The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

Michael Steiner's New Sculpture (1981)

Catalog essay. Houston: Meredith Long & Co., October 1981. Reprinted in Cover #6, (Winter, 1981 - 82).

Of the pieces intended for this show I have seen nine up close and five merely from photographs. There may be a few I have not seen. So if I mention some more than others it is not because I like them better, or think them more exemplary. It's because I've seen them.

Before Cubism, sculpture devoted itself to the figure because the limitations of the medium made panoramic depiction unwieldy and uninteresting. Therefore one of the intrinsic attributes of the three-dimensional medium - openness, "space between" - was not central to the sculptural tradition. Painting, on the other hand, depicted an illusion of deep open space, so it had a tradition of relating elements within a fictive space which was unnatural to that two-dimensional medium. Seventy years ago Cubism rudely and abruptly took openness away from painting and handed it to sculpture. Each medium, ironically, was forced to evolve new traditions built around an innate but unused constituent.

That switch was rough. No one likes violent change. It takes time to get used to. We are still digesting what Cubism did. Sculpture tried to adapt, in the Cubist work of Laurens, Gris, Braque, Weber, Lipchitz and the Futurists, but they went on making monoliths, for the most part, Cubist monoliths taken from the surface of Cubist painting. Only Picasso, inspired as he was back then, showed us in those wonderful constructions of the early 'teens that sculpture could be made by piecing objects into open structures rather than modelling clay or hacking away at stone. But he backed away from sculptural openness after about 1913, just as he backed away from the pictorial decentralization that was going on in his collages at the same time. These things were too advanced, even for Picasso. It wasn't until he began welding steel with Gonzales in 1929 that Picasso did really open sculpture. Gonzales made his living making decorative ironwork, which did have a long tradition of openness. By 1932, they had produced that body of open welded steel sculpture abstracted from the figure which was to directly influence sculpture-making right up to the late '50's. After this short episode Picasso, who was running out of steam by then anyway, abandoned welded steel sculpture for good.

Many sculptors took off from the Picasso/Gonzales innovations but there was only one real genuis in the medium: David Smith. He evolved the tradition until Anthony Caro came along and then Caro carried it for a time. Now it has been taken up by a number of younger sculptors born in the mid '40's: Michael Steiner, Willard Boepple, Jim Wolfe and Peter Reginato, to name a few. Now we have some diversity in the higher regions of sculpture-making. The fact that all of them were pretty good at an early age testifies to a tradition that is strong, even if it is narrow. And they keep getting better.

The visual illiterates of the art world see these younger men as "rip-offs" of Caro, just as Caro was a "rip-off" of Smith twenty years ago. I suppose Smith was a "rip-off" of Picasso/Gonzales before that. I don't know. I wasn't reading art criticism back then. Your eyes have got to be pretty dim not to see the differences between the generations, and the differences between the younger sculptors: differences in character, differences in artistic temperament, differences in the direction each has led by his own originality. And the inability to distinguish tradition from imitation reflects plain ignorance, or indifference, or both. You can spot the bad people in the art business today by their mistrust of excellence and the way they dismiss excellence by categorizing, which is a handy way to avoid looking and feeling. Problem is, looking and feeling are what art is all about. And quality, In the long run, is the only thing that counts.

An art work has quality and it has character. Quality gains reality within experience, not through words. It is very singular and hard to talk about. Character can be talked about, and it is interesting to talk about it as long as it doesn't get confused with quality. That confusion infects most art criticism. Critics identify quality with appearance because their eyes are not good enough to look behind appearance. Smith and Caro and Steiner are all very good sculptors. That's about all l can say: they're good. But I can say more when it comes to character, and by doing so make comparison interesting.

So, if I may take the liberty, Smith's sculptures have upward thrust, expansiveness, exuberance, grace in awkwardness and they are reckless and headlong. Caro's move on a slow recumbent plane and they are full of civility and care, fragile touching and simple grace, lifting and floating, lying and leaning, and they intimate somatic states. Steiner's works move downward and they are enclosed, heavy-set, immutable but vulnerable, calm, monumental, fastidious and voluptuous, and solitary. Smith shows off, Caro engages your affections, Steiner holds the fort.

One of the ways Steiner's work differs from that of his peers is the process by which he makes it. This process must be mentioned because it is so much a part of the finished piece and because at times it seems to interfere with his intentions. (Most good artists learn that this can work to their advantage if they let it.) The artists I named above piece steel together. They work with steel. Steiner, on the other hand, has his pieces fabricated from full-scale models. He used to make plywood models from which corten steel sculptures were fabricated. These pieces were very planar and reflected the intractability of wood. Now he works in wax, cutting slabs from large sheets of differing thicknesses, bending and cutting the slabs and adhering them to one another, after which the models are cleaned up and cast in bronze, often in editions. The patina can be varied from piece to piece and often are. The casting is long, laborious and expensive; I think if I had to anticipate it as I worked it would hinder me. I'd feel that everything would have to be "just right", and I'd be afraid to take the risk of making something awful, which is a risk you've got to take to make something good. This doesn't seem to affect Steiner. Think of wax when you look at these pieces, and think of steel becoming wax becoming bronze. All three materials are visually present in the cast bronze, and there is a tension of mutual antagonism between them.

Most of the titles are from Greek mythology, which is appropriate, and many of them are apt. Sardes, an ancient city often under siege and several times destroyed, has a defensive posture. Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles, lolls about in sensuous abandon. Lucus should be Hermes, I think. It has the springiness of the classical depictions of Mercury. Titles won't change the quality of the art, of course, but they are interesting, and give away the artist's feeling for the work. I work hard on mine, and I appreciate it when other artists do.

The earliest pieces in the show are the two Egypts and Artemis, dated 1979. The Egypts embody the static dignity of the Old Kingdom statuary they visually refer to. They also remind me of those frozen Giacometti walking men in feeling, not quality; Steiner is a better sculptor. There is also some edge-ornamentation against an impassive center which was a theme of his last show and which is reminiscent of certain Olitski paintings of a few years ago. I like the way Egypt II plays against its own monumentality: the dishevelled, waxy quality of the "fallen" pieces against the prim angularity of the pieces sliding down the "arm", or gripping it, like squirrels on a tree trunk, the laxity of some parts as they drape and lean against the solidity of others. There's a lot of lassitude in Steiner's sculpture. It intensifies the surprise that springs from his inventiveness.

Artemis is a smaller piece, as are the others in the show - Artemis, goddess of the hunt, the name perhaps suggested by the easy stress coming out of the slightly bowed front member of the piece. Everything I have seen from this period is very frontal.

The 1980 pieces are not frontal. It is a truism about sculpture that it has to be seen from all angles, but all you really need to do is see enough to get it. It might be one angle, it might be ten. Most of these pieces make you examine them, and they are more or less interesting according to the viewpoint you have. They "rise and fall" as you move around them, and there are certain stations from which each piece looks best. Things are flatly stated: this slab is thick, this slab is thin, this section overlaps that one. Each fact is there to be visually accounted. This is not instant sculpture. Homage To Maillol, for example (these pieces dream of Maillol!) has a wonderfully manhandled thin center slab which seems to have crumpled from the embrace of the surrounding slabs. It gives away more of the character of wax than the rest of the piece. You have to do a little work to see it right. And you have to maneuver some to get the nice feel of clasping where the two slabs grip the squarish notched section of Olenus. The converse may be true; in the photo I have Tower looks like a startled tortoise. It may be that way from that angle only, but that's the only angle I've seen.

I like that feeling of wax and I'd like to see more of it. Most of the wax models get pretty well cleaned up before they go to the foundry. But if Steiner can't give up the security of steel; if the feel of steel persists in the elements of the sculpture, neither can he avoid the surface qualities of wax and the visual evidence that it is wax, not steel, that is being stressed. It is also there in the finished surfaces, which are very elegant, and buttery, if not altogether waxy. One of the patinas Steiner uses looks like the molasses taffy my Grandmother's cook used to make for us. This apparent softness of surface is emphasized when the piece looks, as many of them do, as if it got too hot and sagged a little. The surface of the languid Aspasia, when seen in the right light, has much of the dimpled variety of the wax original. Those fallen pieces of Egypt II have a waxy insistence. The slabs bend like wax, not steel, in Aspasia and in that center section of Homage To Maillol. In fact, although this is bronze sculpture, nowhere does the bronze look as if it was the material that was worked.

There would be problems with more "waxiness," more sags and softness, more warts and drips and gouges. For one thing, the art public likes its abstract art clear, slick and neat. More important, although the character of Steiner's work is monumental, hearkening back to the monolith, the process is constructivist, and if any one element becomes more visually complex in itself it will be that much harder to get it in sync with another element. This was one of the basic discoveries of Cubism, one that was relearned through work by David Smith. Elemental complexity is a problem for all abstract art. But that is no reason not to give it a try. Genius finds its way. Caro, in the early 70's, used very rough-edged cloud and sway-back shapes and countered the complexity of the shapes with simplification and symmetry. Somehow or other that wax will come through.

l have only seen Lycus and the "delta" pieces (Auroa, Sardes and Bunus) in slides, but I suspect I'd find my favorite among them. Lycus has a strong vertical thrust thwarted by the deliberate flaccidity of the folded slabs on top of it. I like what I can see of that contrast in the slide. The "upwardness" is reinforced by the off-kilter stance, and the stance is reinforced by the tilted and uplifted foot. That lift from the floor reminded me of the piece I liked best in the 1980 show at Emmerich: Diosma. It was, interestingly, the simplest, bluntest and "crudest" piece there.

Auroa is the most upwardly mobile of the deltas, as befits the goddess of the dawn. Sardes is firmly planted and protectively draped. Bunus (Bunus Eventus?) is more constructivist. I must say this from a slide, but Bunus is very original and inventive and looks like the best piece in the show.

The delta shape accomodates Steiner's habit of overloading his sculpture. They are more complicated than the horizontal pieces but they are less burdened by their complexity. We recognize the vertical elements as support, and the soft curves Steiner likes to use are more rationalized when they drape, so we don't mind seeing them pile up a little, as they do in SARDES, or proliferate in variety, as they do in Bunus. Overall complexity is always less of a problem in painting and sculpture when the physical character of the parts conforms to the conditions of the structure.

I was not being facetious when I said that these sculptures "dream of Maillol." It's curious that the best modern sculpture, however abstract, still alludes to the figure, and, conversely, that really abstract sculpture, such as minimalist and pure constructivist, which has nothing of the figure in it, never has been much good. Smith's sculpture often has the feel of an abstracted figure, especially the earlier "organic" pieces. Caro's work seldom looks figural, like a body, but somatic feeling leaks incessantly from the connections between the various plates and sheets and rods, and from their relationships. And Steiner's pieces dream of Maillol. And (I'm going out on a limb here) of the Madonna and Child. Whenever I describe Diosma I liken it to a mother rocking a cradle. All of the rounded horizontal sculptures enclose and protect in Ada with almost literally "clasped hands". I could make recognizable mother-and-child figures out of my photos of Vulcan and Tower with a few strokes of my Magic Marker. And the more I worked over these pieces and the photographs of them the stronger the feeling got. I don't know what to make of it, and I know I'm taking the risk of inadvertently talking about myself. But that's the price of reporting direct experience.

This is a fine group of sculpture. I hope it gets a reaction equal to it's quality.

Darby Bannard
Painter, art critic
Rocky Hill, N.J.
August, 1981