Sculpture: Engineer's Esthetic

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The objects look like huge creative playthings. They hang from the ceiling, climb up the walls, stand in rows like great metal boxes or tilt like huge destroyer smokestacks. And they are causing a great deal of talk. So much so that visiting museum curators who come to Manhattan make it a point to stop by the Jewish Museum's current show, "Primary Structures."

What they find is a new kind of nude art, stripped of sensuality, giant in scale, brightly colored and with all the appeal of a Formica-top kitchen table (see color). The wonder is that 42 British and American sculptors could all be found doing such similar things, and even its admirers are hard pressed to find words to praise the new cool geometry.

"Nobody really likes this new art," confesses one of its kindest critics, Barbara Rose, who is married to a maker of cool geometric paintings, Frank Stella. "For one thing," she explains, "it is not very lovable. It is uningratiating, unsentimental, unbiographical and not open to interpretation. If you don't like it at first glance, chances are you never will, because there is no more to it than what you have already seen."

Space Warp & Optic Energy. Some of the objects have the look of an old-fashioned surrealist leg pull. Carl Andre's Lever, for instance, is 100 ordinary firebricks laid on the floor in a straight line. Sol Lewitt's No Title is a 6-ft.-sq. jungle gym of white painted wood (the idea is to look through the structure, not at it). But essentially the new minimalart movement announces that the engineers have now decided to make art their playground.* Much as the pop artists were recruited from the ranks of commercial and advertising artists, the basic-structure boys use the industrial-design field, work first with graph paper or blueprints, then hand the results over to machine shops for manufacture.

The results are finishes that are impersonal, materials that are industrial: plastic, Formica, steel, chrome plate, baked enamel, fluorescent lights. One of the artists in the exhibition studied naval architecture, another engineering. Their lingo is strictly post-Einstein; they speak of their art in terms of space warp, time lines, and optic energy.

Bland & Bleak. Historically, the artists acknowledge a debt to the Russian constructivists, and have words of praise for the industrial approach of such sculptors as Alexander Calder and the late David Smith. They wax hot for Geodetic Architect Buckminster Fuller. Their enthusiasm for painters tends to focus on Barnett Newman, whose works are uncompromising vertical stripes, and Ad Reinhardt, whose severely dark-hued abstracts look almost jet black.

In creating their own academy of cool, they have produced a spartan art, aggressive and sometimes playful in its stark shapes. The viewer seems to be asked to overcome the chilly look of their bleak morphology, cloying pastel colorism and inert gigantism. Impersonal, almost deliberately dull, such objects require the maximum from the observer, offer the minimum in return. And if the viewer does not care to make the effort, he can well conclude that less is not always more.

*For an example of other engineers at play, see MODERN LIVING.