I first saw John Willenbecher’s sculptures shortly after I came to New York City in 1975. He was exhibiting his work “Five Cenotaphs for Étienne-Louis Boullée” at the now-defunct A. M. Sachs Gallery. I was smitten with the work because Willenbecher and I shared two disparate interests: Joseph Cornell and Boullée, the 18th-century visionary neoclassical French architect who designed impossible projects, most of which were never built and are known only through his exquisite drawings. In his “Cenotaph for Isaac Newton,” Boullée envisioned a sphere 500 feet in diameter, with its dome pierced by holes that were aligned with the stars, anticipating Nancy Holt’s “Sun Tunnels” (1973-76). 

Willenbecher’s “cenotaphs” were done in gray acrylic on arch-shaped wooden panels, which framed a view of the night sky, sometimes with a labyrinth, ladder, or bridge superimposed over it. On the shelf that projected out from the bottom of the arched panels he arranged cones, spheres, and tetrahedrons. All of this was inset in a shallow, white wooden box. 

In 2014, I wrote about a studio visit with Willenbecher for Hyperallergic. I learned how his childhood interest in astronomy had grown into an “absolute passion for the glittering panoply of the night sky,” as well as saw examples of the trompe l’oeil paintings of marble slabs that he started in 1985 and continued through the early 1990s. I also saw the abstract paintings in acrylic on fiberboard that he was doing around the time of the visit.

Installation view of John Willenbecher: Works from the 1960s at Craig F. Starr Gallery in New York

Working across disciplines, as well as pursuing his interest in abstraction in nature (which essentially defines astronomy), particularly what he defines as “the random dispersal of lights in the  heavens,” Willenbecher has defined a trajectory that has little to do with fashion but is not eccentric. Like Cornell and Robert Ryman, he is a highly sophisticated self-taught artist.

This is why I was delighted to learn about the exhibition John Willenbecher: Works from the 1960s, at Craig F. Starr Gallery (October 5 – January 15, 2022). Trained as an art historian, and originally planning to write on the drawings of the Florentine artist Mariotto Albertinelli (1474-1515), who was a friend of Fra Bartolomeo and teacher of Jacopo da Pontormo, Willenbecher shed academia after seeing the exhibition The Art of the Assemblage, at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961, curated by William C. Seitz. (Joe Brainard was another artist who was deeply influenced by this exhibition.) 

Inspired by the work of Cornell and Louise Nevelson, Willenbecher began making sculptures from things he found on the street — drawers from a desk, chair legs, and other items he could carry home. Made between 1962 and ’67, these wall sculptures and works on paper reveal a man who seemed to have made a relatively smooth transition from art historian to artist. 

Installation view of John Willenbecher: Works from the 1960s at Craig F. Starr Gallery in New York

In “Untitled” (1962), Willenbecher frames a grid of children’s ABC blocks and four spherical Christmas ornaments, all painted black, into something indefinable and mysterious. Is there a secret message hidden in the blocks? The reason I ask is because the arrangement of the blocks does not appear entirely random. In the middle of the bottom row, we see the letter “Q” upright. Directly above it is “U,” lying on its side. That pairing of letters invites the viewer to find words and possible messages, while the four balls, suspended in an inset space two rows of blocks down from the top, seem to serve a function that one can only guess at, since they don’t move. The juxtaposition of letters and spheres points to the different languages we use to apprehend and represent our experience of everyday reality. 

In Willenbecher’s early work the viewer sees strong evidence of his conceptual intelligence and the deftness with which he arrives at a nuanced aesthetic experience. At the outset of his career, in 1962, he made “Game with Sixteen Balls.” The following year, he produced “Unknown Game #3,” in which a numbered wheel painted white, black, and gray is mounted inside a black arch. Below the arch are four white, evenly spaced spheres sitting on a shelf; below the shelf are the letters “P-A-N-S-A” coated in gold leaf. 

What do the letters, numbers, wheel, and balls have to do with each other? They are elements found in many board games, but Willenbecher has freed them from their standard functions. And this endows them with mystery. What is especially strong about these works is that they feel pared down, and, in this regard, seem influenced by Jasper Johns’s “Targets” and “Numerals.” And yet, even as I make these associations, Willenbecher’s boxes define and occupy their own space. They are somehow abstract and self-contained, even as they suggest purpose and interaction. The fact that they are titled “games” also connects viewers to their childhoods. 

Installation view of John Willenbecher: Works from the 1960s at Craig F. Starr Gallery in New York

In the mid-1960s, Willenbecher made works on paper and sculptures that focused on the uranograph, which is a map of the stars, a celestial presentation, that introduces a wide spectrum of color. His works, especially “Double Uranograph # 1” (1967), stirred up associations with the art of Emery Blagdon and Paul Laffoley, which is to say individuals whose perception of reality seems inspired by arcane and esoteric systems. The freestanding, two-sided “Double Uranograph #1” struck me as a scientific instrument only Willenbecher would know how to operate. 

Between 1962 and ’75, when I first saw his sculptures, Willenbecher made a substantial body of work that needs to be seen again, particularly because of his interest in games and the night sky, in the ancient human desire to make order out of the inexplicable. In our current, often narcissistic, society, which seems to have lost all sense of proportion, not to mention mystery, his works from the ’60s and ’70s remind us of how beautiful the vastness of the universe is, as well as how brief and inconsequential we are. That Willenbecher understood and embraced that discrepancy at the outset of his career, and never lost sight of it, is inspiring. 

John Willenbecher: Works from the 1960s continues at Craig F. Starr Gallery (5 East 73rd Street, Manhattan) through January 15, 2022.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...