John Willenbecher: Works from the 1960s
On ViewCraig F. Starr Gallery
October 5, 2021 – February 26, 2021
John Willenbecher’s work is an art of anticipation. His precise forms anticipate the seriousness of Minimalism, while his paradoxically playful objects beg to be handled, a quashed call to participation impossibly choreographed behind glass. In this sense, Willenbecher’s objects also speak to the precious relics of Fluxus, which once invited engagement and discovery—the works themselves “border on the nonexistent,” as George Brecht once described the marriage between his choice of objects and the spectator’s hand. However, with Fluxus works now cloistered in institutional settings, this idea of the work disappearing takes on a new meaning that Willenbecher responds to with scenarios which seem to hang in suspended animation, pre-safeguarded.
Mysteriously occupying space like prophecies, the works on view here foreshadow action. Chance feels like it is about to tumble into the spaces Willenbecher has created. All but one of these works feel like stable, fastened, sturdy stages upon which organic, spirited events are about to take place.
The one that doesn’t, an untitled work from 1962, features three symmetrically-placed painted chair leg forms, à la Louise Nevelson, resolutely positioned within a circle. They hover above their opposite: a scattering of gray balls labelled with white numbers, suggesting a Powerball drawing that has picked a winner. This random array creates an intimacy the other pieces and the chair legs seem designed to withhold, an intriguing push-pull that permeates Willenbecher’s largely forgotten but nonetheless seminal work.
Willenbecher was born in Macungie in eastern Pennsylvania—indeed, some of his works remind me of folk art “hex signs,” making him a Surrealist bridge between New York’s art world and the Pennsylvania Dutch. Residing in Tribeca since 1970, Willenbecher’s “eyes were opened” in 1961 by William Seitz’s Art of Assemblage exhibition at MoMA, which featured striking three-dimensional works by both Dadaists and a number of younger contemporary figures. Vowing to become an artist himself, Willenbecher began to create works like Unknown Game #3 (1963), included here, which features store-bought gold leafed letters spelling a nonsense word, “PANSA,” a fabricated roulette wheel, and four orbs. Unknown Game was included in the influential 1964 exhibition Boxes at the Virginia Dwan Gallery in LA, and Willenbecher also showed at Richard Feigen’s New York gallery starting in 1963. The current show at Craig F. Starr marks Willenbecher’s first exhibition since 2003, featuring many early works shown publicly for the first time.
I departed the exhibition feeling I’d glimpsed a decade uncontaminated by the blood of Altamont, Kent State, or the heartbreaking assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK. Here was the surprising, whimsical promise of the ’60s, the mod stylishness of Carnaby Street, and the heartfelt longing of Otis Redding or the Mamas and the Papas. Darkness-free while not Pollyannish, a feeling of mystery surrounded me—visiting the exhibition you have the sense of stepping into a conundrum. The elegant presentation of 10 boxes and 6 small paintings under muted light obfuscated some of the artist’s intentions and precise techniques, but never the unknowable, enigmatic lure of his work.
Calling himself a scavenger, Willenbecher employs painted wooden blocks, Christmas ornaments, drawers, and other found objects in this work, always painted black, white, and various shades of gray. A fabricator helped him build boxes with sliding glass panels then painted, assembled and layered in complex ways. Nine of these constructions, created between 1962 and 1964, are mostly laid out in a manner that recalls the bride-bachelor division of Duchamp’s Large Glass, with one area hovering atop another. Each is then broken down into various sub-groupings, often orbs eclipsing flat circles in glass and wood.
Willenbecher’s affinity for circles—always, to him, the perfect geometric form—is also seen in a series of six ink-and-acrylic paintings in combinations of rings divided into 9 or 12 sections. These clock-like arrangements use color to mirror the latest work included in this show, a dual-sided mixed media piece, Double Uranograph #1 (1967). This pointed a way forward in Willenbecher’s evolution, introducing color spectrums and light science as an important theme. Later sculptures remained similarly “schematic,” but took on astronomy, constellations, and the myths of the heavens as reference points.
The early works on view here were greatly inspired by Joseph Cornell, but they are also in close dialogue with many other artists and activities of the era. We can see this in Willenbecher’s Game with Sixteen Balls (1962), which features large gold leafed letters spelling “LYRI,” grounding a matrix of numbered balls above. The use of nonsensical text and numbers provide an echo of the concrete poetry of the 1960s. Numerical arrays likewise bring to mind the systems-related art of modernists like Alfred Jensen, as well as the familiarity of Robert Indiana’s Cardinal Numbers. Some of Willenbecher’s unremembered contemporaries like George Ortman and May Wilson are also evoked by his buoyant fabrications, which in some parallel universe, may have moved the ’60s away from Warhol’s cul-de-sac of celebrity and disaster paintings. Taking a second look at artists like Willenbecher, who share Andy Warhol’s devotion to patterns and behavioral relationships but took a different path, shows us a literal sweet spot where craftsmanship could meet science and game theory. Exhibitions like this one point to the possibility of a more balanced tally of winners and losers than the world we currently inhabit.