By DONALD KUSPIT October 4, 2023
David Black (1928-2023) first came into prominence not for his “spirit houses,” as he called his public sculptures, but for his innovative use of plastic as a sculptural material, on a par with clay, marble, wood, metal, the familiar traditional and modern sculptural materials. He saw the aesthetic potential in its flexibility. Plastic, in the form of nylon and lucite, a high-quality acrylic material, sometimes called plexiglass, became a popular industrial material, used to make all kinds of products. It was first used to make art by the constructivist sculptor, Naum Gabo, famous for being the first avant-garde artist to do so. One of the seven versions of Gabo’s Constructed Head No. 2, 1923-1924, made of cellulose polyester, an early plastic, seems to be the first work made entirely of plastic. Picasso’s Guitar, 1914 has been said to be the most innovative, original, radical sculpture of the 20th century, not only because it is abstract, but because it is made of ferrous sheet metal, an industrial material. Gabo’s plastic Constructed Head No. 2 is even more innovative, original, radical, because it is more abstract, unequivocally abstract, and more modern, unequivocally modern, for it is made of plastic, an unequivocally modern, new material, for it is man-made--manufactured—while iron is readily found in nature, for it is the most common element on Earth. If modern art affords a “sensation of the new,” as Baudelaire wrote, then art made of the new material plastic is sensationally new. Black’s monumental Skypiece, 1972, permanently installed as the centerpiece of the fountain in the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, like its apotropaic guardian, has come to be regarded as a tour de force of plastic sculpture, indeed, the greatest plastic sculpture ever made. It is admired for the technical brilliance with which it was made as well as its intricate geometric aesthetics. Black built his own vacu-form machines to mold and shape sheets of plexiglass, and latter laminating layers of plexiglass with epoxy resin, so that the light that informed the layers of plexiglass remained there, giving the abstract sculpture an auratic depth.
A piece that flies in the sky is informed by light, for even when the sky is dark there are luminous stars. “Many of my large sculptures are white,” Black has written. It lends them “special significance. We humans love luminosity. Sacred architecture and costumes over many millenniums have been white: the Taj Mahal, Greek temples, New England churches, bridal gowns.”(1) White, a symbol of purity—Black’s white sculptures are pure art—and transfiguration—the white sculptures are meant to “transfigure” us, that is spiritualize and sanctify us, as Kandinsky said non-objective art—art unsullied by the objective world—can and should do. Black’s monumental public sculptures—each an aesthetic tour de force--spiritualize the social space in which they are installed, redeeming it from banality by giving it existential consequence, for it becomes a space of contemplation and introspection, and with that recovery from the daily grind, wearing down one’s spirit with its banality. They are “spirit houses,” as Black says, that is, they house the spirit, as sacred architecture does—sacred architecture is innately abstract, whatever religion it symbolizes and serves—and as such reminds one that one has a soul as well as a body. Many of Black’s spirit houses—abstract temples—have seats in which one can rest one’s body, so that one’s spirit is free to soar with its dynamic form.
Gabo may be famous for his plastic works, but his Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave), 1920, officially the first kinetic sculpture, is not very kinetic, not much of a construction, not much of a wave—not very technically sophisticated, not aesthetically convincing. It is a sort of stick figure, unmoving in contrast to a moving wave; set in motion it wiggles. It is rigidly upright like an erect penis rather than erotically curved like the waves in the sea from which Venus was born. It is only nominally a wave, not even schematically a wave, for it has none of the features of a wave, hardly recognizable or cognizable as a moving wave. A thin steel rod is hardly worthy of being called a wave, just as the black wooden box in which it stands is hardly worth of being called an ocean. Gabo’s anti-naturalism, typical of modernist abstraction ever since Kandinsky couldn’t see Monet’s haystack only its color, has led him into an aesthetic and intellectual dead-end. The work is a contradiction in terms: waves do not stand still, they flow; they are not vertical, but horizontal. Gabo’s simplistic Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) is a failure, certainly compared to Black’s complicated Breaker, 1982, described by the Smithsonian as “a white twisting metal sculpture symbolizing the ocean’s waves breaking on the shore.” The difference has not only to do with the times, but with the attitude, not to mention the skill. Gabo’s pioneering work is a reminder that every avant-garde “experimental” work is not worth the trouble, if it sells its “idea” short, reducing it, at best, to a clever suggestion, which is what Gabo’s title does.
Black’s dynamic Breaker reminds us that Black grew up in Gloucester, Massachusetts, an island surrounded by water, for Black the water of life he frequently swam in and rowed on, as though it was nature’s gift to him. Gabo was a Jew who grew up in antisemitic Russia, far from water; I regard his Standing Wave as a self-portrait of himself as an alienated and isolated Jew in an antisemitic society. Black who grew up in a Christian United States, which is why his waves are more lively, liberated, and healthy—inherently vital--than Gabo’s emaciated European wave, a wave more in name than substance. It is a wave without energy, beauty, and sublimity, unlike Black’s energized, eloquent, glorious wave, emblematic of creative process rather than of living death, which is what Gabo’s simplistic, emaciated wave seems to be. I think it is a persecuted wave, symbolizing the persecuted Jew, especially a Jew who became an avant-garde artist, for avant-garde art was initially persecuted, not to say attacked as a crime “against nature,” to allude to Joris-Karl Huysmans’s famous fin de siècle novel A rebours, 1884. This may seem like an absurd interpretation, but I think Gabo’s work came out of his unconscious: It is a fantasy of a wave, an unnatural wave, an unhealthy wave, attenuated into irrelevance, epitomizing Gabo’s sense of being a socially oppressed Jew, a social outsider, compounded by his sense of being an artistic outsider, as avant-garde and abstract art were before they became socially assimilated and institutionalized—however consciously “advanced” art. The artist’s personal history always informs their seemingly impersonal art, which gives it human credibility whatever its art’s historical importance. Black’s dynamic, oceanic, radiant, fresh-looking—eternally youthful—full-bodied abstract sculptures bespeak American New World optimism; Gabo’s thin, emaciated, oddly elegant Linear Constructions, 1942-1971, are peculiarly pessimistic, as their empty center—hollow core-- suggest. They symbolize existential alienation defended against by Old World elegance. Even non-objective art has symbolic import and cultural consequence, as Kandinsky acknowledged. Black was born into a Protestant New England as his admiration for New England churches, deceptively simple in appearance but expressively complex when their parts are put together, makes clear.
Black was a ceramicist before he became a sculptor—although a ceramic vessel is sculpted not simply crafted--a ceramicist so good that in 1957 he won the First Prize for Ceramics at the American Craft Museum in New York. That same year he was invited by the Japanese ceramist Hajime Kato, a “Living National Treasure,” to study ceramics with him at Tokyo Art University. Instead, Black went to Florence, Italy to study ancient Etruscan art, beginning his life-long personal voyage literally back to the origins and forms of archaic, sacred art and architecture. Soon afterward, he went to Mexico to study ancient Meso-American art. While there he designed wall-hangings that were woven in wool by indigenous weavers and which, already a master technician, he cast sculptures in aluminum, as he once formed his ceramic vessels in clay. In Japan a subtly made, exquisitely shaped ceramics vessel contained a spirit, implying it is a sacred space. It was in effect a womb full of spiritual life, a container of a higher consciousness, the creative consciousness that the master ceramicist invested in it in the course of making it. Black had studied the sacred structures—temples--in many countries, even going so far as to sculpt the Little Acropolis. But before he became famous for his ultra-modernist sacred public sculptures—sculptures that turn secular public space into peculiarly personal, intimate, sacred space, a space for meditation--he became famous for his avant-garde use of plastic in Skypiece, 1972, rebuilt 2021, a monumental sculpture permanently installed in the fountain of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Germany, as I noted. It was a place of honor. Black has had many honors since then, as the numerous competitions for public sculptures he won indicate. His work has reached more people than it would have if it was exhibited in a private gallery. But then his sculptures are too grand and spirited and individual to fit into an anonymous claustrophobic characterless commercial space, a sort of small Procrustean bed compared to the wide-open public spaces with a character of their own in which Black’s sculptures have been placed.
It is worth emphasizing that it was in Berlin that Black achieved critical recognition, not in New York. His award-winning ceramics were on view in New York’s American Craft Museum, but he has never had a gallery exhibition in New York. He deplored its gallery system, lamenting the commercialization of art, preferring to work in the public realm, regarding art as an expression and signifier of the universally sacred, as it has been for millenniums. A native of Gloucester, Massachusetts, who spent most of his life in Columbus, Ohio, where he taught at Ohio State University, his prize-winning sculptures were installed in many American cities— but the most famous one has become a shrine in Japan. None is in New York City—he has never exhibited his ceramics or shown any of his designs in any of its commercial galleries. New York is a peculiarly provincial, all too self-important commercial city, compared to Berlin, with its long, complex history—it was founded in the 14th century, and in the 19th, century became a major world city. The Berlin Secession, established in 1898, held international exhibitions, showing a wide variety of modern works of art before the 1913 Armory Show in New York. But the somewhat more exclusive post-World War II New York School—not just of Abstract Expressionism but of Pop Art—is all too self-important to acknowledge the importance of any “outsider” artist with a new perspective or idea: Black’s idea of “sculpture as proto-architecture,” reminding us that sculpture and architecture have always gone together in temples and arches of triumph—both public works of sacred art, at once communal and societal. It was Germany, with its long history of technological invention, that recognized and welcomed Black’s technological ingenuity, not to say brilliance, and made his ultra-modernist sculpture the fountain centerpiece at the modernist museum designed by Mies van der Rohe, in acknowledgement of the fact that technology has become a religion in modernity—an end in itself not simply a means to a practical end. One might say that the worship of the machine is epitomized by Black’s Flyover, in effect a celebration of the airplane, and with that flight, escape from earth into the sky above it, suggesting that the first airplane—for the work is a homage to the Wright Brothers’ airplane-- was an avant-garde work of art, as Robert Delaunay’s Homage to Bleriot, 1914 suggests. At 150 feet long and 42 feet high, Flyover is relatively static, slow and low flying, like the first airplane, but many of Black’s later pieces reach to the sky, spinning in perpetual motion, like whirling dervishes. They are ultra-modernist masterpieces of sacred art, aerodynamic in form like the cyndrical dome of a cathedral, and as technologically sophisticated.
Black faced what the composer Aaron Copeland thought was the particular problem of an American artist—an artist who lived and worked in a democratic society rather than an aristocratic society, an artist who lived in 20th century United States rather than in 19th century France. How to make an art that had popular allure, appealed to the masses, as well as art that appealed to the cognoscenti, that had avant-garde originality and aesthetic credibility, art that was seriously innovative and unique and with that enduringly significant and art historically important and at the same time had widespread social acceptance and appeal and was appreciated as a contribution to the welfare of society—a humanist avant-garde art, as it were. At the least, it had to be on what the critic Lawrence Alloway called the fine art popular culture continuum. Or, more pointedly, as some critics have called it, the high and low art continuum. In 1942 Copeland famously wrote “Fanfare for the Common Man,” inspired in part by Vice President Henry Wallace’s remark that the “Century of the Common Man” was dawning. By 1972, when Black made Skypiece, it was well underway. Pop Art made it clear that it had come with a vengeance. So, the question was how to make avant-garde art, art for the uncommon man—the aesthete, the intellectual—for private edification and critical analysis—that could be appreciated, enjoyed, understood by the common man, everyday people, whatever their gender, even people who are gender fluid, just as many of Black’s monumental outdoor sculptures can be said to be artistically fluid, being simultaneously gestural and geometrical. They work for the common man as well as the uncommon man—for the art historian and intellectual connoisseur as well as the casual art appreciator—because they are implicitly Emersonian, that is, Transcendentalist. They extend, rising to the sky or unfolding on the earth seemingly endlessly, exemplifying what Emerson called “the infinitude of the private man,” the “one doctrine he taught.” Transcendentalism was Black’s New England heritage. “Beatitude is accessible to all,” Emerson wrote, and Black’s monumental public sculptures—public spirit houses for every private man—epitomize beatitude. They are sublime without being sentimental, elated without being enigmatic, awesome without being overwhelming. Perhaps above all they are public works of cerebral avant-garde art that hold their aesthetic own. And they are masterpieces of technical ingenuity, which is why they have been celebrated by engineers as well as aesthetes. They have an air of spontaneity about them however meticulously constructed.
A list of Black’s site-specific monumental public sculptures shows the versatility and magnitude of his achievement. There is no other public sculptor who makes works that appeal to the public at large while maintaining their aesthetic autonomy. And who has won so many major competitions. There is no other modern sculptor, American or European, who has made as many, and of such high quality. An amazing feat of sustained visionary art.
Skypiece, 1972. Berlin, Neue Nationalgalerie.
Sky Link, 1973. Miami University, Middletown, Ohio.
Flipover, 1975. Springfield, Ohio. State competition.
Falls, 1977. Centerpiece of Black’s one person show at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin.
Kkrab, 1980. P. S. 1, New York City. Invited competition.
Tracer, 1980. Springfield, Ohio. State Competition.
Airfold, 1981. Columbus, Ohio International Airport. Commission.
Breaker, 1982. Ohio State University. Commission.
Coastlines, 1983. Case Western Reserve University. Putnam Sculpture Collection Commission.
Crossings, 1984. Fort Wayne Museum of Art. Commission.
Portside, 1984. Clarkson University, Potsdam, New York.
New Arcadia, 1987. Kalamazoo College, MI. Invited National Competition.
Quadrant, 1984. Central Michigan University. National Competition.
Solar Station, 1985. Pittsburgh, PA. Invited Exhibition.
Wind Point, 1985, Utsukushi-ga-Hara Art Museum, Nagano, Japan. Awarded “Shikanai” first prize, Henry Moore Fourth International Sculpture Competition.
Jetty, 1990. Belmont, California (San Francisco Bay). Kumagai Gumi-Japan. Invited National Competition.
Sonora, 1991. Tucson, Arizona. National Open Competition.
Ottawa Gate, 1994. Toledo, Ohio. Greater Toledo Arts Commission.
Euclid’s Circle, 1995. University Circle, Cleveland
Flyover, 1996. Dayton, Ohio. Memorial, Wright Brothers first manned flight. International Competition. In 1997 Flyover received an International Engineering Award as Best Special Project from the Structural Engineers Association of Illinois. In 1999 it received the same award from the Structural Engineers Association of Seattle.
Inner Circles, 1996. Youngstown State University. O.A.C. Competition.
Viewpoint, 1997. Cincinnati State Community College. O.A.C. Competition.
Turning Points, 1998. Wright State University, Ohio. O.A.C. Competition.
Rapids, 1999. Cedar Rapids, Iowa. National Competition.
Rotunda Fountain, 1999-2000. Hammond, Indiana. National Competition.
Open Skies, 2005. University of Alaska. National Competition.
Outlook, 2007. Zanesville, Ohio.
Liftoff, 2009. Washington, D. C. National Competition.
Fire Dance, 2011. Fort Myers, Florida. Commission.
The engineering awards remind us that Black was a physicist first, a master technician, bringing to mind Vasari’s idea that without technical knowledge, creative imagination is at a loss. Black’s creative imagination was never at a loss because of his mastery of all kinds of technical methods of constructing art. We live in a technological society, a society completely dependent on technology, as the philosopher Jacques Ellul reminds us, and Black made art for a technological society, an art that brought efficiency and beauty—emotionally efficient art, one might say, that is, efficiently enabling sublime experience, which is what his spirit houses or, as they might be called, autonomous domes aesthetically dramatized. Even Black’s early works, such as the laminated plexiglass Refractive Series, the clear plexiglass Black Edge Series and the more recent aluminum Wall Pieces are aesthetically sophisticated not to say ingeniously complex, masterpieces of technical ingenuity. Black could cast bronze, make stencil paintings and make stoneware ceramics. He seemed to have an intuitive understanding of every material and technique, was endlessly inventive, imbued with what Jacques Maritain called creative imagination. He was passionate about art, as the dazzling red—the color of passion—of Fire Dance, 2011, installed on the green grass in the tropical city of Fort Myers, Florida, epitomizing its feverish heat but rising to the blue sky. Kandinsky said that reconciling hot red and cool blue was impossible, but Black reconciled them by setting them in dialectical relationship, not to say sublime intimacy. His abstract sculptures are geometrical constructions with some of the parts functioning as singular gestures, all but autonomous. The contrasts and contradictions that inform the work—its ingenious complexity, drawing one’s mind’s as well as body’s eye this way and that way, in dervishing excitement--give it an expressive power. Black’s free-standing monumental sculptures have been said to be the grand climax of constructivist abstraction—they certainly creatively outclass Tatlin’s sterile Monument to the Third International, 1919-1920, routinely spiraling to a dead-end apex—a stillborn, banal, not to say inflexible, sterile constructivism. It lacks the aesthetic resonance, innate energy, and dramatic grandeur of Black’s monumental abstractions. Whether curved or flat, linear or planar, they seem spontaneously created. They may be a mechanical assemblage of parts, but the work as a whole seems organically alive.
Black’s constructions—“kinetic without movement,” as has been said—are major works of art, at once sculptural and architectural and at times with what one may call a gestural flair. They have presence, not simply because of their monumental size, which is what gives Tatlin’s Tower, as his constructivist sculpture has also been called, presence, but it is a bland rather than dramatic presence. Black’s constructivist sculptures seem self-dramatizing, have personality and character, while Tatlin’s characterless Tower, rising by rote, is impersonal, oddly inhuman. It is the difference between art made in and for a democratic society and art made in and for totalitarian society. Tatlin’s is a dehumanized construction, Black’s a humanized construction. A construction can reflect, symbolize, embody human values, as Black’s oddly expressive constructions do, rather than be made by rote, as Tatlin’s Tower seems to be.
Black will be remembered in art history for his avant-garde originality--his innovative pioneering use of plastic—a breakthrough in the construction and even concept of sculpture--which is why I will conclude this article with quotations from the Berlin critics who celebrated it. They recognized the art historical importance of Skypiece, which is why Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie gave it a prominent place at the museum. One critic wrote: “The American sculptor David Black is the first artist in the world to build his Plexiglas works in fully imaginative form.” Another wrote: “It has been David Black’s contribution to fully demonstrate the 20th century potential of plastics as fundamental, sculptural materials.” A third critic wrote: “The American artist, David Black, chose an unusual material for his works: Acrylic Plexiglas. Plexiglas is considered cold, impersonal, technical. What the American makes out of it, however, is anything but. Even his large spaces lose nothing of their lightness and buoyancy. His works seem to be attuned to light, which only gains in transparency and liveliness. The colors, discreetly chosen, often shine like crystals.” Finally, a fourth critic clearly favors Black over Gabo: Gabo was the first to produce—out of glass—transparent sculpture. Now it is evident that Black, although by no means in direct succession, has carried transparent sculpture to its aesthetic and technical perfection with the help of modern materials and techniques. One can see through them. The entire effect becomes unreal, because the colored sheets and bands which make up the sculptures, transform them, by their reflections and refractions, into a kind of translucent light-painting.” Black was clearly at the forefront of avant-garde art, not only for his innovative use of plexiglass and aluminum, but because he was the first sculptor to seamlessly integrate the geometrical and gestural extremes of modernist aesthetics, and to make a monumental spiritual sculpture resonant with humanist import. WM
(1) David Black, “Notes on Proto-Architecture,” Urban Sculpture As Proto-Architecture (Boston: Chimera Works, 2010), 85
Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.view all articles from this author