Christopher Wilmarth

at the Arts Club, through November 3

Because I think Christopher Wilmarth’s work belongs with that of artists such as Rothko and Brancusi, the comparative lack of recognition he’s received, especially in Chicago, even 14 years after his death, seems something of a scandal. During his lifetime Wilmarth had one-person shows in New York, Boston, Hartford, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, Stockholm, and Milan, but though the Art Institute and Museum of Contemporary Art each owns a Wilmarth work, the 12 glass-and-metal sculptures and 14 drawings at the Arts Club represent his first one-man show here.

Wilmarth used the language of minimalism–often combining only a few elements, such as plates of glass and steel wire–but opposed its aesthetic, which he found limited and ultimately boring. (In fiction published a year before his death, he called minimalism “an infantile endeavor trading on the paucity of experience in the real world of those creatures from 10021”–the wealthiest zip code on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.) Drawing on several traditions–his principal influences were Matisse, Brancusi, and sculptor Tony Smith, whom he assisted in the 1960s–Wilmarth founded no movement and didn’t have a big influence on other artists during his lifetime, though many admired his work. (Betty Cuningham of New York’s Robert Miller Gallery, who was Wilmarth’s dealer and now represents his estate, told me that critic Robert Hughes “wrote this fabulous article that cited Chris as one of the greatest sculptors of the 20th century. But later, in his book on American art, he forgot to include him. It was a compliment in a way: he’s not a link.”)

Wilmarth’s written statements tend to be allusive and poetic rather than assertive and theoretical. Nor does it help to know the milieu in which he came of age, the New York art world of the 1960s. Even Wilmarth’s best critics tend to be a bit vague: the most useful insight in Regina Coppola’s helpful essay in this show’s catalog is a reference to architect Louis Kahn, whose work Wilmarth loved: Kahn was famous for statements even more orphic than Wilmarth’s and for buildings that embrace a similar mystical use of light.

Wilmarth himself wrote in 1980 that appreciating his work did not require “exposure to nor education in art,” asserting that it “does not spell out, nor does it illustrate, meaning….If you can dream, whoever you are, dream with me.” His sculptures are an extraordinary mix of fragility and presence, profoundly engaging the surrounding space. Far more than most artworks, his produce an encounter that changes according to the light, the angle of viewing, even the viewer’s mood.

Wilmarth’s art is beautifully divided. His etched glass both deflects and captures light, immersing the viewer in a silent, near oceanic space, yet other elements–including the titles–engage us in language and other references to the world. His self-effacement, often inflected by melancholy, leads to a rejection of definable objects in favor of art as changing experience.

The centrality Wilmarth gave the viewer is evident from the largest piece in this show, Tina Turner (1971). Four five-foot-square gently curved sheets of glass are arranged consecutively, with slight overlaps, to form a partial circle, creating a sense of shelter even as they suggest a lens: I found myself standing at the implied circle’s center, where the plates seemed to concentrate energy.

Three of the plates in Tina Turner are etched with hydrofluoric acid, which Wilmarth often used, applying it in a painterly manner with a brush. These rough-surfaced plates are translucent rather than transparent, harbors for light. (Wilmarth compared the color of his etched glass to trees and to the sea.) Metal cables threaded through the glass bind the plates together and, in two of them, form rectangular frames within the sheets suggesting paintings. The cables are a reference to John A. Roebling, the inventor of metal cable and architect of the Brooklyn Bridge, which Wilmarth loved; he would assign his students (he taught at his alma mater, Cooper Union) to walk over it. But even if the viewer lacks that knowledge, the cable suggests strength and suspension, both weight and weightlessness.

A major concern for Wilmarth was “the complex problem of implying the human presence” in abstract art. In Tina Turner, he elevates one of the curved plates by placing it on 13 glass sheets stacked on the floor. Looking like raw materials in an artist’s studio, they suggest a work in progress–and remind us of the curved plates’ flat origins. Even more significant is the way in which the viewer is both sheltered and entrapped in the work’s partial circle, eliciting feelings of both protection and vulnerability.

Wilmarth also suggests a human presence through his titles. “My guess is that [Tina Turner] has the clarity and smoothness–and curves–that he loved” in the singer, Cuningham says. (Wilmarth also wrote and performed his own songs, which have been released on posthumous CDs.) Susan Walked In (1972) refers to Wilmarth’s wife. Here he formed two long pieces of metal into the shape of a chair, angled slightly to a glass plate that it juts out from, suggesting that it’s been abruptly pushed aside by someone rising from it.

The translucent glass in Susan Walked In seems to gather light from a nearby window–but it also blocks light. As in Tina Turner, which contrasts one sheet of clear glass with three etched ones, this piece and Wilmarth’s others contemplate both clear vision and the inability to see, movement and obstacles to movement.

Wilmarth was born in Sonoma, California, in 1943 and grew up in the Bay Area. At seven, he wrote in 1984, he sold “tracings I’d made from my step-father’s book How to Draw the Female Nude which I sold for a dime apiece in the schoolyard.” He also copied the illustrations from “beautiful editions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.” He even assumed Huck’s persona, working his paper route “in bare feet, suspenders, and corn-cob pipe”–until his customers contacted the department of children’s welfare. At that point Wilmarth’s stepfather burned the two books “page by page” before his eyes. “It didn’t work,” he wrote later. “Inwardly I mean”–though he did drop the outward affectation. He followed this account with a little poem that begins “And waited, and looked for safe places, / to dream / Found them sometimes outside / inside mostly.”

When Wilmarth moved to New York in 1960, he took to the city immediately, fascinated by its buildings and changing light. As a student at Cooper Union he painted and sculpted; while working as a cabinetmaker, he began to incorporate glass, and later etched glass, in his art. He had a gallery show early in his career, but an insistence on going his own way may have limited his commercial success. For one thing, he refused to participate in group shows of glass works: in 1985 he told ARTnews, “I’ve written one letter after another saying that I don’t feel that for me the material is the link….If they said that light and its references were the theme, I would be interested.” He not only opened his own SoHo gallery to show his work but picketed a famous uptown gallery for failing to make clear that it did not represent him.

In 1978 poet and publisher Frederick Morgan, a friend of Wilmarth’s, showed him his translations of seven Mallarme poems he was planning to publish; inspired by them, Wilmarth offered to provide drawings–which led to related works in several media. Wilmarth felt a kinship with Mallarme, of whom he wrote, “Reverie and imagination were more real [to him] than the world outside.” Three of Wilmarth’s small sculptures and seven of his drawings for that project are on view here–some of his finest work.

“When Winter on Forgotten Woods Moves Somber…” (1980) is a bulb-shaped piece of etched blown glass with a hole cut in the front. Wilmarth acknowledged a reference to the human head, but the hole is too small for the viewer to imagine entry, and the bulb’s frosted glass arrests the eye at its surface. Resembling both an enclosed tomb and a sacred refuge, the piece has a funereal tone well suited to Mallarme’s sonnet, in which a dead woman addresses her loved one. She urges, “Who would receive the Visit must not load / too thick with flowers the stone my finger lifts”–a rejection of materialism that must have appealed to Wilmarth.

The drawing of the same title–like all the Mallarme drawings here–consists of two sheets placed one in front of the other. A hole is cut in the top sheet, in the middle of a sketch of the sculpture’s outline, matching the hole in the glass. In another drawing, “My Old Books Closed …,” the hole in the top sheet outlines a concave area in the sculpture of that name. Simple and seemingly offhand, Wilmarth’s drawings reproduce the passageway/barrier, freedom/confinement dualities he conveys so eloquently in glass.

Wilmarth once said, “I associate significant moments of my life with the character of the light at the time.” And Arbor for Two Greys (1974) is decidedly somber: a dark, opaque sheet of glass hanging right behind a three-foot-square sheet of etched glass makes it look very dark. And though the title suggests a natural shelter, the sheets curve outward, thrusting toward the viewer. Tiny transparent areas in the etched glass are even more forbidding than the rest because they show the dark glass behind clearly, creating inky voids. But the whole is mostly a variety of grays, not a void, and the varied patterns of the etching have their own quiet dynamism.

Tom Delano, who was Wilmarth’s student in the 70s and worked as his assistant for a decade, told me, “Chris was a lot of fun to be with. He had a great sense of humor….He was very generous, of his time, of his thoughts.” Yet Wilmarth ended his life by hanging in November 1987, a fact that’s either omitted or left unexamined in most writing about him. These omissions are apparently at the request of his survivors, perhaps anticipating oversimplified interpretations of his death. Wilmarth’s brother had killed himself in 1962, and Wilmarth was being treated for depression just before his own suicide.

While it’s tempting to see Wilmarth’s earlier work in light of his suicide, it’s almost required in his last pieces: 18 large untitled drawings, mostly made between July and October of 1987, 7 of which are on view here. Terrifyingly stark, they recall the large, bleak drawings Rothko made just before his suicide in 1970, in which the darker of two shades of gray rests above the lighter like a heavy weight. All the drawings here show a loosely sketched male head and shoulders–and in all seven, most of the face is covered by black. Cuningham remembers Wilmarth calling these “the best drawings of his life,” and they do have extraordinarily delicate shadings of gray, at times duplicating the subtleties of Wilmarth’s glass. But the desire for self-obliteration seems unmistakable, making one wonder a bit about Wilmarth’s stepfather’s fiery way of obliterating the boy’s adopted persona.

Yet the theme of self-abnegation is the source of much of the grandeur of Wilmarth’s best work. Every inch of etched glass that blocks clear vision is also a repository for light. Refusing to plaster his personality all over his pieces, Wilmarth sets the viewer free to see them for himself. Rejecting the “confining power of the Group,” he creates works that change for the individual over time. Questioning the fundamentals of existence, he illuminates one of its core contradictions: that to be proud of who you are limits your identity. The last drawings are frightening, but they’re also subtle, supple, glorious.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lois Greenfield.