Tom Doyle in Germany 1964-65 at Zürcher Gallery
September 16 to November 10, 2021
33 Bleecker Street, between Lafayette Street and Bowery
New York City, galeriezurcher.com
In today’s art world, there are those who dabble in sculpture to produce inflated toys at great expense. Let Tom Doyle’s sculpture be offered as a counterexample.
As opposed to statuettes writ large, sculpture’s engaged space-time relations attain to a complexity of thought manifestly palpable in the here and now. By this dimensional complexity, what works is given a workout: that is how Tom Doyle’s sculptures establish themselves, that they are also playful does not trivialize them.
The validity of sculpture as altogether worthy, and thus our assumptions about its nature, come through the legacy of modernism, a legacy of modern art’s reinventing itself through the significant styles of Cubism, Constructivism and Surrealism, a complex genealogical stock in the art vineyards giving consequential vitality to art. Doyle would benefit from this and better develop his ‘American vernacular’, as the current exhibition has named it, through an assumption of hands-on craft at home in the modern European abstraction that had already begun to nurture sculpture’s version of Abstract Expressionism.
Located in Kettwig, Germany in 1964 for fifteen months, and being given the run of a disused wool factory, Doyle seized on the opportunity to construct assemblages of metal machine parts and wood scrap. That he was fluent in forging, taught to him as a child by a blacksmith while growing up in Ohio, made it possible for Doyle to develop his idiom from within, and yet while in Germany, at a remove from art-world pressures. According to art historian Kirsten Swenson‘s extensive interview much later, Doyle’s mature sculptural idiom emerged under conditions more permissive than those adopted by David Smith with his strong two-dimensional orientation; although respecting the art of David Smith, Doyle considered his own, gesturing exuberantly in three dimensions, more allied to David Weinrib, John Chamberlain and Mark di Suvero.
To look around plazas where public sculpture sits is to come to terms with the reality that we take the era of the 1960s for granted. But Doyle’s sculptures give us no recourse to passivity, or nostalgia, or the pleasant acceptance of applied abstraction in works interchangeable with one another. No tokens, but in singular works well developed within the formal premises set out, Doyle’s visual literacy is such that it shows as fully cognizant of the difference between the simplistic and the simple, complicated fuss and modulated structural integrity.
A given of modernist theory is that sculpture, no longer a matter of mass, is volumetric, incorporating open and closed spatial relations as it can now by utilizing industrial materials for support and for counterintuitive heft. Sedentary Taurus, 1965, does the job. Folded and bent, cantilevered planar elements are hoisted atop a linear criss-cross frame, yet this basic antinomy is already modulated through skewed orientation and internal twist; voids and their opposite play out, yet not in platitudinous opposition. Helpful to development within form is internal scale: through twisting, large becoming small, then becoming larger again, as sculptural structure induces accelerated shifts through a spectator’s changed position. A changed position is here memory: what was is now still in play imaginatively, a recognition of the relations that still obtain.
How to evade mere décor: that is the problem set out in Swallows Swoop Shiloh, 1965. Doyle makes trouble for himself by invoking good taste: a few elements in neutral off-whites to which a single hue dramatizes the difference in furnishings–a kind of decorator’s “move.” But what he does to outflank taste is to keep the sculptural coherence of the entirety by way of a directness and roughness of the contrastive compound. Further evident is the principle of dislocation: what is massive is a blocky hewn wood element that could be a stand but is midway up; on the ground where the conventional stand should be is a painting—that is, a planar element in color.
Color is indeed the proverbial elephant-in-the-room. The well-known and on-going ideological wars within modern art theory do provide a profound understanding of genre, excelling at its definition: sculpture, the art of three-dimensional work, painting, the art of two-dimensional work—not some mash-up of categories to compensate for a lack of artisanal rigor. But to this, de Stijl has a classic modernist rebuttal: the largest aesthetic category being neither painting nor sculpture, but design. Indicating functional difference through color, then, is a pragmatic strategy, De Stijl design offers a way through space not beholden to isolating the types of practice. So in Swallows Swoop Shiloh, the function of the base gets its due. Meanwhile, antithetical to painting, the color plane is not on the wall where “it ought to be,” but by a radical dislocation makes its appearance on the floor as the necessary base engenders a sculptural presence.
By the way, for the taxonomy of mass, see Doyle’s Rally Al Round, 1964: a sidelong glance at the geometric elemental form by which cylinder, sphere and cone are primary structures.
In Doyle’s art, knowledge of the tradition is enabling, not disabling, as it gives him the formal instrumentalities with which to think with the medium. Let us count the ways: point, line, plane; vertical, horizontal, diagonal, and torque for these: as well as folds, bends, bends’ reversing convexity to concavity’s implicating volumetric space; scale within volume, opacity, transparency at eye level, above and below the same; gravity and levity–degrees of.