Historical Journal


How it Happens the Moment it Happens

August 2, 1989
Ronald Jones

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John Chamberlain
Donald Judd
Joel Shapiro
Richard Serra
Lately I have been working exclusively on the construction of farms and the systems of their construction – Aleksanchr Rodchenko 1917
When I work, there is no consciousness of ideals -but intuition and impulse. – David Smith 1960
Aleksandr Rodchenko and David Smith are here too. In stirring ways their art centers this exhibition more decisively than had the work actually been at hand. History presents them in their absence and for that reason alone, exhibitions such as this one mark occasions increasingly rare. Chamberlain, Judd, Serra and Shapiro fairly represent the program formalist sculpture has pursued. Chamberlain and Shapiro, the eldest and youngest of this lot, work so that the personality of the artist takes hold within the material aspects of sculpture. Judd and Serra, really of the same generation of artists, make sculpture whose eloquence and awe surfaces from something more programmatic. From early on these sculptors appreciated the disparity that existed between them as surely as they knew the history Rodchenko and Smith stood for.
In 1963 Donald Judd wrote: -Chamberlains work was never a Priori. The concluding order is not an essence. The order is not one of control or distillation, but of continual choices, often between accidents, An activity proliferates its own distinctions; an order forms within these:’ And then, two years later, in his profound theoretical exegesis “Specific Objects;’ Judd detailed his own position:
In the three-dimensional work the whole thing is made according to complex purposes, and these are not scattered but asserted by one form. It isn’t necessary for a work to have a lot of things to look at, to compare, to analyze one by one, to contemplate. The thing as a whole, its quality as a whole, is what’s interesting. The main things are alone and are more intense, clear and powerful, They are not diluted by an inherited format, variations of a form, mild contrasts and connecting parts and areas… In the new work the shape, image, color and surface are single and not partial and scattered.
Today Judd remains as committed to that earlier dogma as Chamberlain is faithful to thoughtful appraisal in the face of new possibilities. The way their art stands at odds with one another persuasively conveys something salient and enduring in the history of modern sculpture. Without meaning to trivialize that history I think it constructive to see Judd and Serra’s art as being about how something happens while Chamberlain and Shapiro’s sculpture seem expressions of the moment something happens. Worth distinguishing, this difference lies between determinism and fatalism, between realizing how things take place and having the faith that they will.
By this measure, Chamberlain and Shapiro’s art seems drenched in romanticism: each a vignette profiling the miscarriage of modernism’s promised future. Shapiro’s collapsing stick figures, nearly robotic in appearance, and Chamberlain’s graceful compositions of collided automobile fragments sympathetically picture modernism’s atrophy by aestheticizing it. They hold the pose of mechanization in the midst of dysfunction; always suspending the denouement to frame the weird poignancy that accompanies tragic deformity.
Their sculpture shares history not only with Smith but Giacometti and Picasso. Think back to the disquieting irrationality that centers Smith’s
The Rape, 1945, Giacometti’s City Square, 1948 and Picasso’s straining doll Figure, 1935. Each is defined well within the usual terms of modern sculpture and singles out a moment that is the revelation of exhaustive futility.
For Serra and Judd, of course, it is the other way around. Rodchenko and Tatlin’s theology of absolutism prefigure their art. If Chamberlain and Shapiro’s sculpture expresses an intuitive, deeply held empathy for the pathetic circumstances of despair, Judd and Serra bluntly externalize an explicit pragmatism, confidence transferred to the surface. The sculptures, their materials and compositions, are frank expressions that heighten our sense of how things come to be. Judd’s progressive wall reliefs deftly telegraph a blinking sequence of mass and void. It is a compositional Doppelganger, a reciprocal rhythm that unfolds before us with a strict economy of means. His art details a pure equilibrium, a neutral zone inviting unmediated experience.
Serra’s prop piece belligerently engages the architecture of the gallery defining itself by a physics of balance and mass. It is an uncomplicated account of its own structural integrity. A trust in those things timeless, a belief in the transcendental has been bullied away. And yet faith still comes to mind before this sculpture, a faith that is made, specific, here, and now.
The terms of formalist sculpture seem fairly certain, It is a sureness that these sculptors have contributed to and in significant ways. But with occasions for reflection, differences still arise. Differences, like the one between “how” and the “moment;’ are useful as the means to draw history out of this contemporary setting. And this exhibition makes evident just how essential history, the absence of Rodchenko and Smith, has become.
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