The Most Haunting Works Record Wilmarth’s Response to Mallarmé’s Poetry.

The American sculptor Christopher Wilmarth (1943-1987), whose drawings are the subject of a splendid exhibition at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum, was one of the most remarkable artists of his generation. He was remarkable not only for extending the aesthetic frontiers of sculpture and drawing, but for the subtlety and depth of thought he brought to their creation. The materials he favored-steel and glass-obliged him to master the crafts of a seasoned factory worker. Yet from the outset of his career as an artist, Wilmarth’s closest affinities were with certain aspects of Matisse and then, in his later work, with the sensibility of the 19th-century French poet, Stéphane Mallarmé. Wilmarth’s description of his own work as “physical representations of states of mind, reverie, interiors, spirits” is itself reminiscent of Mallarmé’s most celebrated dictum: “Describe not the object itself, but the effect it produces.”

Until now, Wilmarth’s sculpture-large, highly poetic constructions of steel, etched glass and steel cable-have been better known to the art public than the drawings that were central to everything he aspired to achieve as an artist. That perception is now likely to be altered, however, by the exhibition called Christopher Wilmarth: Drawing Into Sculpture , which Edward Saywell has organized at the Fogg. This enchanting exhibition, together with Mr. Saywell’s illuminating catalog, establishes beyond doubt the crucial role that drawing occupies in the Wilmarth oeuvre . Indeed, we are reminded that certain works that we might have regarded as sculpture-the small, exquisite wall constructions made of etched glass and steel cable-were actually entitled Drawings by the artist.

About these particular works, Mr. Saywell writes: “Most extraordinary is the group of drawings that [Wilmarth] made in the early 1970′s, not with pencil and paper but with etched glass, which acts as the drawing layer, and steel cable, the calligraphic surrogate for the graphite mark.” Hence the title of this exhibition: Drawing Into Sculpture . Yet the bulk of the drawings in the exhibition are indeed on paper, usually graphite on gesso-prepared off-white wove paper; and the graphite is sometimes combined with graphite wash, as it is in Invitation #1 (1976). The drawings on paper encompass a broad range of function, style and expression. Some are diagrammatic drawings for future sculptures, while others are highly finished drawings of sculpture made earlier. As Mr. Saywell also writes: “For the most part drawing was a retrospective activity for Wilmarth, a means for him to return to and assess specific aspects of existing sculptures, occasionally years after their completion. Acting almost like an appendix or index to the sculptures, his drawings helped mediate the transition from one sculpture, or group of sculptures, to the next.”

Standing quite apart from the many abstract drawings in the show are a knockout figurative drawing of a female nude, Shifrah (1964), in which Wilmarth made the most explicit acknowledgment of his debt to Matisse; and a related drawing, Yolande (1965), in which the Matissean forms, though still explicitly legible, are in the process of being transmuted into something more identifiable as Wilmarthian.

In some respects, however, the most haunting works in the show are the abstract drawings of heads, and the Breath series that recorded Wilmarth’s aesthetic and spiritual response to Mallarmé’s poetry. In the late 1970′s, he was asked by the American poet, Frederick Morgan, to recommend an artist to illustrate his translations of seven poems by Mallarmé. As soon as Wilmarth read these translations, he felt he had found something like a soul mate in Mallarmé and undertook to create the illustrations himself. Immersing himself in a study of Mallarmé, Wilmarth came to the realization that “this is a guy who just lives in his head,” and this proved to be the key to his Mallarmé drawings and the blown-glass sculptures of heads that followed. As Mr. Saywell observes of this encounter: “Using that metaphor as the key, Wilmarth settled on the image of an oval sphere to translate the poetry of Mallarmé. For each of the seven poems, he took advantage of the many metaphorical connotations of the oval as heart, soul, or mouth, to make a series of drawings first in charcoal, then in pastel.” These and the watercolor-and-graphite drawings in the Breath series constituted Wilmarth’s own homage to the poet’s vision.

Near the entrance to the Wilmarth exhibition at the Fogg, a wall text quoting a passage from the artist’s writings underscores the extent to which he had embraced this Mallarméan vision in his own art. It reads: “Light gains character as it touches the world; from what is lighted and who is there to see. I associate the significant moments of my life with the character of the light at the time …. My sculptures are places to generate this experience compressed into light and shadow and return them to the world as a physical poem.” Wilmarth’s drawings are also an integral part of that poetry.

Christopher Wilmarth: Drawing Into Sculpture remains on view at the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Mass., through June 29. A retrospective exhibition of the artist’s sculpture is said to be in preparation at the Fogg, though no date for it has yet been announced.