The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2020

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APRIL 2020 Issue

Christopher Wilmarth: Sculpture and Drawings from the 1970s

Christopher Wilmarth, Half Open Drawing, 1971. Etched glass and steel cable, 24 1/2 x 17 x 1 inches.

On View
Craig F. Starr Gallery
New York City

A new exhibition at Craig F. Starr Gallery presents a rare opportunity to revisit Christopher Wilmarth’s serene glass and steel sculptures of the 70s. No drama, no mess, no rough edges, nothing but the Apollonian perfection of flawless, hydrofluoric acid-etched translucent glass surfaces that attract and hold the light, reflecting in their layered depths tonal ranges from frosty white to pure aqua. Smooth gray metal is the counterpart to pronounced qualities of radiance and fragility. Industrial steel Roebling cables bind and support the glass components of the wall pieces; polished matte steel shapes structure and strengthen free-standing architectonic sculptures. Refined craftsmanship is showcased but it has nothing to do with the hand. Seamless production values manifest mechanistic and technological precision and harness the energy of high modernism. Without a doubt, these are idealized forms. Symmetrical, luminous, beautiful, self-contained and totalizing, they possess metaphysical potential.

Wilmarth managed to complete approximately 150 sculptures during a career spanning two decades before his death in 1987, at age 44, by suicide. His biography suggests a life of increasing turmoil and dissatisfaction with the art world, as if the unfettered aesthetics of his art were a foil to his discontent. He lived and worked in New York and credited the urban landscape, with its clusters of glass skyscrapers, ricocheting reflections, and continuous visual patchwork, as one of several early eye-opening encounters. He also benefited from the bi-coastal influences of the Light and Space movement and Minimalism. For Wilmarth, light was paramount. He intuited what he described as “universal implications” in different kinds of light. As material, it is ever changing and utterly chameleon; powerful yet fugitive; here one minute, gone the next. More ephemerally, it is also a stimulus to perceptual and psychological experience. His drawings—layers of tracing paper stapled together and mounted on paper—often depict his completed sculptures and the play of light they engineer. They focus on the eventfulness of refracting beams, animating surfaces and illuminating recesses of the plate glass configurations, which he is credited with cutting, bending and shaping in completely innovative ways.

Christopher Wilmarth, Sonoma Corners, 1971. Etched glass and steel cable 24 x 34 3/4 x 3 3/4 inches.

Christopher Wilmarth, Invitation #3, 1975–76. Etched glass and steel 24 x 42 1/4 x 14 inches.

The current exhibition includes two examples from his early series of glass and steel cable “drawings,” Half Open Drawing, and Normal Drawing (both 1971).The former, an immaculately simple rectangular composition, consists of a pair of translucent green glass plates that overlap in the center, forming three equal horizontal zones. The area of overlap is tied together with a single length of steel cable, and the piece is casually nailed to the wall through a drilled hole at its upper edge. In the latter “drawing,” a large vertical glass rectangle is layered over three skinny strips of glass placed at regular geometric intervals. The entire piece is laced together with a continuous length of steel cable that literally sews all the glass parts together. Weaving in and out, from front to back, the cable line runs parallel to the edges of the “drawing” and creates a frame within a frame effect. At first glance, the gesture appears to be so fluid and effortless that it could easily be mistaken for a simple graphite line. In Sonoma Corners (1971), another of the cable “drawings,” Wilmarth shapes steel cable into a pair of equally sized squares pinned to the wall. A translucent curved piece of glass, vaguely reminiscent of a concave shell whose surface modulates from clear to cloudy, is mounted over the squares, beneath the central axis of the work. What’s truly amazing is that an idea as simple as one, two, three, can be rendered in such a way as to be profound. It’s a phenomenon that occurs throughout Wilmarth’s oeuvre, as if he were on a mission to explore and understand prime relations and fundamental proportions—in both nature and his art—and then to set it all ablaze with light.

His early wall-mounted glass “drawings” are tutorials in rationality. Whether borrowed from architecture or the archives of Constructivism, Wilmarth gravitated to the absolutely elemental and, thus, to an art that comports feelings of ease and clarity. Simplicity belies complexity but it also accords pleasure. There’s a palliative dimension to the luxurious shimmering turquoise radiance of Blue Long Rectangle (1972), which consists of a four-foot horizontal frame made from velvety aquamarine etched glass. Its open interior is divided in half by another piece of translucent glass that resides in its lower portion, and voila!, we have a horizon line. Instantly, it joins forces with the natural, clear shining blue colors of the glass and illusions spill forth, prompting visions of pristine Caribbean waters and the dawn of a perfect new day.

Invitation #3 (1975–76), a small floor sculpture made from thick white translucent glass fused with steel panels, explores ideas of intersection, interiority, luminosity, and opacity. Like modern-day architectural follies, or prototypes for non-functional structures, Wilmarth realized his floor sculptures in sizes ranging from table-top maquette to large-scale installation. Their recessed spaces, private and hidden from view, invite us to imaginatively occupy them, perhaps as retreats from the outside world, as places simply to be. Yet, they also have the capacity to conjure emptiness—and at that point, the whole world comes flooding in.


Jan Avgikos

JAN AVGIKOS is a critic and historian who lives and works in NYC and the Hudson Valley.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2020

All Issues