George Sugarman (A Sculpture)

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