Christopher Wilmarth at Betty Cuningham Gallery

Christopher Wilmarth, LONG MEMPHIS

Christopher Wilmarth, Long Memphis (1973), bent glass and steel cable, 72″ x 38″ x 8″; courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery

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“If it wasn’t magic, it was merchandise”—that was the artistic credo of the American sculptor Christopher Wilmarth (1943-1987), whose work is on display at Betty Cuningham Gallery. The implication is that aesthetic experience is beyond the reach of money. In this era of overpriced art and proud opportunism, Wilmarth’s sentiment can seem naïve. Artists have catered to authority from time immemorial. What’s important is how fully a work of art sustains itself as an independent entity. The Sistine Chapel, for example, may have been contract work, but it’s also infinitely more than that. Wilmarth was right: Magic is exactly what we should expect from art.

The Wilmarth exhibitions that Betty Cuningham has mounted over the past 20 or so years, both in her own gallery and for other venues, have been frustrating largely because they haven’t given the sculptor his due. Ms. Cuningham’s devotion to Wilmarth’s art and his memory is exemplary—it’s that our museums haven’t seen fit to mount a proper retrospective.

Given some of the overinflated reputations our institutions have devoted attention to, it’s something more than a shame and something less than a sin that Wilmarth hasn’t been among them. You can get some feeling as to why that might be from the beautifully installed array at Cuningham Gallery. Delicately modulated, Wilmarth’s glass and steel sculptures are unspectacular: Their considerable ambition is realized with uncommon reticence. Wilmarth wasn’t a showman.

Wilmarth’s sculpture bears some comparison with Georges Seurat’s drawings currently on view at MoMA: They share a sense of elegance, severity and unnerving quietude. Like Seurat the draftsman, Wilmarth conjured forms that are simultaneously immovable and evanescent, forever on the verge of dissipating. Wilmarth’s achievement is remarkable given the obdurate matter-of-factness of Wilmarth’s medium of choice—he was, after all, a sculptor.

Creating ghostly effigies from industrial materials seems an impossible pursuit, but Wilmarth pulled it off with startling eloquence. Heir to both the nuts-and-bolts verities of Constructivism and the take-or-leave-it Minimalist aesthetic, Wilmarth built upon the former and enlarged the latter. Thick planes of glass, augmented by sharp and fast runs of wire, arc from the wall or are fitted within burnished steel armatures. Tension is elicited through tightly honed diagonals and the underplayed use of frosted glass, a medium that both promises and obscures transparency.

As true as his work is as sculpture, Wilmarth was, in important and sometimes stealthy ways, a pictorial artist. Mesh (1971), Second Roebling #2 (1974) and the haunting Portrait of a Memory (1985), for example, are wall pieces. But even in a freestanding piece like the magisterial Invitation #1 (1975-76), you see Wilmarth employing planes, lines and touch (broad sweeps of a brush appear on some of the glass panels) in a painterly fashion. You can feel Matisse within Wilmarth’s broad areas of incident, Diebenkorn in the steadying draftsmanship in the use of wire and, most evocatively, Rothko in the yearning sonorities.

The odd piece out is Everly (1969), a floor sculpture composed of 18 etched glass discs through which a single steel rod has been laced. Divining how this loosely choreographed, wheel-like contraption pays homage to the Everly Brothers doesn’t seem worth the effort—the sculpture is deadened by material literalness.

In other words, Everly doesn’t have the magic—there’s no metaphorical takeoff. But neither is it merchandise. One gauge of an artist’s worth is how his failures possess their own aesthetic integrity. There wasn’t an artificial bone in Wilmarth’s body. If the current exhibition doesn’t testify to the oeuvre’s breadth, it does point to Wilmarth’s implacable and lyrical gift. For that we should be grateful.

© 2008 Mario Naves

Originally published in the January 1, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.

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