Whitehot Magazine

John Duff’s Mysterious Universe at Reena Spaulings Fine Art

John Duff, Inclined Form, 2001, steel, foam. Courtesy of the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York, NY.


By ERIK LA PRADE March 29, 2024

In a conversation/interview I once had with Richard Bellamy, director of the now fabled Green Gallery (1960-1965), Bellamy mentioned that artists are capable of making extreme shifts in their art; which “I at one time felt was characteristic of the best artists, they make these radical changes.”  The operative word in Bellamy’s sentence is “radical,” used here in the sense of “characterized by independence of or departure from tradition; innovative or unorthodox." (1)  Bellamy was known for finding and exhibiting artists whose art in different materials presented the spectator with a “radical” style as exemplified by Dan Flavin; George Segal; Robert Morris; Lucas Samaras; Tom Wesselmann; Lee Lozano; James Rosenquist, among others. 

Throughout the Sixties, artists experimented with many new and unorthodox materials.  Two museum exhibitions, both in 1966, offered a broad selection of such works.  The first exhibition, THE OBJECT TRANSFORMED, at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, presented a historical survey designed to inform visitors about the range of experimental objects artists had created in the decades leading up to the current year.  The objects exhibited ranged from 1936 to 1966.  

The second exhibition, PRIMARY STRUCTURES, at The Jewish Museum, New York, presented a range of artists’ works created in or close to 1966.  In fact, in reading through the catalogue, it appears that all the works in this exhibition were made in the early Sixties.  This exhibition more fully demonstrated the “new” styles of art that were being created during this decade.  Four artists from the Green Gallery were included in this exhibition: Ronald Bladen, Dan Flavin, Robert Morris, and Donald Judd.

A year later, in 1967, a third exhibition, FUNK, opened at the Berkeley University Art Museum, California.  This exhibition showcased a group of West Coast artists, (some of them teachers), whose sculptures also presented radically innovative styles and materials.  The curator was Peter Selz, who had formerly been a curator at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.   

In his introduction to the Berkeley exhibition catalog, Selz wrote: 

Funk art, so prevalent in the San Francisco Bay Area, is largely a matter of attitude.  But many of the works also reveal certain similar characteristics of form - or anti-form.  In the current spectrum of art, Funk is at the opposite extreme of such manifestations as New York “primary structures”. . .  Although usually three-dimensional, it is non-sculptural in any traditional way, and irreverent in attitude. (2)

These three 1960’s exhibitions underlined the new spirit of innovation which permeated the major centers of artistic activity in the US at this time. 

John Duff show at Reena Spaulings Fine Art, thru March 31, 2024. Courtesy of the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York, NY.

Prior to any of these exhibitions, in 1963, the artist John Duff entered the San Francisco Art Institute; he was twenty years old.   By 1964, Duff was a member of a group of young student/artists attending the Institute, including the painters Ronnie Landfield and Gary Stephan, sculptor/painter Peter Reginato and sculptor Rand Hardy.  Eventually, all of these artists would move to New York City.

Two of Duff’s teachers at the Art Institute, William T. Wiley and Manuel Neri, showed their work in the FUNK exhibition.  While the range and style of Duff’s subsequent work would never be categorized as Funk, certainly the artistic atmosphere he encountered in San Francisco as a student, and the materials he used to create his early sculptures, made an impression on him and influenced his development as an artist.  He began working with ceramics at the Art Institute, under artist/teacher Ron Nagle, but soon switched his major to sculpture, working with plaster and wood; eventually he found he preferred to work in fiberglass.  One of Duff’s classmates, Rand Hardy, remembers Duff’s early work: "Duff's translucent fiberglass pieces c[a]me off as forms made, then cast and ripped apart to reveal an essence of form which is experienced as highly inevitable.  The work is  imbued with a challenging sense of "devil may care", and a "no holds barred" aura possessed only by this unique artist." (4) 

 Untitled, 1967. Tree branch, cloth tape, rope, metal ring. Courtesy of the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York, NY.

An early Untitled piece from 1967, which is in Duff’s current exhibition at the Reena Spaulings Fine Art, is made of a tree branch, cloth tape, rope, and a metal ring.  It has an informal, experimental quality expressive of an artist trying out materials to find what he can do with them.

In his last semester in 1967, Duff also had a class with the artist Bruce Nauman. Duff’s description of studying with Nauman sounds more like a tutorial, as it consisted of the pair meeting and talking in the school’s cafeteria, because “that’s what he did.”  However, Nauman did visit the studio where Duff was working, “a couple of times.”  (4)

 Five Materials in Combination II. 2003. Plaster, wax, cement, resin, rubber and steel. Courtesy of the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York, NY.

It is possible to discern the influence these artists had on Duff, either directly or indirectly, in another early Untitled piece from 1968, made of bamboo, fiberglass, wire, and fish, and which is also in the present exhibition. This work, also experimental, now suggests an artist more confident of his talents and finding materials he likes working with.  This particular piece was made in New York, where the artist had moved, in 1968, after graduating from the S.F. Arts Institute. The “fish” in the piece is actually seven fish skins Duff bought from the now-defunct Fulton Fish Market, which was near his studio.  These fish skins are encased in fiberglass.

Untitled, 1968. Bamboo, fiberglass, wire and 7 fish skins. Courtesy of the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York, NY.

When Duff arrived in New York City in 1968, he moved into a building on the Lower East Side, located at 76 Jefferson Street, which was already occupied by a number of other artists. He continued working with fiberglass because it was “cheap, easy to work with and I liked the results.”

Duff was now in an artistic milieu of young, working artists, all exploring the use of non-traditional materials.  Two artists in this group, who, like Duff, were also experimenting with new man-made media were Gary Stephan, who worked with poly-vinyl chloride, and Richard Kalina, who applied acrylic paints over polyester-soaked and shaped canvases.  

Untitled, 2023. Ceramic. Courtesy of the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York, NY.

Sometime during 1968, Kynaston McShine, curator of the PRIMARY STRUCTURES exhibition, visited Duff’s studio.  According to Duff, McShine commented on his work, remarking “how quickly things change.”  It seems McShine was referring back to the work in the PRIMARY STRUCTURES exhibition, and how Duff’s work was an example of changing styles. 

Duff soon moved out of Jefferson Street and into a loft on Stanton Street.  Here, he would work in wood and fiberglass, among other materials.  A year later, in 1969, Duff’s work was included in the ANTI-ILLUSION : PROCEDURES / MATERIALS exhibition at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, curated by Marcia Tucker and James Monte.  Among the other 22 artists included in this exhibition were Bruce Nauman, Richard Tuttle, Eva Hesse, Philip Glass, Robert Lobe and Neil Jenney.  

Corrugated Column, 1970, Courtesy of the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York, NY.

Some of the works in the present exhibition at the Reena Spaulings Gallery form a small retrospective of Duff’s early involvement with fiberglass as a primary material.  One early work, Corrugated Column, 1969, is made of fiberglass and paint. From a few feet away, this work resembles a metal container with a door.  When you move closer to this piece, you can see that the molded surfaces form a continuous ripple effect, similar to pieces of ribbed sheet metal.  The range of varied shapes Duff created using fiberglass reveals his constant experimentation - molding, pushing and forming. Curved Channel, 1970, is another of this group of works made of painted fiberglass, a third being 1983’s Curved Wedge, of fiberglass, polyurethane, and tin cans; a fourth is Silver Serrated Wedge, of fiberglass and paint, 1980.  Although they were made over a ten-year period, they seem to form a theme to which Duff often returned; works with curved openings or a curved form, works that have organic overtones or that seem to relate to each other in some inexplicable manner.

 Curved Wedge, 1983. Fiberglass, polyurethane, tin cans. Courtesy of the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York, NY.


 Curved Channel, 1970. Fiberglass and paint. Courtesy of the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York, NY.

The earliest works in this show are intermixed with six works created during the 1980s.  Afterwards, there is a twenty-year career gap in the show’s chronology, jumping from the 1980s to around 2000.  (Duff’s large, mid-period sculptures of polyurethane, resin and steel, from this period, form a singular body of work, quite different from his earlier work.) 

The  balance of this show features works from the last two decades. Among them are two floor pieces, both made of a combination of materials.  Inclined Form, from 2001, combines steel and foam: a triangular steel frame encases a foam shape.  The second piece, Five Materials in Combination II, dated 2003, consists of ten small cylindrical forms of “variable dimensions,” each composed of plaster, wax, cement, resin, rubber, and steel, arranged in an open triangular formation on the floor. 

In addition, there are four ceramic pieces in this exhibition; one hung on the wall and three sitting on a shelf.  They were made between 2022-23.  As Duff told me, during the the Covid lockdown period in New York, he was only able to have two things delivered to his home: food and clay.  Duff began working in clay at home, eventually working with it in his studio.  The four pieces in the show are only a small sample of the ceramic work he has recently created.  But Duff has since stopped working with clay and returned to making sculptures of welded metal, one of his first materials.(Photo #8)

Duff’s works are not “Minimal” or even “Post-Minimal.” Whereas artists like Carl Andre, Richard Nonas or Donald Judd produced works exploring the nature of weight, gravity, and space, Duff’s works do not seem to take these traditional sculptural concerns into account.  Often, he hangs large works on the wall, contrary to the viewer’s expectation to see such works positioned freestanding on the floor. He is sometimes labelled a “process artist” due to his lifetime fascination with exploring the possibilities and limits of non-traditional materials and with mastering the techniques necessary for working with them.  As to “subject matter,” his later sculptures have seemingly dispensed with all obvious references to identifiable natural forms or forces; they are more purely abstract than the works of his contemporaries, such as Henry Moore, Brancusi, or Louise Bourgeois, whose works often clearly derived from natural forms.  Duff’s shapes, on the other hand, seem to reference engaging and mysterious entities from some other universe, where normal physical laws do not apply.  It is up to the viewer to interpret these enigmatic forms, and the show is well worth the effort.

This show continues at Reena Spaulings Fine Art at 165 East Broadway, NYC, through March 31, 2024. 

All photos courtesy of the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, NY/LA photographer : Joerg Lohse, unless otherwise credited. WM 


1. Online Dictionary Definition – macOS 2020

2. Peter Selz, Notes on Funk. FUNK, University Art Museum Catalog. University of California at Berkeley. Exhibition dates; April 18 – May 29, 1967. Pg. 3 

3. Rand Hardy, Email communication to author, 3 March 2024.

4. Author interview with Duff, 2024. 

Erik La Prade

Erik La Prade has a B.A. and M. A. From City College.  Some of his interviews and articles have appeared in Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail, ArtCritical and NewsWhistle.  His book, Breaking Through: Richard Bellamy and the Green Gallery, 1960-1965, was published in 2010.  MidMarch Arts Press.  His forthcoming book, WEATHER, is published by LAST WORD BOOKS.  Olympia, Washington. 2020

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