Thursday, December 4th, 2008

Willard Boepple: Looms at Lori Bookstein Fine Art

November 19, 2008-January 3, 2009
37 West 57th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues
New York City, 212 750 0949

Willard Boepple Preston 2008. Poplar, 29 x 59-1/2 x 24 inches. Lori Bookstein Fine Art

Willard Boepple, Preston 2008. Poplar, 29 x 59-1/2 x 24 inches. Lori Bookstein Fine Art

Prior to this exhibition, Willard Boepple’s most recent New York appearance was last winter at Francis J. Greenberger’s Maiden Lane Exhibition Space. There, two of the artist’s well-known “Room” sculptures were on view. I remarked upon their resemblance to architecture, if a fantasy form of it, and even in retrospect, find myself thinking in architectural terms: these “rooms” resembled nothing so much as the skeleton of a classic post-and-beam type of house under construction, before the exterior and interior sidings are added. In retrospect, however, another analogy also haunts me: I’m reminded of Alberto Giacometti’s famous small surrealist house-like construction, The Palace at 4 a.m. (1932–33).The Bookstein show differs from the Maiden Lane one in that the basic thrust of these new sculptures is horizontal and not vertical, rectangular skeletonic forms that sit on small pedestals. Yet, oddly, they still remind me of another equally surrealistic Giacometti sculpture, Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)(1934). This is not because I see any direct resemblance between this piece and Boepple’s “looms,” but partially because all are concerned with the concept of delineating space, and partially because of the spirit that animates them.

It would surprise me if Boepple were to call himself a surrealist. His background is impeccably modernist, even to having been born and raised in Bennington, VT, where Helen Frankenthaler went to college, Jules Olitski taught and Kenneth Noland lived. He learned a lot from looking at David Smith’s sculpture, and at a certain moment, felt the need to escape the aura of Anthony Caro (a feat long since accomplished). Yet there is still that vein of feeling which reminds me of what I learned from the first exhibition staged at the Museum of Modern Art by William Rubin, longtime chief curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA. The show (in 1968) was “Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage,” and it featured transitional works by Pollock, Rothko, Newman and several other abstract expressionists, from when they were still in their youthful surrealist phases.

Rubin argued that these abstract expressionists, even after they achieved their mature work, still retained the “peinture-poésie” of the surrealists. “While it is true,” he wrote “that they expunged the quasi-literary imagery that had earlier related their paintings to Surrealism, the visionary spirit of their wholly abstract art retained much of Surrealism’s concern with poetry albeit in a less obvious form.” Though Rubin didn’t say so, the work of abstract expressionists like Franz Kline and Bradley Walker Tomlin, who didn’t go through a surrealist phase, is wooden by comparison, and I’d make much the same comparison between Boepple and some of our leading minimalists. Somehow, the “peinture-poésie” of the surrealists has descended through David Smith (as well as the painters of his generation) to Boepple, and lends his work a gracefulness, subtlety, complexity and vitality that I too often look for in vain.

To Boepple, the sculptures at Lori Bookstein resemble looms, and he’s named them after various British textile centers, but being abstract, they’re also richly ambiguous, suggesting other horizontal skeletal structures as well: chicken coops, for example, or orange crates, symbolic of farmland and transport as well as North Country industry. As they’re all different, they evoke individual associations as well. Burnley, for example, made of rust-colored poplar beams, has lots of long diagonals and narrow crisscrossing shapes, reminiscent of the “cat’s cradles” I used to make as a child with string. Preston, a stocky piece made with bright yellow poplar beams, mysteriously bears a charming resemblance to a baby’s crib. Blackburn, most serene yet strangely crisp, is all horizontals and verticals, a severe aluminum presence that looks dark gray (though I understand that it’s really a very dark green).  Somewhat incongruously, it suggests the bleachers in a ball park, or an open toolbox – yet remains the most impressive piece in a very impressive show.