George Sugarman (A Sculpture) A Polychrome Profusion; sculptor George Sugarman, Fine Arts Building, New York, New York BYLINE: RUBINSTEIN, RAPHAEL Best known today for his public art, George Sugarman began his career with formally eccentric painted-wood sculptures. In a revelatory New York exhibition, early pieces were shown alongside the 86-year-old artist’s more recent aluminum work. In the course of 1998, there were a number of important sculpture exhibitions in New York galleries and museums, including the Museum of Modern Art’s Tony Smith retrospective, Dia’s presentation of Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses, and a group of David Smith’s late painted-steel works at Gagosian Gallery. For me, however, the most impressive and thought-provoking sculpture show of the year was a concise survey of George Sugarman’s work presented by Hunter College at the galleries in its Fine Arts Building on Manhattan’s West 41st Street. Bringing together 16 sculptures made between 1958 and 1995, the exhibition allowed viewers to trace Sugarman’s career from his carved-wood works of the late 1950s to his polychrome, laminated-wood pieces of the 1960s to the painted-aluminum work that has occupied him since the early 1970s.
While the show did not cover Sugarman’s extensive activity in the public-art realm–over the last 30 years he has created large-scale public sculptures throughout the U.S. as well as in Europe and Asia–it was an effective presentation of his indoor work. (Sugarman has drawn a useful distinction between what he calls the indoor eye, a museum- and gallery-oriented esthetic vision which perceives the work of art in isolation from its surroundings, and the outdoor eye, which allows us to view public art as part of a wider environment.) Thanks to the presence of major, rarely seen works such as Two in One (1966) and Ten (1968), the show was a welcome reminder of Sugarman’s unique and indispensable contribution to postwar sculpture. One of the earliest works on view was Six Forms in Pine (1959), a carved-wood sculpture which brought Sugarman his first major recognition when it won a prize at the 1961 Carnegie International. Among the last of his unpainted works, it’s a nearly 12-foot-long, smoothly flowing concatenation of horizontal abstract forms that rests on two pedestals set several feet apart. Rippling patterns of chisel marks are visible across every surface as are the strata of the laminated wood.
The forms, which range from gently swelling, landscape-like shapes to more sharply defined volumes that evoke architecture or hand tools, are clearly differentiated within the continuous overall structure. While the carving technique and biomorphism relate Six Forms in Pine to established sculptural styles of the 1950s, the sculpture also possesses properties which presage Sugarman’s innovative work of the next decade. The double pedestal format, in which the sculpture seems to be leaping off its bases, anticipates his subsequent elimination of the pedestal, and the emphatic horizontality of the sculpture is a move toward the extended structures of the artist’s 1960s work. Sugarman’s next phase was represented by three works: Blue and Red (1961), Second Red and Blue (1962) and Three Forms on a Pole (1962). As the titles of the first two sculptures suggest, color is an important component of these works; the sculptures also show Sugarman’s rapid elimination of obviously hand-carved surfaces. Measuring 3 1/2 feet high and 5 feet long, Blue and Red is an open, carved-wood piece combining geometric uprights with more organic cantilevered forms, all of which are painted in primary colors. Second Blue and Red, a modestly sized pedestal work, relies on similar colors but it takes a very different compositional approach. Balanced atop a chunky red form that suggests a bending torso is a horizontal blue element made from flat, irregularly shaped pieces of wood that have been pressed together to create a kind of sideways sculptural sandwich.
With few, if any, precedents in the history of sculpture, this playfully inventive blue element (in and of itself, as well as in relation to the red form) announces Sugarman’s gift for finding new kinds of sculptural syntax. When the Hunter exhibition picks up the tale again, it’s 1966, the year Sugarman made one of the most striking works of his career, Two in One. At first glance, this sculpture, which was given a gallery unto itself, looks like it should really be called Nineteen in One, since it consists not of two but of 19 different painted-wood forms laid out in a narrow, 24-foot-long V formation. At the apex of the V is a dark-purple, floor-hugging geometric shape that looks like a freestanding sculpture toppled by some careless passerby. The two rows of forms branching out from this flattened keystone are as abundant and various as the contents of a child’s box of toys.
The palette can shift, in the space of four elements, from yellow green to cobalt violet to black to cerulean blue, but just when it appears that Sugarman’s system is to give every part a different color, you notice a sequence of three adjacent shapes painted bright yellow. The shapes and sizes of the elements are, if anything, even more varied than their colors. Sugarman juxtaposes solid and squat forms with others that are cantilevered or attenuated; he creates internal volumes by both organic and geometric enclosures; singlemass forms give way to latticelike structures; a knee-high form is succeeded by a towering 11-foot presence. Some of the individual parts are themselves multifarious, such as a low-lying, raw-sienna piece near the junction of the two rows which combines a highly abstracted kneeling figure, a cantilevered beam and an upright plane (it looks like a snowplow blade) that seems to be pushing the rest of the sculpture before it. This veritable encyclopedia of sculptural possibilities appears concerned with defying all formal continuity, but as you move around Two in One, which is laid out to offer a virtually inexhaustible number of viewpoints, the relationships between the various components begin to seem not so purely random.
An angular, constructivist form and a biomorphic shape turn out to share similar internal volumes; the sides of a low, sawtooth form rhyme visually with an hourglass shape that rises next to it; lateral slots recur in several components; the asymmetrical nature of the two branches is balanced by the consistent bilateral symmetry of each individual piece. At the same time that he invites the viewer to enjoy this inventive, almost carnivalesque parade of shapes, Sugarman also offers multiple occasions for us to partake of his unusual artistic logic, to uncover how one form covertly translates into the next. The year after Two in One, in an Art in America symposium on the 1960s, Sugarman described his heterogeneous chains as the result of a connective process in which the first form fathers the second, the second the third, etc.(1) This generative quality was picked up on by the late Amy Goldin, one of Sugarman’s most perceptive critics. In 1969, Goldin advised Sugarman’s audience not to be misled by the gaiety of his color or the heartiness of his form. Instead of being charmed by such aspects, it was necessary to ask where the piece of sculpture begins and ends. Insist on knowing why this is green while that is yellow.
Why the segments are set this distance apart, neither abutted nor spaced more widely.(2) Confronted with complex works such as Two in One or Inscape (1964), another important multipart, multicolored floor piece, viewers may find Goldin’s advice daunting to follow, but it remains some of the best advice for appreciating the formal intricacies of Sugarman’s work. Another helpful hint may lie in the title of an early Sugarman sculpture–One for Ornette Coleman (1961). Like that free jazz innovator, whose music inspired a number of abstract artists in the early 1960s, Sugarman challenges us to comprehend the underlying structure of apparently disjunctive works. The presence at Hunter of Two in One, offering the opportunity to compare it to the preceding Six Forms in Pine, was a reminder of the immense amount of esthetic ground Sugarman covered in the first half of the 1960s. This was a moment when sculpture was breaking with many traditions, old and new; one of the first to go was sculpture’s literal foundation.
There’s some debate as to who was the first artist to dispense with the pedestal, but certainly works such as Sugarman’s Four Walls, Five Forms (1961-62), a painted-wood work in which five individually complex elements appear to have collided on the floor, were instrumental. As one critic later observed: Beginning in the early ’60s, sculpture came down off its pedestal. Some give credit to Anthony Cato for this move; a rougher, more dramatic, and perhaps more influential leap was accomplished almost simultaneously by an as yet-underacknowledged American, George Sugarman.(3) Interestingly, the curator of the Hunter College show, Stephen Davis, suggests that while Sugarman’s elimination of the pedestal and his use of bright colors were a striking departure from the practice of the day, even more revolutionary was the radical decentering of the viewer in works such as Two in One.(4) Revolutionary they may have been, but Sugarman’s innovations also looked back to the history of sculpture, in particular to the Baroque era. This is especially evident in works such as Bardana (1962-63) and Ritual Place (1964-65), a pair of polychrome, laminated-wood pieces in which part of the sculpture sits on a pedestal while other elements make drooping thrusts down to the floor. During his years in Europe (1951-55), Sugarman had been impressed by Baroque architecture and art, in particular Bernini’s Cathedra Petri and the Ecstasy of St. Theresa, where the sculptural forms burst out of their architectural niches.(5) After his return to New York, he began to incorporate a Baroque sense of formal abundance into the abstract language of modern art.
In 1993, Sugarman recalled his artistic concerns of the late 1950s and early 1960s and how they led him to make sculptures that left the pedestal and incorporated wildly dissimilar shapes: Space fascinated me. Why did most sculptures use a vertical, figure-like space even with abstract forms? I looked around. Objects and living things crawled and spread out on the ground. You had to bend down to see them properly. Your body had a different relationsh …