publication of the International Sculpture Center
Question of Perspective: Sculpture by Charles Ginnever
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1998. Steel, 13 x 13 x 13 ft., three units.
was on vacation in Maine in 1993 when he went to work on a design that
had already been in his mind for a while. He started, as he often did,
by tinkering with shapes cut from foam core; when he was done, he had
produced an object that could stand freely in 11 positions. By the time
a full-scale version of the piece was constructed at mid-decade, further
adjustments enabled it to stand in 15 positions, and as a design it fully
declared the sculptural concerns that had occupied him for more than 30
years. He called it Rashomon, borrowing the title from Akira Kurosawas
film version of a novella by the early Japanese Modernist Ryunosuke Akutagawa:
after a number of witnesses to a particularly heinous crime are questioned
at length, police investigators are startled to find that each story differs
from the others in some distinctive way. For both Akutagawa and Kurosawa,
this unreliability of witness, based, of course, in the sheer subjectivity
of vision, offered an exemplary demonstration of the Modernist program.
The reference is just as precise for Ginnever, though it is not bound
to anything as specific as literary Modernism. He had discovered that
the sculptural Rashomon, an open geometric form without right angles or
parallel lines, not only stood in a remarkable number of positions, but
it was the rarest of witnesses who could recognize it as the same work
from one position to the next.
Ginnever was not
surprised. To him, the situation reflected the sorry state of the Western
spatial imagination. The argument of Rashomon is that many centuries of
architecture, urban planning, and perspectival systems in art, all based
on the right angle and consequently insistent upon both the readability
and predictability of spatial configurations in the human environment,
have dulled our ability to anticipate, even to perceive the complexity
of form in space. The tendency to control space with form has tangibly
altered our sense of what space is, and so we move through a rich, challenging,
often exhilarating world of forms without seeing all that is really there,
insensitive to the implications of our loss. The origins of this condition
are various, and by now perhaps impossible to differentiate, but they
must lie to some extent in social and philosophical systems that support
the drive for human domination over the natural worldthat the world
is a place that can and should be controlled.
Ghost of Isenheim,
1961. Steel and mixed media, 84 x 48 x 48 in.
Like most of the
large-scale steel works that Ginnever has been building since the late
1960s, Rashomon is unremittingly experiential. If at first glance it suggests
itself to be another of the big, weathered steel objects now familiar
in public and outdoor settings, there is something enigmatic about it
too, a strangeness that beckons to us. It requests our participation.
We approach it, and as we walk around the piece, it reveals formal shifts
that were not initially apparent. It is not what it appeared to be, and
soon we realize that no single view or perspective will reveal it in its
A lot of large-scale
sculpture is meant to pique our interest by arousing a specifically visual
curiosity, and we have grown accustomed to the visual sleight of hand
at the heart of these designs. Ginnever is more ambitious. His goal, well
before Rashomon, has been to reveal, in a literal, empirical way, that
perceptual experience is inseparable from the continuum of space and time
in which the experience occurs. The work may prohibit a single comprehensive
perspective, but, in fact, the locus of experience lies in the viewer,
who can only reveal the work over time, from a continuous, seamless multiplicity
of perspectives. Thus the work (ideally) catalyzes the surprise and delight
of visual possibility and stimulates a creaky spatial imagination.
A row of 15 maquettes
on a narrow tabletop is pretty jazzy, like a line of jagged, swooping,
contorted dancers, but Ginnever envisions an ideal setting in which 15
full-scale pieces are spread across a landscape, each in a different position.
(In the largest installation to date, three 13-foot Rashomons were placed
on the Stanford University campus in 2000, where they remained for two
years, providing a lesson in the problems of site. They stood among the
groves near the university art museum, where they were difficult to see
in a long perspective and even more difficult to see as a network of related
forms.) Yet, if Rashomon can be said to constitute a critique of deeply
embedded cultural values and the world view in which they originated,
it has no desire to draw attention to shortcomings in the individual observer.
It wishes primarily to provoke the perceptual imagination, and it is not
a harsh instructor.
Luna Moth Walk
I, 1983, steel; Luna Moth Walk II, 1985, steel; and Luna Moth Walk
III, 1982, steel.(right to left)
When Ginnever arrived
in New York in 1959, he had already been working for more than a year
at a large scale, using railroad ties to construct open, exuberant formsone
thinks of David Smiths notion of drawing in space expanded to the
proportions of a giant. These works stood firmly on the ground, refusing
to separate themselves from the viewers space and offering little
sense of front or back or side, with no spine or obvious center to establish
an orientation for the viewer. Writing about the young sculptors in the
city for Arts magazine in early 1965, Max Kozloff associated Ginnever
with George Sugarman, David Weinrib, Mark di Suvero, Tom Doyle, and Ronald
Bladen. These sculptors shared, he noted, a sculptural syntax that
stresses extendibility and the proliferation of forms through space.
For Kozloff, the work of these artists showed the breadth of sculptural
response at that moment to contemporary conditions; it was typically anti-illusionistic,
preferring instead to act against visual and, indeed, sculptural expectations.
Today, most of these
artists are well known individually, but their appearance as a group,
at that particular moment, remains under-appreciated, partly because their
variety resists the summary qualities of a movement and partly because,
as a group, they do not adhere to the art historical trajectory of painting
during the same era. The work tends to be profuse, incorporative, hot
rather than cool, and indifferent to prevailing doctrines. Ginnever worked
in many of the current modes, from performances and happenings to painted
assemblage. The numerous tabletop-scale constructions that he made during
those years often suggest inside-out versions of John Chamberlains
work with crushed automotive sheet metal, striving for an expansiveness
of form where Chamberlain seeks compression and a terse discontinuity
of surface. But even Ginnevers assemblage works ask to be circumnavigated,
and, regardless of size, their wily formal shifts can spark considerable
Steel, 13 x 13 x 13 ft., three units.
As a Californian,
Ginnever brought certain concerns of his own to this wide-open sculptural
environment. He had grown up on the San Francisco Peninsula, where the
crystalline and vast creeping fog banks can produce unusual visual disjunctions
that distort cursory readings of space and distance. For him, the mysteries
of perception had always been an issue. This, of course, was hardly a
novel theme in art; investigations regarding both the subjectivity and
the unreliability of sight constitute a significant aspect of the modern
tradition. Ginnever had gazed across great distances in much the same
way that Cézanne had, with similar questions, and he would become
one of the first artists to probe the nature of spatial experience using
predominantly abstract sculptural forms; it is a theme that continued
in the subsequent decade in the hands of Richard Serra and others.
work during this period was Dantes Rig (1964), a large, loosely
vessel-shaped construction consisting of a hammock-like frame, lots of
guy wires, and two rows of quivering trapezoidal aluminum wings.
A work of ethereal lightness, it was shown in New York at the Park Place
Gallery, sharing the space with work by Peter Forakis, and was widely
seen by other sculptors in the city, at least some of whom recognized
its originality and daring. Within its atmosphere of fragile, tentative
reference, Dantes Rig can be characterized by several related elements:
it develops an implied, insubstantial, finally uncertain volume, one in
which edge is never clearly defined, or is defined schematically by the
use of wires. As a result, the work seems to dissolve at a distance, especially
outdoors; as we approach, however, it seems to tingle in skittish, light-footed
interaction with the space immediately around it. By the same token, its
rendering of form is so different from various points around its periphery
that it defies reflexive readings, requiring instead that the viewer be
attentive to the experience of engagement. In the end, the leap from the
transparency of Dantes Rig to the puzzle-like geometry of Rashomon,
a kind of Rubiks Cube of the spatial imagination, is not very far
1989. Bronze with patina, 17 x 17 x 8 in.
Steel permits durability
and scale, but, for Ginnever, it had the additional attraction of strength.
The combination of material and scale allowed him to erase the kinds of
sculptural gestures that typified his work before the mid-1960shis
work is not about personality. But most important of all, anything he
imagined could be built in a stable form, and, as a result, a good deal
of his work, well into the 1980s, was based on complex, often irregular
rectangles and trapezoids arranged in extended, gravity-defying stacks
or modular networks. These forms generally have their own internal planes,
and so they tilt dramatically or seem to be spinning crazily across space.
Many, including 3+1 (1967), the untitled constructions made between 1968
and 1971, or large, planar forms such as Fayette (For Charles and Medgar
Evers) (1971), the jazzy Dovecotes (1972), and Détente (1974),
seek some pretty dramatic formal shifts. In a frontal position,
they appear to be immense or impossibly heavy, only to disappear from
another vantage point or suddenly to reveal some unexpected hole in space.
These, too, are works
of intense visual delight. But for all their high spirits and formal extroversion,
they are decidedly peripatetic. Like di Suvero, Ginnever is quite skilled
at playing against visual habitwhere the eye expects gravity to
exert itself, the work springs into space, and as the spectator moves
around it, a reading of material weight is challenged as the forms seem
to disappear, as though suddenly weightless. This is not mere novelty.
Ginnever enjoys working with big forms, but it is serious play. Everything
exists to demonstrate the ways in which we interpret form, in its presence
and in real timewhat we miss as well as what we see.
1991. Bronze with patina, 13 x 29 x 13 in.
Still, these forms
do little to hide their means. It is very easy to see how they have been
put together. With the feeling that this put him, like di Suvero or Tony
Smith, too firmly in a strict Constructivist tradition, Ginnever overcame
the condition during the mid-1970s in a remarkable sequence of works based
on triangular forms (in actuality, they are parallelograms bent along
diagonal lines) that lean or tilt precariously into each other; some especially
strong individual pieces from the series include Daedalus (1975), Nautilus
(1976), Protagoras (1976), Crete (1978), and Koronos II (1978). These
sculptures are integrated with the earth on which they stand, contesting
the architectural space around them, but, in their crazy tilt, they seem
to be holding themselves in place against all odds, with a precarious
delicacy of balance at odds with the weight of the steel. As in some of
Serras large steel installations, material weight adds a bodily
sense of peril to the formal shifts. And while the outer edges of the
forms may suggest a comprehensive, generic shapea pyramid, for instancethey
in fact look quite different from every perspective.
Writing about an
indoor installation of Daedalus for Art in America in mid-1976, Carter
Ratcliff observed that commonplace assumptions regarding geometric sculpture
did not apply to Ginnever: meaning resided entirely in, and was limited
to, direct experience. He recognized, as well, that these designs lie
outside the logic of Western spatial design and that Ginnever was attempting
to shift responsibility for the experience of the work away from the kinds
of cultural determinations embedded in Western spatial systems. The work
would always be different, for each viewer, each time it was seen. Ginnever
represented an alternative to Western spatial concepts, in other words,
by rejecting the reassurances of a predictable right-angled space.
1991. Bronze with patina, 15 x 24.5 x 11 in
For this reason,
the work can also be seen as a critique of the Minimalist program, which
still had a presence in New York. The Minimalist discourse around materials
was pertinent to Ginnevers enterprise, but what he could not accept
was the way in which Minimalism, in his view, acquiesced to the determining
influence of architectural space. Movement around a Minimalist installation
might provide additional information about the work, but not about its
essential form, which remains readable from any perspective. Instead of
seizing the opportunity to interrogate the influence of the spatial systems
that housed it, it had submitted itself to the system without a fight.
This was a big problem for Ginnever, who regarded the right angle as an
instrument of spatial control, functioning under the (arrogant) assumption
that space could or should be controlled. To accept the right angleand
indeed any perspectival systemwas to accept the idea
that rigid spaces and forms were somehow good or right,
or even possible. When he wrote about Ginnevers work two years later
for Art in America, Ratcliff described the ability of the work to reach
beyond its own space, thus encouraging the eye to consider space itself
as a flexible, inherently unstable medium in its own right.
has not been perfectly straight, of course. There were commissions as
well as his own designs, and, over the years, he would work in a variety
of modes. Zeus, for example, three I-beams hung in a thunderbolt configuration
at Sculpture Now in 1975, crossed the warehouse-sized gallery space like
a vast line, forcing viewers to accept the space as a real, interruptible
substance and responding to ambient variability by clanging softly when
the ends of the beams struck each other. Elsewhere, there have been cool
geometric forms (Blue and Black  or Crazed ), emblematic shapes
(Godards Dream  or Nike ), evocative standing
forms (The Bird (For Charlie Parker) , Bop , or the Luna
Moth Walk series ), and serial constructions (Cobra
 or Stack ). Formal shifts generally occur in these works,
but many can be seen as primarily sculptural, existing not so much to
challenge perception as to explore or consider the formal ideas that will
continue to be of use.
VI, 1991. Bronze with patina, 15 x 18 x 11 in.
series (1991) would prove to be the immediate predecessor to Rashomon.
These works are hardly larger than maquettes, and they had a quirky origin.
While he was playing with a design program on a computer, one intended
to rotate three-dimensional forms in electronic space, Ginnever noticed
that the program was producing subtle formal distortions, and he soon
realized that they were a result of its basis in a traditional perspectival
system. Needless to say, the irony was not lost on him. The insect-like
Moonwalkers were designed around the distortions, and they function most
effectively as an installation that treats space as infinitely variable:
that is, they can be moved around a room at will, maintaining a relationship
with each other, redefining their edge or scale as a unified sculptural
work, redefining the space itself, which exists as an integral aspect
of the work.
For the Moonwalkers,
space is more than a site of occupation. It literally connects the individual
components of the work. Each piece has a personality of its own, and while
their engagement with space is active, it does not require much participation
from viewers, who can observe the entire population by rotating in place.
The problem was to effect a similar action at the scale of landscape,
and so Rashomon came into being as one solution.
During a trip to
Japan in 1974, Ginnever showed photographs of his work to a number of
Japanese architects and artists, who were able to anticipate and describe
formal shifts without seeing the work itself, suggesting that spatial
perception and spatial imagination are indeed acculturated, and what could
be unlearned by conditioning could perhaps be relearned. This has been
an important aspect of Ginnevers work, and it assists in defining
his sculptures larger significance. For Ginnever, the freeing of
the spatial imagination is truly a freedom. The question, after all, is
not merely what we have lost of our ability to read forms
in space, but what other aspects of consciousness are affected by the
Bruce Nixon is
currently working on a book about Manuel Neri.
Early Works Lost to Fire
On July 24, 2003,
a fast-moving, 25-acre grass fire spread through Petaluma, California,
destroying a barn where many of Ginnevers sculptures and drawings
were temporarily stored. Key sculptures and works on paper, primarily
from the artists early career were destroyed in the blaze. Among
the lost works were a number of brightly painted sculptures made of canvas
and twisted metal, sculptures composed of wooden railroad ties and found
metal objects, and the seminal work Dantes Rig (1964). Recent small
steel sculptures were damaged but spared.