A hard look at American avant-garde sculptors

At the same time that Motherwell and the other painters of the New York School were achieving prominence, a group of American avant-garde sculptors were making their bid to lead American sculpture to worldwide acclaim. Great things were expected of David Smith, Theodore Roszak, David Hare, Herbert Ferber, Seymour Lipton, Richard Lippold, Peter Grippe, Burgoyne Diller, Adaline Kent, Ibram Lassaw, and Isamu Noguchi, and for a while things looked very rosy indeed for these artists and for a few others who shared their attitude toward sculpture. By the early 1960s, however, the climate of the art world had begun to change drastically; sculpture assumed a much more puristic stance, and the majority of the sculptors who had become famous during the 1940s and 1950s went into eclipse. Thanks to the Whitney Museum and its current exhibition, ``The Third Dimension,'' the work of these artists is once again center stage and available for reappraisal. The show also includes examples by such figures as Calder, Nevelson, and Bourgeois, whose reputations either began before or extended beyond those of the leading sculptors of the 1940-1960 period.

It's an important show but a somewhat depressing one, for it reveals just how deserving of oblivion most of these artists are. It is difficult to realize that Roszak, Lassaw, and Ferber were taken as seriously as they were, and that Chamberlain was as prominent as he was.

There are bright spots, however. Calder, Smith, di Suvero, Noguchi, and Bourgeois are represented by excellent pieces, and Frederick Kiesler's ``Galaxy'' proves once again what a remarkable artist he is.

After its closing at the Whitney on March 3, 1985, the exhibition travels to the Fort Worth (Texas) Art Museum (May 12-July 21), the Cleveland Museum of Art (Aug. 21-Oct. 17), and the Newport Harbor Art Museum, Newport Beach, Calif. (Nov. 7-Jan. 5, 1986).

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