Sunday, February 1st, 2004

George Sugarman: Painted Aluminum Sculpture, 1977-1996

Joan T. Washburn
20 West 57 Street, New York, N.Y., 10019

January 8-February 28, 2004

What if, with a glance, a solid could be made weightless? What if all our ideas about matter were an illusion stemming from a state of mind, which once changed, changed the physical world with it. Then we could live unconstrained by walls and distances, unencumbered by physics. Our own bodies could be light as air or quick as running water.

These were my thoughts at Washburn Gallery before the sculpture of George Sugarman, a photograph of whom adorns the wall to the left as you enter. It reveals a face as expressive and warm as Sugarman’s art. He works in cut, welded and bent aluminum never more that a quarter inch in width. To compose his work, he seems to choose a shape and repeat it, Minimalist style. But Sugarman’s sculpture lacks any sense of the modularity associated with the work of his contemporaries, Andre of Judd. Instead, form flows. Each successive aluminum part, fastened to its predecessor with rivets, seems the next moment in a continuous motion that threads a sculpture together.

In some pieces, he abandons the rivets altogether and simply bends and cuts a single piece of aluminum into a wave like form, two of which fit snugly together to make “Waltz.” One is black, the other blue. When I first saw it, I thought of the ocean crashing on rocks. I felt the movement of one thing into another. Such is the evocative potential of Sugarman’s abstraction.

My own love of landscape and natural form found easy purchase in all his work. What are you meant to see in “Orange Around” with its spiraling mass of interlocking wedges varying in shape and color? Although the piece’s internal scale is perfect, each part relating evenly to the whole, its size, waist high off the ground, seems arbitrary. Again, unlike Minimalist sculpture, Sugarman’s work does not depend on its size relative to that of the viewer for its impact. It does not bother about relationships with the gallery space but refers to some other content.

“Orange Around” seems like the moment just before or after an event. Are those yellow birds at the upper most lip of the piece’s goblet shape? Sun drenched gulls startled outward? I see the sea again. The blue and white interlocking wave wedges around the upper bowl of the form spiral downward whirlpool like toward the depths of the sculpture’s base. But what are those jagged oranges and blacks moving upward? And perhaps those are not birds at all, but the sun breaking on the clouds after a sea squall.
Physics tells us that energy is mass’ equivalent in another form, that the qualities of an object’s physical existence come down to a measure of its potential to transmit energy. It is Sugarman’s gift with material, in manipulating it, to set the mind free in pursuit of physics’ more mystical associations. In his hands, painted aluminum is not painted aluminum. It is anything but and it reveals motion, as light as air and as fluid as water.