Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Michael Bigger's Sculpture and the Moving Viewer

Michael Bigger, Sunstruck, 1984
After a month in Minnesota on the grounds of the Anderson Center's large sculpture garden,  I still couldn't get enough of Michael Bigger; I was drawn immediately to his several sculptures there. His work is that wonderful kind of sculpture that arranges itself anew with every change of the viewer's position. After a slow circling of every one of them, I was left thinking that I saw the world differently after Bigger's colorful, kinetic system of curves and angles intervened on my vision. 

Bigger died in 2011 in Minneapolis, where he was an emeritus professor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He had settled there after he undertook architecture studies at Miami University in Ohio and sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design. He taught at the Atlanta School of Art, the University of Manitoba School of Art, and the Massachusetts College of Art as well as in Texas and Maine before settling in for a long teaching career in Minneapolis and almost a half-century of exhibitions and commissions (Embarcadero Center in San Francisco; Vassar College; Cincinnati Zoo; Oakland Museum of Art, California; and many sites in San Antonio, Texas and in Monterrey, Mexico).

Sunstruck, moving to the right (view 2).

I found Bigger's sculptures irresistible because he hit my simplest visual desires with exact, perfectly executed blows. First, each brilliant work stood out in the natural environment. It virtually screamed, "I'm not nature! I'm that other thing, and I'm not even trying to fit in. Don't pretend you don't see me." It commanded the viewer to come look. 

Sunstruck, all red, sits all by itself on a plot of ground with no adornment of trees or landscaping at all, but it is so arresting and, once the viewer is caught, so absorbing, that it is, literally, its own environment. 

If you first see Sunstruck in the view above, it seems almost like a Chinese character, a bisected parallelogram with two angled, light strokes cutting through it. It's a little unstable; something more triangular in shape would be less unsettling, for the legs seem to be listing to the right, and I'm left wondering if this is dynamic or rickety. 

Moving around it to the right, though, I find a completely new presentation (view 2). Yes, only two of the legs are parallel, but only the short one, to which least is attached, seems to be at right angles to the earth. From this angle, it seems like a still frame from a film of a structure exploding, its components shooting in every direction: Geometry doesn't seem to be the point, but an early-stage demonstration of how structure becomes chaos.
Sunstruck, view 3

By the time I've moved around to stand behind the tallest beam (view 3), I find that the short beam is falling over; and it finally occurs to me that the two thin rods may not be parallel after all. Now I've begun to doubt my senses about the bottom I-beam. Look closely at its intersection with the upright beam: How is it possible for two straight beams to intersect at so narrow an angle, yet leave so much room at the top? How is it possible to look up that bottom beam and see both sides?
Sunstruck, view 4

It seems that Bigger has introduced at least one subtly twisted beam into the heart of Sunstruck (see view 4, center). I must confess that from different viewing angles I have identified different beams as being "the one" that appears to be bowed—or that is bowed. 

Is the central, horizontal
beam curved?
Whatever one sees, or thinks one sees; however many times one returns, looks again, or revises judgment of former perceptions: the sculpture is a terrific success. Bigger has made something big and substantial and declarative that eludes every effort to be described or pinned down. Set out as plainly as possible on a bare plot of earth, it forces the viewer to become a wasp, swooping and attacking from every side, investigating, doubting, and trying to find the place where the pulse—the answer—is next to the skin. It's food forever, and I think that I was around it just long enough to get started. All the big beams seem truncated to me, and the redness aggressive, making the curving roof almost a satire of shelter. It's a big-time game, a place for the mind and senses to play at something I can't imagine getting enough of. 

Michael Bigger, Cat's Cradle, 1985
In writing about Bigger's sculpture, I praise it especially for the pleasure I take in its irreducibility, in the fact that it can't be captured in one view or described in any simple way. I'm very aware that the first photo I choose to introduce a work with will bear the weight of "defining" three-dimensional art that can be approached from any direction. So I will follow this first image of Cat's Cradle with several more, hoping to leave my readers with a more dynamic or complicated idea of the work. Maybe this is an idea available only when one writes about sculptors who are not world-famous. I was extremely aware that sculptures become defined for us by photographers when I wrote about David Smith. For those of us who never see sculptures in person, we know them only by one or two famous, documented views. We essentially know them as two-dimensional images.

Cat's Cradle, view 2
Cat's Cradle seems to have a more forthright task than Sunstruck—it seems to be a tour de force of balance and poise—but while it is less playful, it is more breathtaking for its confident mastery. Bigger appears to have successfully set out to accomplish opposites simultaneously. At the simplest level, he has made a heavy, horizontal work with massive plates balanced on the lithe, curved, dancing black stems, the only parts anchored in the ground. Lines lift planes. Yet, if you come at the work from another direction (view 2), it's like a box that's being broken down—all flat surfaces at angles to one another, with strings still coming detached. One facade disguises the rest of the sculpture from view. Now Cat's Cradle is about surface slabs, not the strength of line.

View 3
Because of the great size of the red slabs and the generous, broad swathes cut by the arcing black lines, there is sense of great space and of simplicity about this sculpture,the opposite of fussy in the materials used, their size, and their proportions to one another. The balancing act is brave and dramatic: There's something fundamentally manly about the work. Yet simultaneously, Bigger offers calligraphic grace to the viewer who moves to inspect the sculpture close up (views 3, 4). It's not a matter of scrutinizing red paint, but all of the windows and the the dynamic passages he's created. Where the whole appears immense and like an engineering feat of balance; close up, it's modern and rushing and graceful, with busy knots of motion and lines sending the eye off the runway into...well, into places you'll know when you arrive.
Cat's Cradle, view 4

A piece from 2000, La Centinela (The Sentinel) is a departure (of fifteen years at the least) from Sunstruck and Cat's Cradle. It is smaller, and it is nestled into a grove of dramatically tall locust and pine trees, skirted by young river birch, in September turning golden and shedding their bark in singular mops of papery curls. 
Michael Bigger, La Centinela, 2000

By his own avowal, Bigger was most interested in the physical presence of sculpture—he thought of himself as a builder rather than as a storyteller. La Centinela nevertheless calls to my mind a scene at least, of a sentinel tower rising over the moonlit roofs of a hillside town. It's not a picture I can literally describe or point to, but something the variety and relative weights of the forms bring to mind for me. I find the compactness of the whole, anchored on the embracing circular form, closed at the top by the crossing of the swooping lines very secure. Yet the sentinel rises and the swooping lines that complete the sense of safety continue to provide a connection with the sky beyond; to give a sense that the brilliant yellow is connected with sky—with moon glow or with the sun.
La Centinela, view 2

View 3
The size and the shapes, cut and plied from sheets, lacks the industrial swagger of sculpture fashioned from beams. There's an excellent match between size, shape, and material that adds to the comfort of this piece. It's brilliant yellow color, too, illuminates the shady grove in which the work is so well sited. Were La Centinela located like its fellows, out in the open, it could be blinding in yellow, and the color might actually reduce our sense of its size and impact were it . As it is, its color, its tower, and its thrusting curves all call attention to and use the shade and the great height of the lovely grove that surrounds it. 

View 4
The shady setting delivers complex shadows that complicate and soften our views of the sculpture as well (views 3 and 4). The unmitigated sunshine that falls on Cat's Cradle and Sunstruck are part of the geometry of the works, reflecting, highlighting, and incorporating themselves into Bigger's very designs. In La Centinela, the shadows are filtered through the trees and rest lightly on the surface, calming the color and decorating the surfaces with filigree. While some of the trees are evergreen, others are not, so I imagine that there is a seasonal sequence of surface design that adds to the pleasure for the habitual passerby.

Bigger's Monterrey Express is shown in the Starr Review post of September 17, 2012.

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