Victim of Minimalism Triumphs With Bold Ceramic Sculpture

Don’t fret if you didn’t make it to the 35-year survey of Lynda Benglis’ sculpture at Cheim & Read in March. Notwithstanding the huzzahs it generated, the exhibition wasn’t much to look at-at least for those of us who prefer the vitality of art over the inertia of museum pieces. It did have sociological value, offering evidence of the aesthetic impoverishment an artist undergoes in order to accommodate the demands of the prevailing orthodoxy. The New York School has been a continuing influence on Ms. Benglis’ work: Whether pouring polyurethane foam on the floor, twisting aluminum mesh into knots or depositing a massive lump of lead in the corner of the gallery, she seeks a “natural extension of [Jackson] Pollock’s ideas.” Yet Ms. Benglis isn’t an Abstract Expressionist. She’s a post-Minimalist, an artist who follows in the wake of one of the most destructive currents in 20th-century art. Minimalism jettisoned from art its capacity to embody metaphor, insisting instead on the inflexibility of brute physical fact. Anyone working in the tradition can only struggle to get out from under its oppressive weight.

Ms. Benglis, then, is a casualty of Minimalism. However much the palette is juiced, the decorative celebrated or the scatological tweaked, she can’t escape its deadening embrace-with the exception, that is, of her ceramic sculptures, six of which are on display at the Franklin Parrasch Gallery. Ms. Benglis’ efforts in ceramic are absent of the self-consciousness that comes with being a follower: “Extension” isn’t the concern here-vitality is. Their improvisational character reiterates the artist’s debt to Abstract Expressionism even as she sends up its macho verities. Reveling in the physicality of clay, Ms. Benglis squishes it between her fingers, gives it a punch or two and splatters the lot with goopy overlays of color. The resulting pieces are messy and muscular, drunk with delight. They invite a variety of associations-this one could be an homage to the Elgin Marbles, that one a riff on a Warner Brothers cartoon, the other a transcription of a Chinese landscape painting. All the while, material is celebrated and-contrary to the Minimalist ethos-transformed. It’s funny how a particular medium can bring out the best in an artist; it can be thrilling, too. This is where Mr. Benglis stakes her claim to history.

Lynda Benglis is at the Franklin Parrasch Gallery, 20 West 57th Street, until May 22.

Hollow, But Not Empty

One of the most important characteristics of Daisy Youngblood’s sculpture, on display at David McKee Gallery, is that each piece is hollow. Sculpture is an art of the body; it confronts us as fellow masses occupying real space. Ms. Youngblood is wise to this: Whether depicting the human form or, as is more frequently the case, animals, she is sensitive to the power and possibilities of matter. Her sculptures are made from low-fire clay and sometimes cast in bronze. The surfaces are delicate and rough-hewn, the scale modest-the biggest, Elephant Head (2001), measures just under three feet in height. Yet the presence of each piece is commanding. Bird (1993), a sculpture that could be grasped in the palm of your hand, holds the room and demands our attention. For Ms. Youngblood, the occupation of space is less important than impelling the viewer to be cognizant of it. The area surrounding the work is rendered disconcertingly present .

Ms. Youngblood’s subject is mortality and, as its obverse, eternity. Each sculpture-each body -has been rendered as a vessel, an artifact. Vitality has been drained from them; an animating spirit is conspicuous by its absence. Tapping into primordial archetypes and non-Western traditions, Ms. Youngblood endows these memento mori with an unnerving nobility. As Maria Friedrich writes in the show’s catalog, one “cannot imagine a culture in Sub-Saharan Africa, the foothills of Japan, the mountains of Switzerland or the steppes of Russia that could not understand [Ms. Youngblood’s] humanity.” She’s right, though I would add that the human animal elicits from Ms. Youngblood a sentimental streak that stifles her universalist aspirations. Donkeys, cows and horses-that kind of thing prompts an imaginative and emotional leap from the artist. Birds especially encourage Ms. Youngblood’s dour and stringent lyricism. Then again, if someone told me that Standing Gorilla 2002 (2002) is a masterpiece, I wouldn’t think of arguing otherwise.

Daisy Youngblood: A Selection of Works 1975-2003 is at the David McKee Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue until May 29.

Lost Treasure

Not a month goes by when one or another gallery unearths and subsequently heralds the paintings of an Abstract Expressionist who has been lost to history. Really, there must be warehouses full of the stuff-honorable derivations of an epochal style that deserve to be forgotten. So I didn’t expect much going into the Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery, which is exhibiting the paintings and collagesof-who’sthat again?-John Grillo. To my surprise, I left the show with a bounce in my step: Mr. Grillo, now age 83, is the real deal. You’ll recognize the iconography and approach: circles, triangles and diamonds given cosmological significance and situated within richly textured fields of strong, warm color. Mr. Grillo clearly paid attention to his teacher, the great American painter Hans Hoffman; every inch of the canvas is accounted for and sets off fireworks. The pictures are abundant with nuance, absent of bluster, generous in spirit and tight as the proverbial drum. Right now, they look pretty good. A hundred years from now, they’ll look even better.

John Grillo: Abstract Expressions of the Fifties and Sixties: Paintings and Collages is at the Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, until June 5.