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A Polychrome Profusion; sculptor George Sugarman, Fine Arts Building, New York, New York
BYLINE: RUBINSTEIN, RAPHAEL
Best known today for his public art, George Sugarman began his career with formally eccentric painted-wood sculptures. In a revelatory New York
exhibition, early pieces were shown alongside the 86-year-old artist’s more recent aluminum work.
In the course of 1998, there were a number of important sculpture exhibitions in New York galleries and museums, including the Museum of Modern Art’s
Tony Smith retrospective, Dia’s presentation of Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses, and a group of David Smith’s late painted-steel works at Gagosian
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
the late 1950s to his polychrome, laminated-wood pieces of the 1960s to the painted-aluminum work that has occupied him since the early 1970s. While the
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
U.S. as well as in Europe and Asia–it was an effective presentation of his “indoor” work. (Sugarman has drawn a useful distinction between what he calls
the “indoor eye,” a museum- and gallery-oriented esthetic vision which perceives the work of art in isolation from its surroundings, and the “outdoor eye,”
which allows us to view public art as part of a wider environment.) Thanks to the presence of major, rarely seen works such as Two in One (1966) and Ten
(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
abstract forms that rests on two pedestals set several feet apart. Rippling patterns of chisel marks are visible across every surface as are the strata of the
laminated wood. The forms, which range from gently swelling, landscape-like shapes to more sharply defined volumes that evoke architecture or hand tools,
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
obviously hand-carved surfaces. Measuring 3 1/2 feet high and 5 feet long, Blue and Red is an open, carved-wood piece combining geometric uprights with
more organic cantilevered forms, all of which are painted in primary colors. Second Blue and Red, a modestly sized pedestal work, relies on similar colors
but it takes a very different compositional approach. Balanced atop a chunky red form that suggests a bending torso is a horizontal blue element made from
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
and various as the contents of a child’s box of toys. The palette can shift, in the space of four elements, from yellow green to cobalt violet to black to
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
bright yellow. The shapes and sizes of the elements are, if anything, even more varied than their colors. Sugarman juxtaposes solid and squat forms with
others that are cantilevered or attenuated; he creates internal volumes by both organic and geometric enclosures; singlemass forms give way to latticelike
structures; a knee-high form is succeeded by a towering 11-foot presence. Some of the individual parts are themselves multifarious, such as a low-lying,
raw-sienna piece near the junction of the two rows which combines a highly abstracted kneeling figure, a cantilevered beam and an upright plane (it looks
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
laid out to offer a virtually inexhaustible number of viewpoints, the relationships between the various components begin to seem not so purely random. An
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
hourglass shape that rises next to it; lateral slots recur in several components; the asymmetrical nature of the two branches is balanced by the consistent
bilateral symmetry of each individual piece. At the same time that he invites the viewer to enjoy this inventive, almost carnivalesque parade of shapes,
Sugarman also offers multiple occasions for us to partake of his unusual artistic logic, to uncover how one form covertly translates into the next.
The year after Two in One, in an Art in America symposium on the 1960s, Sugarman described his heterogeneous chains as the result of a connective
process in which “the first form fathers the second, the second the third, etc.”(1) This generative quality was picked up on by the late Amy Goldin, one of
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.”
Instead of being charmed by such aspects, it was necessary to “ask where the piece of sculpture begins and ends. Insist on knowing why this is green while
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
One or Inscape (1964), another important multipart, multicolored floor piece, viewers may find Goldin’s advice daunting to follow, but it remains some of
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
Ornette Coleman (1961). Like that free jazz innovator, whose music inspired a number of abstract artists in the early 1960s, Sugarman challenges us to
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 esthetic ground Sugarman covered in the first half of the 1960s. This was a moment when sculpture was breaking with many traditions, old and new; one
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
as Sugarman’s Four Walls, Five Forms (1961-62), a painted-wood work in which five individually complex elements appear to have collided on the floor,
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
move; a rougher, more dramatic, and perhaps more influential leap was accomplished almost simultaneously by an as yet-underacknowledged American,
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)
Revolutionary they may have been, but Sugarman’s innovations also looked back to the history of sculpture, in particular to the Baroque era. This is
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
architectural niches.(5) After his return to New York, he began to incorporate a Baroque sense of formal abundance into the abstract language of modern
art. In 1993, Sugarman recalled his artistic concerns of the late 1950s and early 1960s and how they led him to make sculptures that left the pedestal and
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
and spread out on the ground. You had to bend down to see them properly. Your body had a different relationship to them. Some things climbed up,
hugging other things for support. Others hung above your head. Objects were broken up, yet remained continuous. Some forms very different from each
other were adjacent yet made a coherent image. Space was used in every conceivable way. It was active, it was as if it adapted itself to the needs of the world,
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.
While, as already noted, the Hunter exhibition skipped this aspect of Sugarman’s career, the show did include Yellow to White to Blue to Black (1967), the
sculpture that became the model for the first of Sugarman’s public commissions, for the Xerox Corporation in El Segundo, Calif. In contrast to Two in One,
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
pieces are also characterized by Sugarman’s emerging interest in larger, curving planes.
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
the other end is emphatically egglike.(7) Brad Davis, an artist who worked as Sugarman’s assistant during the making of Ten, has described the work as
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.
After a quick stop in 1970 for Green and White Spiral, a tour-de-force demonstration of how to arrive at formal complexity by multiplying and
repositioning a single element, the Hunter show skipped ahead to 1987. In the intervening years, Sugarman embraced the medium of painted aluminum,
both for large-scale outdoor works and smaller sculptures. (It would have been interesting to see some of the maquettes Sugarman fashions, using a pliable
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
intriguing suggestion that Sugarman’s painted-metal works may have influenced the metal reliefs Frank Stella began making in the mid-1970s, when 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
and airplane parts. The sculpture seems to reject the sensual spirituality of Ten and is equally devoid of the gracefully proliferating, vegetal forms that mark
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
flaps–which jut out several feet at about a 40 degree angle. Wedged between these girders and the wall are five flat aluminum forms, alternately black and
white, that resemble oversized Christmas stockings. Bristling from the outside of the girders are three bright-yellow aluminum forms (the “fringes”) cut into
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 Sugarman’s work and that of younger sculptors such as Polly Apfelbaum, Charles Long and Peter Soriano. I agree with Storr in seeing an affinity
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:
Jeanne Silverthorne, Jessica Stockholder and Daniel Wiener. One quality of Sugarman’s work that links it to the sculpture of artists 40 or more years his
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
thinking on which Sugarman’s art is based. I can only hope that the art students who made up a significant portion of the audience for this exhibition found
some of their late-century assumptions about art-making challenged by the high order of visual invention on hand.
(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.
(3.) John Perreault, “George Sugarman, Joslyn Art Museum,” Artforum, Summer 1982.
(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.
(10.) Compare Bardana and Ritual Place with Silverthorne’s Untitled (Fragment), 1996 [A.i.A., June '97, p. 100] or Wiener’s Ball, 1993 [A.i.A., Nov. '95, p.
“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
[Feb. 2-Mar. 20]. His newest large-scale public sculpture will be inaugurated in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, in July, as part of the Universiada Sculpture
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