publication of the International Sculpture Center
Recent Work: Return to
by Karen Wilkin
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Tower I, 1992. Bronze, 39.25 x 23 x 20.25 in. Photo
courtesy Locks Gallery, Philadelphia.
that Isaac Witkin has had a long and distinguished career is, for once,
not simply a useful cliché. Four decades ago, in the early days
of swinging London, the young Witkin and a group of his equally
young friends, all recent graduates of St. Martins School of Art,
burst upon the British art scene declaring themselves sculptors to be
reckoned with because of the sheer audacity, authority, and originality
of their spirited works. Witkins sculptures of these formative years
were, like those of his colleagues, notable for their inventiveness, their
unlikely materials, and their irreverent but thoughtful reconsideration
of the Modernist legacy. What set Witkins polychromed wood and fiberglass
constructions apart was their unlikely conflation of suave, swelling forms
redolent of the tradition of modeling and crisp-edged junctures informed
by the tradition of Modernist planar construction. These surprising objects
were greeted with great critical acclaim. In 1965 alone, Witkins
work was featured in such important international exhibitions as The
New Generation at Londons Whitechapel Gallery, Primary
Structures at New Yorks Jewish Museum, and the Quatrième
Biennale de Paris, where he was awarded first prize. In 1971, his work
figured prominently in the influential showing of The Alistair McAlpine
Gift at the Tate Gallery, London, which celebrated the donation
of an impeccably chosen collection of sculptures by Witkin and his peers.
An auspicious beginning, indeed.
time that the Tate exhibited the McAlpine bequest, however, Witkin had
long since abandoned London to teach at Bennington College in Vermont,
and he had given up the burgeoning forms and the responsive (but often
toxic) materials of his early sculptures to work in steel, constructing
free-wheeling, generously scaled structures that he often painted in colors
ranging from forthright near-primaries to subtle earth tones. Unlike his
essentially self-contained, singular, volumetric sculptures of the early
1960s, Witkins loose-limbed steel pieces were planar and greedy
for space. They stretched out eagerly, spreading horizontally and reaching
out with floating cantilevers, or folding themselves into muscular arches
and angles that implied volume, but were, in fact, made of flat, relatively
thin planes. As we moved around these sculptures, we became aware of a
play of edges that competed for attention with the suggestions of open
his uninhibited early works, Witkins audacious steel constructions
won him considerable enthusiastic attention, but, by the end of the 1970s,
he changed gears once again, abandoning steel and the formal vocabulary
it elicited from himjust as he had fiberglass and the formal vocabulary
it made possiblein order to explore new territory. Once again he
employed new methods and materials that either provoked or permitted him
to test the limits of new forms, but surprisingly and in marked contrast
to his earlier practice, these materials, while new to him, were rooted
in the history of art. Instead of sleek, cast fiberglass or expansive,
planar steel, Witkin began to test the possibilities of bronze, constructing
tenuously poised assemblies of soft-edged, organic forms. And a decade
ago, he added stone to his arsenal of materials. Unlike his often brash,
angular earlier works, Witkins sculptures from the mid-1980s to
the present have been distinguished not only by their rather traditional
materials, but also by their lyricism and their centralized organization.
Many of them depend on upwardly striving or suspended, cascading structures
that seem more evocative of natural growth than of manmade structures.
Witkins most recent work, made by an ingenious process that combines
direct pouring and casting, is notable for the richness of its surfaces
and for the layered density of its liquid forms.
1964. Fiberglass, 75 x 39 x 39 in.
shifts of materials, emphasis, and mood appear so abrupt that it can seem
as though we were confronted by two different sculptors: Witkin
I, who practiced during the first 20 years of the artists
career and Witkin II who has been at work for the past two
decades. The paradox is that no matter how distinct Witkin IIs
bronze (and stone) sculptures appear to be from what preceded them, no
matter how clearly they stamp themselves out as a distinct body of work,
longer acquaintance not only reveals their distinctiveness, but also makes
visible their seamless connection with everything that Witkin I
did. Far from seeming unprecedented in his oeuvre as a whole, his most
recent works prove the consistency of his preoccupations. Yet if his most
recent sculptures signal his recurring obsessions with particular forms
and gestures, they also make us aware of his appetite for transformation,
his alertness to new possibilities, and his willingness to pursue new
directions that arise in the course of working.
it is not simply a neat turn of phrase to suggest that one of the most
evident constants in Witkins life as an artist has been change.
He has consistently courted, consciously or unconsciously, situations
that would allow (or force) him to break entrenched habits and rethink
even his most firmly held convictions. Over the four decades of his working
life as a sculptor, he has not only deliberately changed materials, as
if to discover what formal transformations these changes would effect,
but he has also deliberately changed his environment, moving from his
native South Africa to England to the United States, as if to discover
what his responses to new surroundings might be. These changes seem to
have helped Witkin to clarify his concerns; certainly they have often
been paralleled, admittedly imprecisely, with the shifts in his sculptural
languages. Still, it doesnt do to attach too much meaning to this
loose correlation. Since 1979, Witkin has maintained a home and studio
on a blueberry farm in rural New Jersey. During this settled period, however,
he has produced some of his most inventive, experimental sculpture to
date, works that at once sum up his past, break with that past, and point
to the future. His most recent works in cast bronze or aluminum are specially
Africa, 1976. Steel, 83 x 228 x 192 in.
the most striking aspect of many of Witkins newest sculptures is
their complexity and driving rhythms. In some, forms appear to pull themselves
up as we watch, wrenching themselves up from the ground seemingly without
effort, yet at the same time, the agitated traces that inflect their surfaces,
like records of previous states, appear to bear witness to a hard-won
triumph over the constraints of gravity. Other sculptures, more apparently
submissive to physical forces, spread in complex puddles. The surfaces
of both types are rich, layered, and subtle. From a distance, the profiles
of these sculptures seem complicated, but clear; large, cursive gestures
declare themselves. From a closer viewpoint, we become engaged by another
order of incident: the intricate shifts of density suggested by the overlapped
edges of cumulative touches. These passages engage the eye (and the mind)
in a fashion entirely different from that of the large-scale declarations
of form and mass that announce themselves at first viewing.
result of these differences, scale seems unstable, shifting as we look.
It can be difficult to reconcile the assertive large articulations that
define the whole with the counterpoint of small overlaps and hollows that
reveal themselves on closer acquaintance, but, in the end, it is the tension
between these disparities that animates Witkins recent sculptures
and forces us to consider them in unexpected ways. In traditional figurative
works, our attention may first be captured by large-scale compositional
events such as massing or contour, but it is then held by intimately scaled
incidents such as details of features, clothing, or setting. Witkins
recent sculptures are unequivocally about themselves and the history of
their own making, yet the complex relationship between the large gestures
of the sculptures profiles and the small nuances of their surfaces
gives them a multiplicity of scales that enriches, but does not compromise
their essential abstractness.
Palace, 199091. Bronze, 14.25 x 24.75 x 18.75 in.
triggers multivalent associations. The piled, cascading forms of some
sculptures suggest a variety of readings, often related to the natural
world. Its worth noting, though, that these associations with nature
are usually mediated by art. It is, for example, possible to draw analogies
between these works and the philosophers rocks of Chinese
gardens, with their willfully eroded surfaces, pitted and furrowed by
the calculated action of water, or to compare the sculptures, albeit at
one remove, to classical Chinese landscape paintings, with their long
views of craggy rocks and peaks, plunging cascades, and steep paths, among
which we are invited to imagine ourselves wandering. Yet no matter how
alluring these associations may be, Witkins sculptures never lose
their identity as self-sufficient abstract objects. We may begin to explore
one of his recent works as though we were mentally transporting ourselves
into the space of an invented world, but the literal physical presence
of the sculpture soon asserts itself, in wholly contemporary terms, insisting
on a certain kind of distance and forcing us to consider the sculpture
as a self-contained thing unlike all other things that exist in the world.
likes the notion of landscape scaleChinese or otherwiseas
a component of his sculptures, yet he is less likely to speak of his recent
pieces in connection with Asian art, of any kind, than to talk about his
interest in Vincent van Goghs drawings. Those drawings made
a strong impression on me, Witkin says. I was fascinated by
the way everything in them was united by those amazing, curvilinear rhythmic
patterns. It didnt matter whether it was a figure or a landscape.
The rhythmic marks held your attention.
method Witkin has devised for making his new bronzes and cast aluminum
works is, in fact, a kind of drawing, a three-dimensional, intensely physical
type of drawing that can be as cursive and rhythmic as any brushmark or
stroke of a bamboo pen. He begins by pouring hot wax into cold water.
The movement of his wrist, the angle and the speed of the pour all influence
the resulting configuration; repeated pours begin to create a structure.
The resulting forms have a strong family resemblance because of the way
the wax reacts with waterthe initial configurations share smooth
edges, for example, and are built out of similarly sized unitsbut
Witkin always has the option of modulating the surface during the pour
and can later manipulate or recombine the resulting forms to intensify
articulation and mass.
State, 199697. Zimbabwe black granite, 228 x 132 x 114
in. Photo by ricardo barros.com, courtesy the
complex, urgent sculptures are the latest manifestations of an exploration
of unconventional ways of working in metal that dates back more than 25
years, when Witkin began a series of experimental bronzes at the Johnson
Atelier, in New Jersey, as an alternative to the new tradition
of additive construction in steel. By pouring molten bronze into forms
hollowed out of beds of sand and remaining alert to the possibilities
of what he calls the controlled accidents of splashes and
escapes from the prepared bed, Witkin discovered or invented a new vocabulary
of forms: sensuous, biomorphic, and wholly at odds with the loose-jointed
angles and folded forms of his steel works. In a sense, it
was a more physical version of the way abstract painters of the generation
immediately preceding Witkins had worked, pouring and staining their
canvases with thinned out pigment, expanding on the legacy of Jackson
Pollock, and making the history of the paintings evolution an important
part of its meaning.
many of these painters, perhaps most notably Morris Louis, working this
way allowed them to make their paintings more abstract by completely detaching
the act of applying paint to canvas from depiction or rendering. The exception
to this generalization is Helen Frankenthaler (from whom Louis took his
lead in making his poured and stained pictures); Frankenthalers
canvases of the 1960s are haunted by elusive images that seem to have
arisen almost spontaneously. Since Frankenthalers floods of color
appear simultaneously to have found their own way and to have been willed
into being by her powerful personality, it is impossible to decide whether
she (unconsciously or consciously) encouraged the formation of these images
or simply accepted them. Whatever their origin, their mysterious, half-glimpsed
presence enriches her work. Witkins industrially poured
bronzes from the late 1970s invite similarly ambiguous readings. Their
suave formssleek, nameless, and sometimes a little sinisteralso
provoke multiple associations with things in nature. Interestingly, the
long, soft-edged forms typical of Witkins first series of directly
poured bronzes have since reappeared in new guises. For about a decade,
Witkin has had several opportunities to work in stone, using industrial
tools and processes, and has produced a small, but significant body of
work in this recalcitrant material.
first stone sculpture I made, he recalls, was 14 feet high,
in black Zimbabwe granitean incredibly hard stone. Its uncarvable.
We worked it with a bush hammer and polished it, which led to wonderful
color. Many of Witkins stone sculptures deliberately defy
both gravity and traditional uses of the material. He hoists delicately
inflected volumes aloft or casually leans them together, to create loose-seeming
assemblies of poised, elegant forms, somewhere between bones and clouds,
that provoke associations as unstable as the large directly poured bronzes.
(The configurations of the stone sculptures, in turn, have had echoes
in Witkins smaller works, directly in some made for casting in metal,
but only indirectly in those made by pouring wax.)
Scene, 2004. Bronze, 7.5 x 17.5 x 13.5 in. diameter.
recent small-scale sculptures are no less rich in allusions and associations
than the large, epic bronzes that preceded them, but the traces of the
artists hand and of his gestures remain so visible in the recent
poured and cast sculptures that they are also specially intimate and revealing.
Like the earlier, large biomorphic bronzes, the recent bronzes seem to
fuse two opposing notions of what sculpture can be. For all their associations
with growth and natural forms, the earlier bronzes appeared to have been
assembled from distinctively shaped, tapering, biomorphic building
blocks of poured metal; in fact, they were constructed in ways not
entirely dissimilar from his steel pieces, by adding discrete parts to
form a unified whole. Witkins recent works also suggest, at first
glance, that they have grown incrementally but inevitably, like things
in nature, but with longer acquaintance, their made, deliberate, irrational
(in the best sense of the word) qualities come to the fore. We are compelled
to consider these sculptures as being simultaneously seamless and additive,
to regard them not only as singular forms, but also as open constructions
that seem, perhaps only momentarily, to suggest mass and bulk.
recent poured and drawn cast sculptures are so characteristically
Witkins that they could be termed displaced self-portraits.
In a sense, their enigmatic swelling forms reprise the distinctive character
of the works that first won him acclaim, as an eager young man in London.
As he did in his early sculptures, Witkin once again challenges our expectations
of what sculpture can benot, as he did four decades ago, by using
unexpected materials with virtually no art historical associations, but
by doing just the opposite. By working in wax for casting in metal, he
ostensibly employs traditional materials and traditional methods. But
he transforms those materials and methods to alter our preconceptions
and make us rethink the possibilities of singular masses and inflected
2004. Bronze, 13 x 18.5 x 9 in. Photo by ricardo
barros.com, courtesy Locks Gallery, Philadelphia.
has always been my concern, Witkin says. The question has
always been how to get there. His first teacher was a meticulous
academic maker of statues who taught him to model convincingly solid forms.
In the exhilarating climate of St. Martins in the early 1960s, the
idea of what sculptureincluding volumetric sculpturecould
be was essentially reinvented, permanently, by Witkin, his adventurous
colleagues, and their energetic, passionate teacher, Anthony Caro. (Caro
was not a lot older than his students, and like them, at the time, he
was inventing new sculptural languages as he went along, testing the limits
of abstraction.) Witkins early works, in fiberglass and wood, were
the first evidence of his lifelong pursuit of the creation of volume without
modeling in conventional ways. The steel works that followed, which at
initial viewing seemed to colonize new terrain, now appear to be as much
about suggested, partly enclosed volumes as about the abutment of planes,
in part because Witkins subsequent works, including his most recent
efforts, have emphasized three-dimensional bulk rather than open, linear
structure. The paradox is that they did so by implication rather than
by description or construction.
current methods and materials have given him a new vocabulary with which
to state some of his most firmly held convictions, not literally, but
metaphorically. The way I am working now allows me to give forms
volume without making volume. Theres no core-to-surface surface
modeling or carving from mass to volume, Witkin says, with evident
pleasure. Working in steel was an effort to express volume by how
the surface of planes moved through space. With the pours I can articulate
volume from surface alone. They give me the physicality I want without
modeling out from the core.
Witkins current way of working allows him to assert some of sculptures
fundamental qualities: its singularity, its ability to displace space,
and its unignorable presentness. But he does so neither by building up
a mass nor by modifying an existing one nor by surrounding a chunk of
space. Instead, through drawing-like gestures, he creates subtly modulated
skins that seem to containamong other thingsthe
memory of the entire history of sculpture, made at once tangible and elusive.
Witkins newest works are both appealing and a little difficult to
grasp. They point to new resolutions at the same time that they seem to
sum up his past, in new ways. Such contradictions are part of the strength
of these recent works. Nothing important, it seems, ever gets lost.
Wilkin is an independent curator
and critic specializing in 20th-century Modernism with particular emphasis
on sculpture. She has organized exhibitions and written monographs on
David Smith, Anthony Caro, and Isaac Witkin.
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