By LEGARE SINKLER, SEPT. 2017
During Douglas Abdell’s fifty years of mostly sculpting, his art has changed drastically in physical appearance. However, it has remained thematically the same. Abdell’s sculptures were first conceived from metalanguage and poetry, and evolved to incorporate ancient and modern language. They draw significant influence from either landscape or Abdell’s immediate environment. Some of his early work has been compared to the minimalism of American sculptor Tony Smith, although Abdell’s art advances beyond minimalism.
Abdell’s work deserves reevaluation because of his ability to condense poetry, geometry, culture, history, physics, and politics into his sculpture, as well as his incorporation of his knowledge of the urban atmosphere of New York City and his knowledge of Phoenician culture. This combination translates into Abdell’s broad and omnipresent focus on language and environment. In analyzing how these two components are reflected and incorporated into Abdell’s work, we can divide his art into six groups; Yads, Kryads, Aekyads, New York City and the Present Moment, Spain and The Mediterranean Environment, and M=AGUA.
After graduating from Syracuse University in 1970 with a BFA in sculpture, Abdell lived as a hermit in Arkville, New York, where he created the Yads. They are figurative sculptures, consisting of three legs each connected to a boxy structure. With the Yads, Abdell was experimenting with the color black, and how it was able to attribute a “visual weight” to his sculptures. On the Yad sculptures pictured, they are mostly made of bright, polished surfaces, with a few exceptions of black color. While experimenting with the representation of color, Abdell found that this “blackness” on his sculptures had the possibility of creating an “implosive weight at its highest degree” (Abdell, “Re: John Canaday Review.”). It seems that Abdell sought to create a representation of the law of physics in his structures. He was able to use the structures themselves as the method for communication, and the color black as the message, to communicate the heaviness of the presence of the physical structure. There is very natural and fluid movement in the evolution of Abdell’s work, as his following series of sculptures take on a very similar aesthetic presence. These cast bronze figures were shown at Graham Gallery in 1972 in New York City.
Abdell’s interest in language comes from his mixed cultural background; born in Boston, his mother was Italian, and his father was Lebanese. In 1973, he sculpted the Kryads, which were based on his own invented language called “Phoenaes.” Abdell would write poems using this language, with the purpose of "trying to remember what was happening when [he] made these particular sculptures and speaking about it in a language and rhythm that wants to approach their nature" (Abdell, Kryad Poems). Unable to translate his poems into English, he viewed his invented characters and the language “Phoenaes” as the best mode for communicating the meaning of his sculptures. Using sculpture as a form of communication, Abdell developed “Phoenaes” as a type of metalanguage. Besides playing with words and language, his writing also included his thoughts on phonetic energy and geometry.
The Kryads were always the same: "three long thin flat forms leading up to a central more three dimensional mass,” differing from the Yads by virtue of their solid black patina (Abdell, “Douglas Abdell Recent Sculpture 1979”). Abdell called himself a “philosophical constructionist,” meaning he saw his sculpture, which he created by using related objects, as recreating a new understanding of the world, based on his epistemology (qtd. In “American Collection”). He created these sculptures while focusing on the “[combination] of disparate forms, the variance of volumetric relationships, and illusion of movement” (Abdell, “Douglas Abdell Recent Sculpture 1979”). Abdell viewed the Kryads as a stepping-stone for his subsequent sculpture series, which was the result of his experimental drawing.
Abdell began creating his Aekyad sculptures in 1977, which originated from drawings that inspired his geometric sculptural forms. As he observed, "[…] while drawing I may discover a description of a physical occurrence. I will permanentize this by making it a sculpture" (“Douglas Abdell Recent Sculpture 1979”). Abdell’s welded steel Aekyad sculptures embodied geometric and figurative forms, and continued to draw inspiration from the shapes of languages, translating those shapes into a hybrid combination of metaphoric lines. Between 1977 and 1981, his sculptures evolved from energetic arrangements to more static compositions. As the Aekyad sculptures lose their movement, they become increasingly associated with the “characteristics [of] minimalist sculpture, particularly the work of Tony Smith” (“2802: Douglas Abdell Bronze Sculpture Circa 1979”). This description disregards the other influences at work in the Aekyad sculpture. Minimalism is the simplicity of form and ideas; although Adbell’s sculptures appear physically minimal, the reality is that they are full of figurative and complex ideas. Figurative art is a representation, and in this case, the Aekyad sculptures represent Abdell’s attitude towards languages and his studies of geometry. Furthermore, each sculpture is titled in the “Phoenaes” idiom, which gives his artwork "an independent language in its own right" (Abdell, qtd. in “Kranae-Aekyad (1980)”).
New York City and the Present Moment
While living in New York City during the 1980s, Abdell was influenced by the New Wave movement of graffiti and street art. As a result, his sculptures became more colorful and expressive, differing from his earlier black sculptures. The sculptures continued to reflect a concern with metalanguage, but in a more direct sense than his previous works. Inspired by the streets of New York City, Abdell started to incorporate letters and words directly onto his sculptures, such as his 1983 sculpture Ear Less Full Moon (constructed of oil, collage, and ink on wood). Abdell created the work by combining English and Chinese writing, numbers, images, and even philosophical ideas that he stumbled upon, particularly in the variety of neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan.
Ear Less Full Moon demonstrates how Abdell translates and channels his environment through his artwork, and it also shows the artist’s concern with the present moment. Abdell’s Kryad and Aekyad sculptures speak more to timeless philosophies and ideas, such as the fluidity and intertextuality of language, and reconfigure them into sculptures, emphasizing the contemporaneity of the present moment once they are realized as sculptures. On the other hand, Abdell’s sculptures during the 1980s in New York City present a more complete vision of the present moment by combining the zeitgeist of the 1980s with the physical and mental landscape of New York City, and projecting that sentiment in his own language of sculpture.
Spain and The Mediterranean Environment
When Abdell moved to Spain, his environment again had influence on his art. In contrast to his work during the 1980s, which addressed the historicity of the current moment, in 1992, his artwork began to speak directly to the ancient Phoenician culture, which had flourished in the Fertile Crescent over three thousand years ago. Abdell had always had connections to the Mediterranean through his familial background, but upon moving to Spain, his engagement with and interpretation of that landscape directly recalled the ancient Phoenician culture and language. Abdell combined the earliest known written language, Phoenician, with the later Arabic. He translated elements of language and environment into sculptures that resemble ancient artifacts. This shift in Abdell’s immediate environment from the New World to the Old is reflected in these later sculptures, which use stone and monochromatic colors to suggest ancient and mystical cultures.
Abdell allowed his work to be directed by his “Mediterranean Genes” and created art to critically engage the mind in a period that placed more value on what was seen by the naked eye than what the brain was able to process (“M=AGUA”). Abdell’s sculptures look to the interior, while rejecting the exterior, or the artificial and the superficial (Oliva). For example, his 1995 Magreb-Punic combines Phoenician and Arabic languages and presents both a fixed and fluid point in history. The jagged edges at the top juxtaposed with the boat suggest the advanced technology of ancient Phoenician society. The purpose of the statues was to evoke a former order and aesthetic of Phoenician culture, and to criticize the “external world of chaos and fragmentation” of today’s society (Oliva).
In 1997, Abdell started to focus on the Mediterranean Sea, creating a formula defined as “M=AGUA,” of which he wrote:
"The Phoenicians watched the waves of the Mediterranean Sea …….. and there I developed the letter M. Then M=WATER. My relationship with the world is evolving, driven more and more by my Mediterranean genes that direct me. In the West we are depending more than ever on what happens in the Eastern Mediterranean…….? I have in my physical intricacies live controversy: 'For every action there is a reaction,' like power in the opposite direction. The metaphor for this position and observation is WATER (Abdell, “M=AGUA”)." [sic]
Abdell develops a pattern of squares to represent water, influenced by the Mediterranean, and his sculptures become less formal. Abdell uses the history of the Phoenician culture to comment on present day by combining different objects together, showing the relationship between language and environment by using the past to represent the present. In his 2001 Time Link, a set of stairs represents time, and the Phoenicians are represented by a book under a stone representation of water.
Abdell incorporates the laws of physics into his sculptures, applying Newton’s Third Law: “for every action there is a reaction” (Newton, qtd. in “M=AGUA”). An example is What Goes Around Comes Around from 2004, where the arrangement of phrases and symbols on the fossilized stone demonstrate intertextuality. The center of the world is the Mediterranean Sea, surrounded by a circle of English text about karma that repeats the word “around” twice. Printed above is “The Basic Law of Physics,” and printed below is “En La Vida…… En La Politica.” With this work, Abdell suggests that Newton’s Third Law has a figurative application to Spanish life and Spanish politics, and that there is a natural cycle of action and consequence within them.
In order to understand how Abdell’s sculptures interact with nature, it is useful to compare his work to the outdoor sculpture of Spanish artist Eduardo Chillida. Chillida’s art directly interacts with nature; an example is his 1987 Eulogy to the Water, in which his sculpture is suspended directly over water and creates a perfect reflection. However, his sculptures ask questions about “the relation between the full and empty space” (Chillida, qtd. in “An Interview with Eduardo Chillida.”), while Abdell’s art interacts with the Mediterranean in a much more direct manner. Abdell’s message is definite and concrete; his later art doesn’t simply connect or interact with nature, but it criticizes the process of history and how it relates to the present. Chillida’s sculptures look to the unknown, and to the future, while Abdell’s sculptures deal with the present by looking at the past.
Abdell’s sculptures from the last fifty years present themselves in various forms, and his work can be considered a life long study of language and environment. Particularly interesting is the way in which Abdell uses the written word to influence and accompany his sculpture. Through his invented language, Abdell adds another level of complexity to his geometric forms. Abdell’s art is already advanced in meaning, and leaves the viewer with many unanswered questions. However, we sense that this is a part of the aura of Abdell’s sculptures. WM
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A native of Charleston, SC, Legare Sinkler fell under the spell of the city's renowned natural and architectural beauty at a young age. Her interest in contemporary art, interior design and diverse cultures has taken Legare to destinations around the world. Legare continues to pursue her passions as a third year Art History major at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy.view all articles from this author