Yesterday's Sculpture

Much of what seemed promising 20 years ago looks bedraggled and silly today

I DON'T know which disappointed me more about the Whitney Museum's current exhibition, ``The New Sculpture 1965-75: Between Geometry and Gesture,'' the art or the explanatory wall texts. Actually, I suppose it was the art. After all, I had been looking forward to this presentation of 90 works by 10 American sculptors who had dramatically challenged accepted sculptural norms in the 1960s and '70s. I knew a number of the sculptures would be re-created specifically for the exhibition, and that I would also be able to reacquaint myself with several other pieces I hadn't seen in decades.

There was also my very special regard for what Eva Hesse (one of the 10) had accomplished before her death in 1970 at the age of 34, as well as my longtime interest in the sculpture and drawings of Joel Shapiro.

Robert Smithson had impressed me, largely because of his rather grand ideas, and so, to a lesser extent, had Bruce Nauman, Richard Tuttle, Richard Serra, and Keith Sonnier. I wasn't familiar with Alan Saret, Barry Le Va, and Lynda Benglis, but I fully expected to respond to their work as well.

I couldn't have been more wrong. With the major exception of Shapiro's three-inch-high cast-iron chair, sitting all by itself near the middle of a large gallery, my initial reaction to almost everything was negative. And three subsequent visits only made them worse.

At first, I thought it was my fault, since I had been somewhat preoccupied during my initial visit. I made a special effort to be alert when I returned the next day. It didn't help. With the exception of the Shapiro chair and two or three other pieces by him, Sonnier's ``Dis-Play,'' Hesse's ``Untitled (Rope Piece),'' and a handful of other sculptures, everything struck me as dull or forced.

I turned to the explanatory wall texts and found, toward the end of one, what seemed like a clue to my disappointment. ``Profoundly independent, the work of these 10 artists is distinguished by a willingness, even a desperate need, to supersede existing categories, and to reinvent sculptural form while investing it with nuance, gesture, and a content reflective of human presence.''

The words ``a desperate need ... to reinvent'' remained with me while I walked slowly through the exhibition. That sentiment dovetailed more and more with my own thoughts, as I went from piece to piece, a few hanging from the ceiling, some standing free, and others plopped directly onto the floor as though by accident. And as for materials, well, Richard Marshall, writing in the exhibition catalog, was correct when he indicated, ``Each artist offered innovative forms of a new sculptural expression, using new or non-traditional materials - plastics and neon, mirrors, salt, felt, rubber and video - employed in ways that forced a redefinition of sculpture.''

Even that is not a full accounting of the ``non-traditional'' materials used by these artists, often in startlingly effective ways, to make their respective points. Hesse, in particular, was good at legitimizing such things as fiberglass, papier mach'e, dyed string, and cheesecloth. And Benglis, whether one likes her work or not, must be given credit for taking the bull by the horns and producing physically interesting sculptural objects out of sparkle, enamel, paint on plaster, cotton bunting, and aluminum screen.

It's not the unconventional nature of the materials that bothered me; I liked that. The problem was the triviality, most of the time, of the end result. Going from piece to piece, I felt a shallowness about the entire affair that only worsened as I read the wall texts and remembered the literature I had read about these works when they were first exhibited.

How sad, I thought, that all this energy, this desperate need to be ``different,'' to ``reinvent'' sculpture, had apparently fizzled after less than 20 years. And that so much of what had seemed promising and original two decades ago in these same galleries now looked merely bedraggled and silly.

How pretentious it seemed, how self-consciously ``arty,'' and how unlike the simple, ``different,'' sculptures of tin, wire, and bits of glass by Alexander Calder that I had seen at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum a few days before. Those small, frisky, unpretentious sculptures, toys, and pieces of jewelry had more art in them than any of the more ``serious'' pieces by the 10 sculptors at the Whitney. And besides, they didn't require hundreds of words to ``explain'' what they were all about.

But then, Calder was a superb artist, one of the best this century has seen. And he was an original, meaning he was able to be himself through his art - and content to be that. Maybe he was lucky to have been who he was when he was.

Perhaps, if he had been forced to ``make it'' in the art world of the 1960s rather than in that of the 1920s, he, too, might have twisted himself out of shape trying to make his mark. Perhaps - but I doubt it.

At the Whitney Museum through May 20.

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