Touching Sculpture -- a useful aid to its enjoyment

It took several seconds to realize that the lumpy piece of sculpture I was touching was of a human hand. Hands just aren't that big, and neither are they gnarled in quite that way. But, as my fingers found a knuckle and followed a form to its tip, I gradually realized that what I was touching was a very large bronze hand.

To be more precise, it was Auguste Rodin's "The mighty Hand," one of 33 sculptures at New York University's Grey Gallery in an exhibition entitled "Perceiving Modern Sculpture: Selections For the Sighted And Non-Sighted."

I had decided that I would try to experience some of the works in this excellent and highly unusual show by shutting my eyes and responding to the sculptures as though I myself couldn't see.

The Rodin piece was my first attempt to grasp the significcance of a form through touch rather than through sight. It was a remarkable experience and one I repeated with about half the works on display.

Everything about this exhibition has been carefully and sensitively planned. Visitors are permitted to touch, hold, and even lift the sculpture to which they are guided by recorded talks heard over earphones.

Labels are printed in Braille and large type and, in some instances, small- scale maquettes of large pieces are provided to give the nonsighted a clearer and more precise conception of the work. For those who experience difficulty with depth perception, photographic enlargements of the sculptures are placed nearby.

Provisions have even been made for guide dogs so they can accompany their owners. And for groups wishing to tour the exhibition, trained sighted docents from NYU School of Education are provided upon advance request.

But the sighted have not been ignored. A text of the information recorded in the talks is available, and detailed labels accompany all the works.

With all this attention to supporting detail, I am delighted to report that the selection of art itself is first rate, and about as thorough an accounting of the diversity and complexity of contemporary sculpture as one could wish.

Probably the most humorous work on display is Anne Arnold's "Agnes," a happy-go-lucky pig whose body is attached to a wall but whose massive head projects away from it. I thoroughly enjoyed touching it and running my hands over the snout nd ears -- something I would not have dared to do in any other exhibition. and what a pity, really, when you consider that sculpture is enriched when its tactile realities are taken into consideration.

In a nearby corner sits Claes Oldenburg's "Soft Alphabet," a low box containing cotton-covered letters of the alphabet stuffed with sand. Several pairs of white gloves are provided for visitors who might wish to pick up the letters and arrange them into words -- or just hold them.

A tall person straightening up and moving backward after relinquishing his gloves, would feel a cluster of tiny objects brush against the top of his head. These are individually strung pieces made of wood, acrylic, and beads hung from the ceiling in the form of a large circle. Entitled "A Vapor" by alan Shields who created it, and consisting of dozens of miniature sculptures mostly under one inch in size, this work is almost an exhibition all by itself.

Almost directly under this delightful piece sits Isamu Noguchi's very low, small, and heavy "A Feeling." Carved from granite, and as simple and compact as anything he has done, it hugs the floor with the authority usually found only in large boulders and mountains. For much of the time I was in the gallery, a young woman sat handling this work as though trying to commit its form to memory.

Mark di Suvero's "Play Piece" was designed to be used as well as touched or looked at. It's a swinglike creation made of rubber rope and metal tubing which hangs from the ceiling -- and which will support any child or reasonably sized adult who wants to sit in and relax.

Another hanging piece -- this time made of Manila rope -- is Franccoise Grossen's large and clumpy "Untitled," which also is attached to the ceiling and which falls in great coils to just above the floor.

Practically every aspect of contemporary sculpture is included, from Nancy Graves' "Column II," derived from the shape of a camel leg, Carl Andre's floor piece consisting of 36 alternating silver and black squares, Ken Snelson's "Rador," a delicately balanced sculpture of aluminum and stainless steel, to Christo's wrapped "Package," and joseph Beuy's ordinary felt suit on a hanger. The last named, a symbolic relic of Beuy's survival in World War II, is intended to experienced as an historical object similar to George Washington's wig or Lincoln's top hat.

But the most moving work on display is an environment by Anne and Patrick Poirier. "Inverted Sight" is a reading in five acts for a nonsighted person, and consists of a small, almost totally dark room with a long table and five chairs. Folders including texts in Braille are placed on the table, and a recording of a man reading plays continuously. During the time I was in the room the subject of the reading was the discovery of a tunnel deep into the earth which gave evidence of having been the route to Dante's "Inferno."

Although most of my fellow visitors were sighted, a few were not. It took them somewhat longer to grasp a work's form and subject than it did the rest of us, but I'll never forget the sight of an elderly gentleman testing di Suvero's "Play Piece" to see if it would hold him (he decided it wouldn't), and the look on the face of the two youngsters as they simultaneously discovered the identity of Anne Arnold's marvelous sculpture of the pig.

This exhibition at NYU's Grey Gallery will remain on view through Aug. 22.

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