Saturday, March 24, 2012

Clarinetist and Composer Eric Mandat: All Music is New

Eric Mandat, 2012
Clarinetist and composer Eric Mandat asks me if I know aspen trees. He sparkles, describing the impression they made on his first visit to Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park. One ancient, unfettered root system sends up trees in colonies that span millennia. Individual trees can live for over a hundred years, constantly joined and eventually replaced by shoots that arise from the massive, vital root system. The image of connectedness and regeneration fires Mandat's imagination as a kind of ideal.

Mandat invoked the aspens when I noted how frequently the word "energy" occurs in his speech about music—or about anything, really.

In January 2012, I traveled  to Carbondale, Illinois to attend his lecture-recital, "Structural Connections and Motivic Unity in The Sonatas for Piano and Clarinet by Johannes Brahms" at Southern Illinois University, where Mandat is Professor of Music and Distinguished Scholar. His minute and revelatory analysis addressed Brahms' structure in terms of propulsive energy. The lecture marked the beginning of a research arc that Mandat imagines he will be following for some time to come. He didn't have to say this: His enthusiasm for his topic was a static that buzzed and crackled all around him. It clearly took willpower for him to keep from rolling up his sleeves, ripping off his Coloradan's bolo tie, ditching the script, and luring his audience off-road—as a happy naturalist would—to explore for three-note wonders gems Brahms' sublime scores.
Junghwa Lee and Eric Mandat

The scholar Mandat serves Mandat the performer. This recording is of his performance, with pianist Junghwa Lee, of the Brahms Sonata in E-flat, op.120 No. 2, for Piano and Clarinet 
Movement 1, Allegro amabile;  movement 2, Allegro appassionata;   movement 3, Andante con moto ).   Having heard his so-thoroughly engaged lecture, we in the audience couldn't help but have heightened appreciation for the sonata's elegance, if only because of the phrasing propelled by those motives he had laid out for us.

Energy. The key word to Mandat's analysis of the Brahms concertos is the key word for every aspect of Eric Mandat, musical and personal—to the very small extent that the two can even be considered separate at all. The first composition of Mandat's that I knew was his 2008 work for the Tone Road Ramblers sextet plus soprano, Dark Energy. The liner notes to Dancing with the Ramblers (Einstein Records, EIN-018) explain how his conception of the of interconnectedness operates in this piece: "Dark energy makes the universe expand faster and faster. To many, it is unsettling news that the galaxies are retreating apace from their neighbors. But to Eric Mandat, it is a source of wonder, because orbits maintain planetary togetherness even while dark energy mysteriously undermines celestial unity." Since the Ramblers are an experimental, improvisatory ensemble, Dark Energy is both scored, with open sections for improvisation. At this Amazon site you can find an MP3 download of the twenty-minute, seven-movement work with vocals by Phoebe Legere.

Mandat's vitality as a composer is more than matched by his vivacity as a performer in this playful, charming composition for solo clarinet, Coconut Candy (on Black Swirls, Cirrus Music, CMCD 001, 2007)This antic piece, always dancing, seems to change directions in mid-flight—something that I find characteristic of Mandat's freedom and wit as composer and performer. His program note to Coconut Candy  explains in less metaphorical terms, that the tune "is supposed to sound light and fluffy, when in fact there are some sixty-five non-conventional fingerings. The piece is a rather simple rondo, utilizing pitch collections symmetrical around the interval of a perfect third; that is, halfway between a major third and a minor third." It's cotton candy with a steel spine.

The propulsive quality of Mandat's music often comes from vivid contrasts that pack physical punches. These occur in registers, volumes, and tempos; in rhythmic variety—changes that come suddenly and comically; and in his confident creation of tension and anticipation. Whatever the mood, sparkling, silly, or delicate (in fact, come together in even the briefest work), his music has the listener on the edge of the chair, in the grip of its pushing, brilliantly manipulated pace and pressure.

A key to the drama in what he writes for himself and peer clarinetists is that he writes for "the extended clarinet" (thus the name of his first CD, copyright 1991, The Extended Clarinet, Advance Recordings, FGCD-32, 1991). Mandat is a master of extended techniques, which are unusual ways of playing the instrument that reward the dedicated player who invests in them with the ability to create effects well beyond the expected.

For instance, section five from his 1986 Folk Songs, a sort of flamenco for a dervish dancer, is a tour de force because of the extension of its line: When does this man ever breathe? The flow of the line over the tune's 2 minutes and 45 seconds is so crazily stretched out that it can make the auditor anxious. This is because of Mandat's circular breathing: He takes in air through his nose while he continues to blow through his mouth, thus avoiding the need to "take a breath." As you listen to "Like a Flamenco dancer with St. Vitus Dance" you can listen for the intakes of air through his nose while the notes rush uninterrupted through the second half. Pulitzer Prize winning composer Shulamit Ran appreciates having Mandat play her works in part because of this mastery. Even when her work doesn't call for circular breathing, she knows that Mandat will deliver unparalleled beauty of line, uninterrupted by pauses for breath.

The professional view.
Another haunting technique is multiphonics, in which the clarinet delivers two tones simultaneously as Mandat plays the instrument by breathing and fingering in the usual way and by vocalizing into it at the same time. This haunting piece, "...the looking glass" is from Preludes, book I  on  Black Swirls.

Most remarkable to me about Mandat's writing in forms of any length, is the inherent drama. His music conjures images that are never static. It invokes a natural world of rocks and mountains, trees and forests, stars and the Milky Way, all united by the movement of light and sound. His music suggests dancers—not dancers on a stage, but the people whom dancers represent—people who respond directly to their immediate circumstances, wherever they are in space and time.

Last March, at the Second European Clarinet Festival in Madrid, he presented Shadows from Flameswhich he wrote for the (very!) eclectic American bass clarinet quartet,  Edmund Welles . This link for this performance takes you to the first of five YouTube videos posted by Stephan Vermeersch, who recorded each of the five brief movements of Shadows from Flames: Intensity, Longing, Cauldron, Oracle, and Assault. This performance by a quartet of European bass clarinetists—Belgian Vermeesch, Portuguese Nuno Pinto, Spaniard Pedro Rubio, and Italian Rocco Parisi—shows Mandat the composer and the performer at his kinetic best. There is indeed little distinction between composer, clarinet virtuoso, and actor. Mandat spins the sound from every part of his dancing body: from his fingertips; he exhales it  from the pores of his skin. Shadows from Flames seems to have been composed by a giddy boy who has chased around the backyard to catch a bottle of electricity that he could unleash through five clarinets: The music's charge runs up and down the listener's body.

The idea that his music comes through every part of his body isn't an entirely poetic trope:  Mandat understands his clarinet is a literal, physical extension of his body. With the exception of the saxophone, the clarinet is the only instrument that "goes inside you. Everything else is just a little farther away. I can feel the vibrations echoing in my skull. I am the resonator for the horn's sound."

Unlike other instrumentalists, who may own several horns used for different occasions, Mandat has one clarinet, with which he has a singularly intimate relationship. He plays a Buffet RC model, a kind common in Europe and Asia, but hard to find in the States. He's begun a world-wide search, with the help of the Buffet company, to find a 
replacement for the instrument he bought in 1997. Since clarinets last only ten to fifteen year. How will he know he's found The One? "The vibrations that are coming out the holes tickle the tips of my fingers and if I can feel that, a certain kind of tickle...If I get that feel, I know it will work for me."

Masks in Mandat's office, collected on performance tours
Southern Illinois hired Mandat as soon as he completed his masters degree. (He was educated at the University of North Texas, Yale, and the Eastman School of Music, taught primarily by Richard Joiner, Lee Gibson, Keith Wilson, Stanley Hasty, and Charles Neidich). his University award for Outstanding Scholar after eighteen years of the usual academic track, earning with it "support to go anywhere any time for any length to do whatever I deem appropriate and valuable." He has taken advantage of this perquisite from the beginning; he tours for a week or two at least once or twice a year.

Nevertheless, he is committed to teaching and to the University. "When I'm here, I'm here. I'm in this office maybe ten hours a day." He's always felt himself literally an ambassador for the clarinet and teaching is part of the mission he embraces as warmly
as a hot water bottle in a January bed. "I try to show by example how lovely it is, how fabulous it is; and if they can catch that spark, then I feel like I've been successful." And for anyone who's checking, his on-line student evaluations are spectacular, something he's well aware of.  "I crave acceptance!" he grins. "I'm a performer. If I hadn't been a musician, I'd have been an actor."
Corollary to Mandat "being here" in Carbondale is that "when I'm gone, I'm gone." "Gone" can be just about anywhere in the world. He may have had a call to play with the Chicago Symphony's MusicNow ensemble under the baton of Pierre Boulez. He has happy memories of tours in Taiwan and Korea, and an especially rewarding residency in 2010 at the Royal Northern Academy of Music in Manchester, England.

But of all the places in the world to which Mandat has traveled to perform, the one he's returned to as to a home has been Latvia. In the late 1980's, a Latvian-American professor retiring from SIU procured a grant that enabled an exchanges of personnel and materials between the countries. In 1991 an SIU professor who had planned to go on the exchange backed out. Mandat went in his place and experienced the heady first anniversary of the Latvians' independence after decades of Russian rule. Mandat was profoundly affected by the passion and energy of a people whose culture had been suppressed to the level that they had been unable to use their own language. In a country with a very low standard of living, he found both the classical and folk music traditions revered and robust. He recalls a folk festival with 13,000 singers on stage; he played a solo in front of an orchestra of 4,000 that included twenty horns. Mandat returned many times over the course of eight years and formed close musical and personal ties. Latvians, he says, are "delicate, gentle people. They love music and they love poetry...The same verb means 'to read' and 'to pick flowers.' I think that's just lovely. And the same noun means 'field of grass' and 'concert hall.'"

An element of Mandat's love of Latvia and depth of experience there transcends the energy of the historical moment, the renaissance of its culture, or the poetry of the language. When he went, he found himself experiencing situations from his dreams and he learned the language as easily as if it had been his own. The tie he felt to the place was uncannily intuitive. This belief in the possibility of a psychic or spiritual connection is something strong and unapologetic in him. His sensitiveity to the unseen forces and energies of the world is profound; he takes to be real what others shrug off, unexamined, as fantastical because they cannot logically account for it.

Mandat's life experience has borne out the wisdom of being present to intuition and feeling. He explains that when he was three, he and his big brother had a recording of the "The Instruments of the Orchestra." Even at that age he fell in love the with nobility of the description of his future instrument: "The clarinet is the Queen of the instrument; it has great range..."

"We decided to keep my clarinet. I am going to
play very hard on it."
His parents rented him a clarinet in fourth grade. He played it happily, but decided that he would let it go the rental period was up. But the night before his parents were to return the instrument to the dealer, the boy was in tears, wracked with regret, pleading for the chance to keep it. His parents bought the clarinet.

Mandat tells this story with zest and a bit of awe. After the Brahms concert in January, he bent over earnestly to tell it to a very young clarinet student, an encouraging "keep at it!" to a ten-year-old artist. In this photograph (right) he shows off a treasured souvenir found in the papers of his late aunt, who was delighted to have a nephew who knew his heart. The letter hangs on his office wall, with equal status among all the framed elite degrees.

In Mandat's telling of this story, I hear in his laughter empathy for the little boy and an awareness of the struggle that intuition faces. He came so close, so young, to eschewing his joy, but he pulled it out through a self-awareness and presence of mind.

The aunt to whom the young clarinetist wrote eventually came to suffer from Alzheimer's, yet Mandat speaks of his time and communication with her in the happiest terms. What others found in her as flawed and diseased, hIs empathy and imagination appreciated as poetic understanding, as a rearranged way of seeing the world. He was the person able to communicate with her: He spoke her language.

These character traits—empathy, and the ability to observe with imagination—are undoubtedly sources of energy. Mandat's willingness to accept worlds where time isn't kept on a clock, and to accept them as real, is an attitude that has implications for us who listen to his music. He would have us bring to his (and to any contemporary) compositions and performances a willingness to be present to what unfolds. He'd have us not compare what we hear to what we think we should hear, or what we have heard in the past. We needn't prepare ourselves to compare the performance as it is recalled from music history courses. Mandat would have us focus on and enjoy what is actually delivered. Be present for this experience. It's unlike any other. Be here.

For an artist like Eric Mandat, "being present" means being without an agenda in the sense of career plans, vying for awards, or measuring himself within his profession. His sole aim is to keep developing as an artist. "For me, being a growing artist means that I'm going to have to abandon some safe zones—in performance and in composition. Thinking about my own composition for clarinet, there are certain expectations people have based on certain other pieces of mine that were perhaps successful, and it would be relatively easy to stick with those. In order to grow, I've got to break with those as my growth forces from time to time. It's a challenge.

"And with regard to New Music and its future, that's a big challenge that it's really difficult now for people who want to 'be successful.' They have to be able to find something that people are going to be able to identify and label and stick with. It's too bad, but there are just certain pockets that people get stuck in."

Which brings us once again to the observation of Mandat's energy, his ability to derive it from the world he observes, and to generate ideas and music from the heat to which he's so sensitive in the world.

But energy is also required for endurance: to tolerate uncertainty and to generate new growth. HIs music ripples with brilliance. wit, and joy. But  it is fueled by the strength few can summon: to be where he is, listening and watching with every pore open, them compressing himself into each idea and note as it comes. His energy is in his willingness to be present.

Reedmaking on the workbench

Toys on the funbench

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Note to My Readers: Making Comments

Several readers have mentioned recently that they've wished to post something on the blog, but have been unable to get the comments box at the bottom of the page to publish what they've written in it. 

I find that in order for readers to post, they must be signed in to Starr Review. There's a sign-in spot in the upper right corner of each review. Feel free to enlist as a "follower!"

But many of us have become wary of computer-age opportunities to commit our names and to dream up yet another password for minor benefits. Thinking of this, I have established a Facebook page that is also called Starr Review and is available to anyone who cares to post comments about matters in the blog or related to it.

I'm sure the irony will be noted that in order to take advantage of this simple solution, one needs already to have yielded up one's identifiers to Facebook. But if you've gone that far, the Starr Review page will ask you for no more! I often use the Facebook page to post extra notes or images related to my reviews. 

So: If you have discussion or comments you wish to post—or if you wonder if there's been any other discussion—please make use of the Facebook page or sign up as a follower of Starr Review. 

Murano Glass Master, Davide Salvadore

Davide Salvatore, Tirata. Author photo.
At his recent opening at the Sherrie Gallerie in Columbus, I asked Davide Salvadore (through his congenial translator), if there is any room for chance in the process of creating his glass works, or if he has everything mapped out before he begins. 

This master glass artist from Murano, the Venetian island that has been the center of glass works since the 13th century, has filled Sherrie Hawk's gallery with enchanting, glass "musical instruments." These have all been conceived from Salvadore's long-ago sight of an African woman carrying a jug on her head, dressed vivid fabrics. The sight fired in him a spontaneous love of Africa. Although he's never set foot on that continent, it has provided deep influence on the imagination that creates his mesmerizing work. 

Tirata, detail
In answer to my question, Salvadore assured me that the work requires that everything be laid out carefully ahead of time. The multiple glass canes that will be fused, all the supplies must be in order for the master and his three assistants (two sons among them) to handle in timely sequence in a process that depends on timing and temperatures. Should anything fail to happen according to plan, he knows enough that he can repair some sorts of errors or amend them, but basically: No. If anything goes wrong, the procedure ends and the work is broken to pieces. The scraps might be used as decorative bits in something else, but there is no question of salvaging work that requires perfection.

I came to Salvadore's show lured by the beautiful card the gallery mailed, which made it quite clear that this was a glass show. Not only is the artist hailed as an "Italian maestro glass artist," but the image of the small, gem-like COCOE (2012, 21.5 x 13 x 7") could never be mistaken for any other medium. 

When I arrived for the opening and looked around, though, the room was dominated by much larger works than this, and I began to conclude that Salvadore worked in several media. The forms were clearly related, but the surfaces were quite different from one another. Kijana was evidently carved from wood, and Tipo was woven from durable grasses or handsome synthetic fiber with shell or wood inlay.

Of course, they are not. They are glass, and like everything in the show, they are made by a long and arduous process of blowing, joining components, surface finishing and carving. Within one body of work tightly defined by form and spirit, the variety of textures achieved is amazing.  

Wood and leather?

Visitors to the Sherrie Gallery to see this work in person will be able to see Salvadore at work, aided by three assistants, in an excellent video produced by the Corning Glass Museum. Who isn't awed and amazed to watch glass artists at work? There is something deeply stirring about seeing form rescued time after time from molten batches, and precious objects emerging from flame. Artists who work with materials in constant fiery flux, who have to understand rolling, minute changes of state, are alchemists, turning sand almost literally into gold.

Salvadore's love of music inspired him to fashion this series of glass stringed instruments from his imagination. They serve one function of bowls or other open vessels, though, by displaying the artist's mastery over both the interior of the work and exterior of the work. In several cases this has the effect of making me wish I could experience the world in the richly saturated interior light. Once you glimpse the intensity at the core of the vessel, you understand that two works of art have been made simultaneously, one that reflects light back to us with its surface colors and textures, and the other, in the interior vault, that is illuminated by it.

Salvadore told me that he does little drawing to prepare for his work: Mostly, he works from his head. He knows what he wants to do, prepares and executes. 

There are many artists working in many media who "take the plunge," and who set about their work with confidence in themselves and knowledge of their materials. Rarely, though, do artists anticipate a specific end when they work in this manner. The one comparison I can make to glass work at this level is musical composition (unaided by computers). In the composer's ear his materials are arrayed; a commission or a guiding conception helps the composer invent and arrange many complex elements. She thinks about color, texture, design, rhythm, dynamics, orchestration—elements with correspondences one finds in Salvadore's multi-layered work. What the glass-worker must do, though, that the composer rarely does, is work fast and hot, straight through, until the enormously complex design is complete and perfect. There will be no editing, play-back, or consultation. In this, the process is less like composition than like child-bearing—struggle and discipline, but blood and sweat too.

Biubo, detail
That the surfaces of the work be "alive and breathing" is paramount for Salvadore. In his statement, he says, " I encourage my audience to have a real encounter with each piece. I want them to touch it, caress it, and to understand the shapes and movements." Five-figure price-tags stand between this viewer and the deep desire to indulge the fingers. The surfaces of these sculptures are every bit as sensual and alluring as their colors and forms. Biubo, less ornately decorated than many of the others, gives us the opportunity simply to swim in the depth of its blue color and to trace the deeply cut rivulets in its surface. Unlike any of the other "African" work, this calls to my hand the way tan elegant woman's sweeping blue taffeta dress would, one decorated with corsages of spring flowers.

This, however, attracts a very different impulse of hand, the combination of hesitation and eagerness one would bring to treasure. I looked very closely at all the work; I am certain that there really is no gold used in any of it. But in this piece, Salvadore has managed to create a precious object from the vaults of Ozymandias. The surface, like many, is cut in a manner that makes it look like beaten metal surrounding the cane lozenges that sit flush with the rest of the glass. The translucent tip of the vessel appears to be a semi-precious stone or crystal. From glass, the artist has created an instrument we would dare to hold only with caressing fascination and awe, as if it had once been plucked by Orpheus.

 This Tiraboson is among the pieces where Salvadore's African fantasy is most strongly felt. The colors—just those colors of acid yellow-green, vivid red and orange in a lattice of black with a scarf of bright blue—are typical of West African wax cloth and its abstract, assertive patterns. The form though, is unique in this show of uniquely shaped work, for having the terraced, carved belly and neck. The slender proportions of this Tiraboson make me think of a fossil—a paleontologist's gaudy, imagined reconstruction of a seahorse from millennia before nature fell to the degrading uses of humans.

Columbus is a city that loves glass and enjoys its particular relationship with Dale Chihuly. The Franklin Park Conservatory, the city's admirable botanical garden, is punctuated with biomorphic Chihuly sculptures that are much beloved; the Columbus Museum of Art has shown Chihuly in popular shows and owns a spectacular hanging sculpture much like those at the Victoria and Albert in London, at the Corning Glass Museum, the Portland Museum of Art—and who knows how many others. They are crowd pleasers. 

Dale Chihuly from Franklin Park Conservatory
web page
What Salvadore and Chihuly do are completely different things and to a degree it's pointless to compare them. In the video that accompanied Chihuly Illuminated that visited the Columbus Museum of Art in 2009, though, the shots of the workshop presented more of a factory in which assistants produce many multiples of the named, freely-formed shapes from which the artist selects to make sculptures or installations. The process is almost literally the opposite of Salvadore's, in which the wholly-invested artist is present at every step from conception through the final finishing. Chihuly's work is detached by comparison.

The literal weight of Salvadore's work I do not know, but it is substantial in the important sense. Even in photographs one can see that it is ardently formal. It is built up of layers encased in layers; it is so thick that at moments it seems to have felt the bite of a woodsman's axe. The presence of this work is phenomenal. Even the individual colors have mass.
From the show, Chihuly Illuminated, 2009
I bring up a comparison with Chihuly here not because it makes much sense to compare their approaches to glass: They are trying to do different things. 

But I compare them to emphasize the heat and investment of Salvadore's work. It is not literally true that you see the sheen of his sweat on every piece. It is not true that the gemlike colors are saturated with the artist's blood. And it's impossible that the ferocious time compression during Salvadore's labor causes the visual surface vibration in his work.

But every work explodes with life; and every detail is as intentional and as committed as a parent is to a newborn. To experience Salvadore's work is to experience the man who made them. That's to know his passion, integrity, will, and appetite.

All photographs in this article were taken by the author.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

David Smith's Plane Geometry

David Smith, Cubi I, 1963
Stainless steel, 124 x 34 1/2 x 33 1/2 inches. Detroit 
Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, Special Purchase Fund

© The Estate of David Smith/VAGA, New York. Photo: 
David Smith, courtesy The Estate of David Smith
Most of us have seen David Smith's geometry-based sculpture at least in photographs: his perilously piled cubes with insanely shiny surfaces, giddily balanced on a dime; graceful assemblages of flat and curved steel: climbing structures for a giant's playground. Fantastical and powerful, the sculptures of this Indiana native—who sometimes earned his living as a riveter and spotwelder in a Studebaker factory—can be looming, intimate, and illogical, but they are always very friendly. 

David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy, a show organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is currently visiting the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio through April 15. Smith considered himself an ally of the working man, and this show is certainly a testimony to his industrial skills and his workmanship as well as to his exuberant aesthetic invention. Aesthetes, metalworkers, and any lover of magic and illusions has to see this show, with the happy expectation of surrender to its fanciful allure.

It's great to see so much of Smith's sculpture, but it's especially wonderful to get close to each piece, to see its surfaces and to enjoy it from all angles. His sculpture always excites with its declarative geometry, balance, and interplay of positive shapes (the cut or bent metal) and negative ones (the ones that result from the spaces between the metal pieces). Why look for anything else when all this is so satisfying?

But unless we're lucky enough to see this show or to have had a life that's led us to many of Smith's works, we will know his oeuvre through catalogues and other photographic sources. Photographs of even the largest, most shapely works instill a kind of pass-over mentality that allows us to miss the other, delicious, close-up life of these works. Smith attended to details: to the surface, edges, and to the effects of the viewer's movement on the experience of every piece. Where these works are largely characterized by monolithic shapes represented in photographs, their protean, dynamic lives, lived in small details, seem to go unremarked.

David Smith. Zig III, 1961 (detail)
Painted steel
93 × 124 × 61 inches
The Estate of David Smith, New York; courtesy Gagosian Gallery
© The Estate of David Smith/VAGA, New York
Photo: Jerry L. Thompson
Any photograph of art is half-truth; art history as pictured in books is an exceedingly approximate enterprise since the images it's based on are only shades of their living counterparts. When you visit Cubes and Anarchy and stand beside Zig III, right, what actually strikes you is the painted surface. In this official photograph, if it even occurs to you that the surface is important, you must squint to find any of that drama created by dark red under-painting, roughly covered in black. 

Photographs of just eight are made available to the press from the forty-four sculptures in this show. Very strict conditions discourage attempts to take more (my best supervised efforts failed to yield anything permissible). What's more, no close-up shots are allowed, so a crucial half of the story cannot be illustrated at all: the surface surprises, and shifts between line and plane that I find so interesting in Smith's work. 

In fact, it's his "two-dimensional" sculptures that particularly strike me in this show. There are several on view. "Why," I wonder, "would a sculptor create work that is essentially two-dimensional; work in which the bases have more volume than the sculptures they support?"

Smith is the man who thought of geometric forms as the visual subject that everyone could relate to—the basis for his utopian vision of a worker-artist alliance. Cubes and Anarchy includes both sculpture and drawing, but some of the work melds the two, as in Steel Drawing I. One of my favorites, it is among the many that may not be pictured here. You can view it , however, in a wonderful picture, at the website of its home, the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The dimensions of Steel Drawing I are  22-1/4 x 26 x 6 inches. That 6" depth, though, is the depth of the base. The depth of the art itself—the steel plate—can't be over one-quarter inch. 

Steel Drawing I looks like a drawing, in the sense that it features marks (incisions) on a flat surface. It's tempting to think that if we laid it on paper and traced through its incisions, we would get  essentially the same drawing.

Even the Hirschhorn's photo shows us, though, that this drawing is unlike any that could be made with pencil or ink. The medium Smith uses is light traveling through three-dimensional slits. From the camera's ideal point-of-view, the regularly-cut slits do not produce lines of even width, though we can plainly see that they were cut with the same tool. The lines show many levels of brightness and darkness or, stated differently, they appear as lines of various widths. Our binary vision prevents our seeing all the lines in the same way: Look at that frontal photograph and you will not see a series of identical black lines as you would see on a sheet of paper, executed with pencil or pen.

The appearance of those lines will change, moreover, as we change our position relative to them. Sculptures—even flat ones—are to be examined in the round. Every motion we make changes the aspect of each mark and the whole design on Steel Drawing I. It's like walking past vertical blinds. The landscape we see between the slats may not change much as we cover a small distance, but our perceptions of the width and brightness of the slats will change greatly, step by step.


#2, moving right

#3, moving right
A Drawing with slits in steel makes us think about sculpture in a new way. Sculptors are always fine draftsmen. How does sculpture arise  from drawing? Does it ever leave drawing behind? From Smith, the sculptor of geometry, shouldn't we expect investigation of planes in reality, not only in concepts? After all, when we investigate Steel Drawing from all sides and get to the vantage point of either end, then we see not a plane at all, but: a line!

Wexner Center for the Arts, cover of calendar for March/April 2012,
featuring David Smith's 
Untitled (Candida), 1965,
stainless steel, 103 x 120 x 31 inches,  The Estate of David Smith.
Smith's magnificent Untitled (Candida) is featured on the current Wexner calendar in its handsome installation that takes advantage of the gallery's own geometry. This work continues the investigation of the two-dimensional—planes and lines—as sculpture. Again, the 31 reported inches of its depth refers to its base; seen from the edge, the soldered sheets—some to the left and some to the right of the upright—can be no more than one and half inches. Viewed from the edge, it is a line that wobbles in and out, composed, what's more, of foreground and background since it includes the  edge close to the viewer yet contains the edge of the other side, which distance makes appear less focused. (Alas, no photograph of this is possible: Be sure to notice this when you go!)

I think that Smith expected us to look at that never-photographed view because it's one more of the several ways this sculpture plays with the margin of flatness and depth. Not only is the linear edge a wobble of fused planes at two focal distances, but from the classic position, above, the sculpture forms a frame at the perfect height for looking through; it's a sort of of hole in the wall at a construction site. We look through the flat sculpture to a pop-up world of three dimensions. 
David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy at the Wexner Center for the Arts, 
The Ohio State University, 2012
Photo: Mark Steele Photography
The surface here, and in so many of Smith's work, is brushed stainless steel that is both directionally scored underneath and then brushed with the energetic loops and swooshes. That surface treatment, along with shapes energized by acute angles and directional feel, makes it difficult for us to experience this as "flat." In fact, in a wonderful observation, a friend who saw this show with me said that the surface is like a hologram. This is the perfect comparison for a work that shifts dimension depending on how you approach it—from what angle, what distance, or at what speed you move around it. Large and four-square, it is a mercurial work that plays with our understanding of sculpture as a three-dimensional art form, and suggests that we consider three dimensions both as real space and as illusion.

David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy at the Wexner Center for the Arts, The Ohio State University, 2012
Photo: Mark Steele Photography
David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy at the Wexner Center for the Arts, 
The Ohio State University, 2012
Photo: Mark Steele Photography
The whimsical Circle IV seems like a geometry project gone wrong, or a middle-school shop project that gets a failing grade. It's a painted circle on a curved base, split vertically in the same plane by a wedge, which is itself split at ninety degrees by a rectangle. Each element is flat, a plane.

"David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy," installation view of exhibition
 at Whitney Museum of American Art until January 8, 2011.
 Left to right: Tanktotem VII, 1960, Construction in Rectangles, and Circle IV, 1962
(all: painted steel). Photograph by Jerry L. Thompson
From Indiana University Library website.
This is another work which seems to be photographed perennially from the same view; some close-ups from a past show at the Gagosian Gallery help with the orientation and detail. New York Social Diary presents last fall's installation of this show at the Whitney. You can find a rare photo of the opposite side of Circle IV if you scroll about half-way  through the enviably thorough documentation of the show (clearly made under a less strict set of rules than prevail in the provinces).

Circle IV, so logical-seeming in its assemblage of bold. basic geometrical forms, is in fact anything but. Starting from the base, it's clear that the two bases do not sit on the same line, but go off on different trajectories. When we look at the line that "bisects" the red and white halves of the circle, we see that it's not a straight line, but a curved one. It's easy to see up close that the explanation for this is that we have here not one circle, but the halves of two, the red being larger than the white. The rectangle at the top is not evenly balanced, nor does it sit parallel to the base. Where colors meet, where they are overlaid, the painting is rough, casual almost. So where the sculpture appears from a distance to be all balance and symmetry, up close, it is not: it is perilous bravado, a tease of flat forms that dissolve into lines and reemerge, reshaped by the angles at which we approach them in our tour of its flat and linear three-dimensions. This photo of the Whitney Museum installation from the Indiana University Library, though distant from the piece, gives an idea of the way the sculpture "disappears" when the circle is viewed from its edge.

I wish I could find simpler and more elegant language to describe my perceptions with, and I certainly wish I had pictures that could take the pressure off of language. Most of all, I hope as many people as possible will take advantage of the chance to see this show. Approach it as a magic show, as a show wherein disciplined sleights of hand create beauty, wonder, and a lot of fun.