qualities of their media in unexpected ways. Bernini carved marble, pressing stone to its limits; Medardo Russo worked wax over plaster; and David Smith demonstrated the uses of welded steel for abstractions. Bronze, clay, marble, and wood have all been manipulated to impersonate living flesh.
But it’s hard to identify precedents for Wilmarth’s sculpture, which uses its banal modern materials purely abstractly. He cuts, etches, stacks, and bends glass, which is as fragile as it is heavy. He uses steel to mount glass, and he sets glass against steel cable, which in effect allows him to draw on the glass, as he does with the steel cable behind the etched glass in “Normal Drawing” (1971).
The wall-mounted relief sculptures of the Old Masters presented figurative subjects. The subject of Wilmarth’s reliefs is light. The light that we appreciate in paintings is depicted light. But the light that interests Wilmarth as a sculptor is the direct gallery light that comes through glass, whether it is unmarked or etched.
In the catalogue for his 1989 memorial exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, there is a 1986 studio photograph brilliantly presenting this aesthetic. In the photo, which appears on the front page of the Craig F. Starr Gallery website, Wilmarth holds in front of him a a large pane of glass.
His legs are clearly visible below the edge of the glass, but the top his body is partially obscured by the translucent etched glass between him and the camera. This contrast between clear, unobstructed light, as it comes through ordinary transparent glass, and the bluish light that appears when glass is etched, reoccurs often in his reliefs.
Light is hardly abstract. What could be more literally real than the light we see every day? But the light within Wilmarth’s sculptures is structured, controlled if you will, by his glass reliefs, to serve expressive purposes. In “Sonoma Corners” (1971), for example, the two squares in the steel cable running horizontally behind the curved etched glass subdivides the light in the panel, as if a black line had been inscribed on the back of the glass.
And so the light we see is turned into an abstracted form, whose relationship to its literal support has become indeterminate. It’s as if Wilmarth has transformed light itself into a cloudy, semi-transparent substance, as odd as that may sound.
Occasionally, when I am trying to get an exhibition into focus, my mind wanders to other artworks. Fascinated by the fragility of these glass works, I remembered a disaster at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2002. Tullio Lombardo’s “Adam” (early 1490s), a Renaissance masterpiece in marble, fell from its pedestal and broke into hundreds of pieces. More than a decade’s labor by conservators was needed to repair this damage.
Sculptures, three-dimensional forms, are inherently more fragile than paintings. And sometimes, as happened twice with improperly rigged Richard Serra steel works, they can be fatal. Wilmarth’s sculptures appear fragile because you cannot help but be aware that they use one very breakable material. Light itself is effectively weightless, but the apparatus that Wilmarth assembles to structure it is relatively weighty. A strange transformation thus takes place when fragile glass and weighty steel are used to fashion light.
To understand the significance of Wilmarth’s sculptures, a quickly sketched historical perspective may be helpful. Some of the leading artists coming just before him (Donald Judd and Richard Serra, to name two) used industrial materials in ways that abolished traditional fine art techniques. And many from the generations before and after him, from Claes Oldenberg to Jeff Koons, took their subjects from popular culture.
Neither of these concerns mattered at all to Wilmarth. As we have seen, his glass and steel were used to compose light. We might, then, compare him with Dan Flavin, the great light sculptor. But Flavin used lighting fixtures as artworks, while Wilmarth was interested in controlling the light already present. Perhaps, then, he is best compared to Robert Irwin, whose monumental constructions have some affinities with these relatively small sculptures.
If modernism is defined by the creation of abstract artworks, then Wilmarth is a modernist. But for a modernist, stone is just stone, and steel, only steel. Judged by this standard, Wilmarth is not a modernist. His totally abstract works are as finely crafted as traditional figurative sculptures, but to very different effect, and his materials are transformational rather than inherent. As I said, his art is hard to place. However its place in the history of sculpture is understood, it certainly is great art.
Christopher Wilmarth: Sculpture and Drawings from the 1970s continues at Craig F. Starr Gallery (5 East 73rd Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 14.