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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

A LOBBY OF QUALITY: "THE BENNINGTON LEGACY"

Most art in building lobbies is by unknowns & forgettable. A notable exception is Tower 49, at 12 East 49th Street: it shows gallery- and even museum-quality art. Just now it's exhibiting “The Bennington Legacy: Sculpture by Willard Boepple, Isaac Witkin, and James Wolfe” (through October 29).

LOBBIES V. GALLERIES

Twelve East 49th Street is a handsome office building designed by the prestigious architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and completed in 1985.

Besides the ground-floor lobby, work is displayed in the 24th floor “Skylobby” and on the plaza outside the building that faces 49th Street.

Although this may not be the ideal way to display art, it brings it outside the usual gallery context, and exposes it to lots of people who might never have gotten to see it in a gallery or museum.

The indoor display space is open year-round Monday through Friday, 8 am to 6 pm, and on weekends by appointment; the plaza is viewable 24/7.

THE BENNINGTON LEGACY

This show revolves around three sculptors associated with Bennington College in Vermont in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was a meeting place for artists (and critics) associated with color-field painting and the constructivist sculpture that went with it.

David Smith, America's greatest sculptor, had taught there before being killed in an automobile accident in 1965. Anthony Caro, Britain's greatest sculptor, also taught there.

This show is devoted to three younger -- and, in their separate ways, equally distinctive -- sculptors who came along to Bennington a little later--Isaac Witkin, James Wolfe & Willard Boepple.

Isaac Witkin, a native of South Africa born in 1936, had studied with Caro at St. Martin's School of Art in London, and took over from Caro at Bennington in 1965.

Though only 32, he had already made a name for himself in London with sinuous, brightly-colored fiberglass sculpture marked by what Ken Johnson, in the New York Times, has called "a witty, Pop-Art like look."

At Bennington, he turned to steel in the more rugged constructivist tradition of Smith and Caro.

He was able to do this thanks to the know-how imparted to him by James Wolfe, then a studio assistant in the college art department.

Wolfe was even younger than Witkin, but had learned welding techniques while working as a theatrical technical director and making stage sets.

Witkin also taught Wolfe a thing or three--not least through introducing him to the other color-field celebrities associated with Bennington: the painters Kenneth Noland & Jules Olitski, the critic Clement Greenberg, and Caro himself.

The third and youngest sculptor in the Tower 49 show, Willard Boepple, succeeded Wolfe as Witkin's studio assistant.

Witkin taught Boepple how to weld in steel, but a serious illness that Boepple developed in 1982 forced him to change his materials, so now he works mainly in aluminum or wood.

WOLFE & BOEPPLE: WELCOME REPRISE

The work by the two younger sculptors in this show was not unfamiliar to me, as both have had recent solo shows in Manhattan.

In a posting of August 2, 2014, I reviewed James Wolfe’s exceptionally good-looking recent sculpture in his exhibition at the New York Studio School.

The occasion marked his return to the New York gallery scene after many years spent on the West Coast (he now lives in Maine).

The work at Tower 49 includes pieces from that show, or resembling them: brightly-colored examples in a fluid mode of “drawing in steel.”

"Wickets Tumble" (2014) is particularly wild & free, while the humanoid element wickedly surfaces in a life-sized couple from 2012: "Quartet Purple" (female) and "Quartet Grey" (male).

Boepple’s contributions to the Tower 49 show also revisits two of his recent (and another two or three of his less recent) exhibitions at Lori Bookstein: he is a presence of long standing in Manhattan.

His more recent sculptures, of slender -- or not so slender -- but still straight strips of wood or aluminum either enclose space or define it definitively.

My favorite, from the Bookstein show I reviewed on December 8, 2014, is "Colt" (2013), a vigorous horizontal structure that could be a gun or a baby horse, or maybe just a baby horse-fly -- anyway, it's lots of fun.

Boepple's "Ever" (2008) is a towering vertical. It was one of the group of skyward-soaring shapes that constituted the Bookstein show I reviewed on April 13, 2012.

If you are a gallery-goer, all this work being well worth seeing again. If -- like most people passing through Tower 49 -- you've never seen this work before, now's your chance.

WITKIN: THE REAL NEWS

For me, the real news of the show was the work of Isaac Witkin. I’d been curious about it for a while, as I'd heard about it in the past, but if I’d ever seen it, I didn’t remember it.

Consulting Witkin's obituary by Johnson in the Times for April 29, 2006, I learned that after Witkin had finished at St. Martin's, he had his first solo exhibition at the Rowan Gallery in London in 1963.

Two years later, he was one of nine younger sculptors (most of whom had studied with Caro or had other ties to him) who shook up the London art world with a breakout show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery called “The New Generation: 1965.”

Witkin’s work was also included in “Primary Structures,” the landmark 1966 exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan that elevated minimalism from the studios to the gallery scene.

There is some question as to exactly why Witkin abandoned fiberglass for steel after he came to Bennington.

One reason, according to Karen Wilkin, who wrote the catalog for the Tower 49 show, was that the fumes from working with fiberglass were proving harmful to his health.

A second reason, she says, was that steel “permitted—or forced—him to explore forms and structures different from those he had used in the past and allowed -- or forced – him to construct more directly and spontaneously.”

She quotes Witkin himself, saying in 1997, that “Steel was the key to spatial freedom.”

Dare I suggest a possible third reason—namely, that the “Pop Art-like look” might not have been overly popular in high modern Bennington?

Wilkin firmly insists that Witkin was demonstrating his “independence” by dumping his earlier approach in favor of a material and means of construction already hallowed by Smith and Caro.

But, knowing how persuasive Certain Critics could be, I find that old line from “Hamlet” floating through my mind – “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Not that it matters. If somebody was suggesting to Witkin that he try steel, it was excellent advice, to judge from the result on display at Tower 49. “Shogun” (1968) is massive – 6 feet high, 12 feet square.

Made of bolted steel, it’s coal-black, not as graceful as Smith or Caro, but with a naked physical energy all its own.

In composition, it performs magic, rotating & soaring upward while at the same time firmly anchored to the ground, a memorable visual oxymoron.

It’s the only work by Witkin in this entire show, but it’s right out there on the plaza in front of the building, so you can walk right by and see it anytime.
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