BYLINE: RUBINSTEIN, RAPHAEL
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
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
(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
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
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
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
others that are cantilevered or attenuated; he creates internal volumes by both organic and geometric enclosures; singlemass forms give way to latticelike
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
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
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.”
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
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
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 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
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
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)
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
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
hugging other things for support. Others hung above your head. Objects were broken up, yet remained continuous. Some forms very different from each
that its role was not merely passive.(6)
Intermittently in the late 1960s and more intensely from 1970 on, Sugarman’s investigation of active space took the form of outdoor, public sculptures.
this work’s four streamlined forms, which describe a variety of internal volumes, are spaced out widely from one another. The roughly 3 1/2-foot-high
This tendency toward sleeker shapes finds its fullest expression in Ten (1968-69), a compelling, and in some ways uncharacteristic, work which was one of
the last sculptures Sugarman made in wood. (Its presence at Hunter was especially welcome since the Museum of Modern Art, which purchased Ten in
1976, rarely displays it.) Standing over 7 feet high and 5 feet wide, stretching to almost 12 1/2 feet in length, Ten initially presents itself as a single,
self-enclosed, smoothly contoured white form, looming up in the space like a svelte igloo. Quickly, however, its reliance on separate components becomes
evident. As the title subtly tells us, the sculpture is composed of 10 distinct, differently configured forms which have been set within inches of one another.
The narrow spaces between these tall verticals allow you to peer into the physically inaccessible interior. These gaps are carefully situated to bring light into
parts of the interior, while other areas are left in darkness. The play of light and shadow is further complicated by the fact that the vertical elements are not
simple walls but forms which loop up and down like towels hanging on a rack. Truncated, footlike extensions along the bottom of these looping elements
help stabilize the piece as well as establish a formal connection to the floor on which the sculpture sits.
In addition to its understated technical brilliance, Ten also exudes powerful symbolism. Holliday T. Day, the curator of Sugarman’s traveling retrospective
of 1981-82, has drawn attention to the work’s female and male polarities: the three narrow forms at one end suggest a phallic lingam form, while the oval at
being “somewhere between an Egyptian sarcophagus and a tantric cosmic egg.”(8) The work also presents a paradoxical situation of a shelterlike structure
which is impossible to enter. It’s a tribute to the undogmatic nature of Sugarman’s imagination that Ten should forgo so many of the qualities that
characterized his work of the previous decade (bright colors, incongruous elements). And it’s equally noteworthy that after completing Ten he didn’t go on
turning out variations on the theme.
repositioning a single element, the Hunter show skipped ahead to 1987. In the intervening years, Sugarman embraced the medium of painted aluminum,
paper and leather compound, for the aluminum works.)
In the 1970s, as well as creating public sculptures around the country, Sugarman expanded his practice to include wall reliefs and acrylic paintings.
Responding to the properties of his new materials, while still retaining his enthusiasm for color and irregular shapes, he opted for different kinds of forms,
building sculptures out of fiat, foliage-like elements. After the austerities of the Minimalist 1960s, his work found a more congenial art-world environment
in the mid-’70s. In his recent survey Art of the Postmodern Era, Irving Sandler discusses Sugarman’s 1970s work in the chapter on “Pattern and Decoration
Painting,” noting how the “profuse forms and exuberant color” of his early 1970s work “stunned” the younger P & D artists.(9) (Sandler also makes the
erstwhile Minimalist embraced wildly colored, curvilinear forms.)
The seven sculptures from the late ’80s and ’90s that rounded out the Hunter College exhibition demonstrated that Sugarman, who turns 87 this year, has
continued to evolve artistically. The Hanging Men (1987), is a freestanding, black-and-white structure that evokes mechanical objects such as gears, rudders
many of Sugarman’s public works. The “hanging men” of the title–three black, bladelike forms impaled on a white spar that projects from the sculpture’s
side–are less the sculpture’s subjects than they are its victims.
Yellow Fringes (1990) shows Sugarman’s continuing involvement with eccentric, disparate forms. The core of this sculpture, which is installed high on the
wall and suggests a spiky, half-open fan, is a bundle of three black-and-white girders–one sporting sawtooth edges, another punctuated by bent
rhythmic, fencelike patterns. With a formal unpredictability as great as his “one thing after another” floor sculptures of the mid 1960s, Sugarman here
invites viewers to exercise their vision by focusing attention in an unusual place (where the wall meets the ceiling) and, there, to engage in retinal battle with a
thrusting sculpture that keeps its complexities partly hidden.
Yellow and White (1995) is a roughly 5 1/2-foot-high aluminum work composed of two elements: a gracefully twisted white shape at once suggestive of a
curving funnel on a ship, a megaphone and the pistil of a flower, and, at its base, a boxy yellow form with irregular folds and scalloped edges. Sugarman
works against our expectations by placing the more brightly hued, petal-like form on the floor rather than at the top of the stemlike white form. He also
creates a work which, with its tapering edges, torqued planes and opened and closed volumes, offers the mobile viewer an equally mobile set of formal
In his introduction to the catalogue that accompanied the Hunter show, Museum of Modern Art curator Robert Storr suggests that there is a resonance
between their work and Sugarman’s (particularly his painted-wood sculptures of 1963-67), and would only add to his list three more American sculptors:
junior is that in the early 1960s he rejected the notion of “troth to materials,” happily obscuring the “natural” properties of the wood he used with repeated
coats of acrylic paint. Another is his Baroque-influenced fondness for extended forms that undertake unruly excursions from their bases.(10)
Given these affinities with younger artists, it’s surprising that Sugarman’s achievement isn’t more widely recognized and that it was left to Hunter College,
rather than a major American museum, to offer this survey. No doubt, Sugarman’s long focus on public art (rather than on gallery and museum work) has
been a factor. Also at play, I fear, is the profound indifference shown by large swaths of the art world to the kind of formal inventiveness and complex visual
(1.) Quoted in Barbara Rose and Irving Sandler, “Sensibility of the Sixties,” Art in America, January-February, 1967, p. 51.
(2.) Amy Goldin, “George Sugarman,” in George Sugarman: Plastiken, Collagen, Zeichnungen, Kunsthalle Basel, 1969, unpaginated.
(4.) Stephen Davis, “Disparity in Sugarman,” George Sugarman, New York, Hunter College, 1998, p. 8. Davis also points out the similarities between
Sugarman’s work and Frank Gehry’s architecture, especially his Guggenheim Bilbao.
(5.) See Holliday T. Day, Shape of Space: The Sculpture of George Sugarman, Omaha, Joslyn Art Museum 1982, p. 16.
(6.) Artist’s statement in George Sugarman, Tokyo, Contemporary Sculpture Center, 1993, unpaginated.
(7.) Day, p. 42.
(8.) Ibid., “Recollections,” p. 88.
(9.) Irving Sandier, Art of the Postmodern Era: From the Late 608 to the Early 908, New York, HarperCollins, 1996, p. 144.
“George Sugarman” was seen at the Gallery in the Fine Arts Building, Hunter College, New York [Feb. 18-Apr. 11, 1998]. The accompanying catalogue
includes texts by the curator Stephen Davis and by Robert Storr. Sugarman was also included in a recent three-person show at Tatunz Gallery, New York
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