“Shapes” of the Space at Washburn Gallery

Detail Image

George Sugarman, Yellow to White to Blue to Black (c. 1966), acrylic on wood laminate, 40-1/2″ x 162.88″ and Stuart Davis, Untitled (Black and White Variation on “Pochade) (c. 1956-58), casein on canvas, 45″ x 46″; courtesy Washburn Gallery

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The dialogue that accrues between the painter Stuart Davis (1892-1964) and the sculptor George Sugarman (1912-1999), the subjects of an exhibition at Washburn Gallery, is predicated on “ideal space relations,” on how fully their respective mediums embrace and embody that essential attribute of art-making.

Davis believed that “one must see the ‘shapes’ of space not the shapes of the objects that occur in it.” Sugarman’s “absolute conviction [was] that the purpose of a sculpture is to create the presence of space.” You wonder: Did the two New Yorkers meet? If so, they must have considered each other brothers-in-form.

The Washburn show is geared more to specialists than the layperson, if only because it is too modest to fill out its conceit. Juxtaposing four Sugarman sculptures with a handful of Davis pieces—two drawings, one painting and, somewhat incongruously, actual-size photo-reproductions of related works—Washburn aims to reveal and confirm aesthetic commonalities.

Given that both men took inspiration from Cubism, favored cobbled and jutting shapes and exuded a brash exuberance rooted in the American vernacular, it can’t have been too arduous a task, even at this adumbrated scale. Still, what there is to see has been set forth with the nuance and surety we’ve come to expect from this venue.

This is particularly evident in the Davis works that have been selected, diagrammatic pictures that, because of their lack of color, explicitly key in to Sugarman’s carved forms, sloping contours and jaunty rhythms. It’s left to the sculptures to pick up the chromatic slack—particularly in Washburn’s back gallery, wherein the self-evident Yellow to White to Blue to Black and an untitled piece from 1969, with its saturated purples and oranges, fill in the blanks left by Davis.

Would that Sugarman held as fast a place in the American firmament as Davis; his art tells us more about the possibilities of sculpture and space than any stray Minimalist you could name. Maybe this exhibition will help to rectify that situation. In the meantime, the work is there to be mooted and enjoyed.

Through Dec. 18, Washburn Gallery, 20 W. 57th St.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Originally published in the October 28, 2010 edition of City Arts.

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