January 30 - March 14, 2020
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, March 2020
The gifted sculptor Christopher Wilmarth, who died young, and tragically, by his own hand at the age of 44, maintains a poetic presence in this excellent show of seven sculptures and eight drawings. The artist worked with partially transparent glass the color of sea foam, and added wire to contain and embellish his broad planes of light green. Before his life ended, Wilmarth was gaining considerable recognition as a sculptor of lyric truths via exquisite materials. A decisive craftsman of great skill, he was also someone who communicated, within the beauty of his hand, of the melancholy that beset him during his life.
At the same time, we can look slightly askance at Wilmarth’s achievement--maybe it was not fully realized, given the shortness of his life--and maybe the materials are so exquisite as to be a touch esoteric or jewel-like. This might be germane to an ongoing discussion of his career, but maybe not: one senses in this exhibition something much more than an inchoate immaturity or an obsession with beautiful materials. In a large sense, Wilmarth was a voyager for whom sculpture encompassed a passage into the otherworldly. Given the American predilection for an often flat surface treatment in imagery, one that does not necessarily attract a spiritual reading, it makes sense to see Wilmarth’s work as a highly original, and also slightly marginal, view of what art is capable of.
The sculptures themselves are deeply abstract, telling no story beyond the display of materials. Half Open Drawing (1971) is a simple etched glass plate, with a darker panel sandwiched above and below by lighter green glass. Steel cable is visible in the central piece of glass, with a knot in the middle; in the top plate, a small knot escapes into the open from behind the glass. Self-sufficient, but hardly self-adulatory, the drawing/sculpture suggests a luminous state just on the other side of the glass. Similarly, Normal Drawing (1971) consists of three horizontal bands of glass overlapping a rectangular steel cable, which stands in front of a single sheet of the green- colored glass that is Wilmarth’s signature material. The artist makes no metaphysical claims for his constructions, yet an air of mystery pervades what he does. The jump from beautiful materials to objects inhabited by a spiritual life makes Wilmarth’s work particularly moving.
Maybe, too, it is not only a quest but an emotional state Wilmarth decided to illustrate. Long Blue Tangle (1972) is an open frame of blue-green glass four foot wide in length. The bottom half of the opening has a glass strip, of a lighter green color than the frame, which enables the audience to see the wall above it. But besides being a window into some place unknown, the structure also suggests a state of being, in which seeing is severely limited by the wall directly behind it. We are always constrained by the limits of our vision! So while the sculpture intimates visions beyond its structure, it also emphasizes that this is an imagined place, not one emphasizing the attainment of imagistic freedom alone.
The drawings match the sculptures in sensitivity and mindful freedom. Six Clearings for Hank Williams (1973) comprises a set of six watercolor-and-graphite drawings, arranged horizontally on a single sheet of paper. They are squared images with an open center, built upon silight modulations of green frames. We don’t know how exactly the drawings relate to the music of the singer; even so, they pose a homage from a gifted sculptor to a great American musician. Maybe, like much of Wimarth’s work, the tenor is implicitly elegiac, given the sensitivity of the art and Williams’ youthful demise. This show, while limited, gives Wilmarth’s audience an excellent opening into the sensibility of someone whose efforts intimate both the life of art and the aura surrounding it. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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