Chris Wilmarth Is the Hero In a Tale of Two Sculptors

I see that, in the press release for the current exhibition of sculpture by Tony Smith (1912-1980) and Christopher Wilmarth (1943-1987) at Hirschl & Adler Modern, it is claimed that Smith “is often thought to be the father of Minimal sculpture.” Indeed, a work called Die , which was exhibited at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. in 1966, is said to be “considered the first Minimal sculpture.” This came as news to me, and I dare say will come as news to a lot of other people who were around to witness the emergence of the Minimalist movement in the 1960’s.

By the year 1966, Minimalist sculpture had already achieved the kind of high-visibility exposure, publicity and influence that signals a major shift in the realm of contemporary style, taste and artistic conviction. Galleries and museums were rushing to mount enormous exhibitions of Minimalist art, collectors were vying to acquire sizable examples of it, and the critics-including this one-were devoting thousands of words to the subject. By 1966, in other words, Minimalism was the rage-second only to Pop Art in the glamour and clamor it commanded.

In the early 1960’s, the movement had so quickly advanced in its takeover of the contemporary art scene that by the fall of 1965, the magazine Art in America found it appropriate to publish a kind of Baedeker to Minimalist art and the sensibility embodied in it. Called ABC Art , it was written by Barbara Rose and became something of a critical touchstone for both the advocates and the adversaries of the Minimalist movement.

It is my own distinct memory of that period that Tony Smith, whom I met in 1962 when we were both teaching on the art staff of Bennington College, was in fact the beneficiary, rather than any sort of leader or “father,” of this new development. Trained as an architect, Smith had long aspired to the kind of artistic vocation that would place him in the company of the artists he most admired-Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, among others. In the Minimalist movement, he saw his chance to pursue such a vocation, and he had the connections that gave him easy access to a place in the ranks of the Minimalists. He was, if anything, a follower rather than a leader of the movement, and for many connoisseurs of Minimalism, his sculptures, with their somewhat rote design variations on polyhedron forms, remained a sort of architecture manqué .

In certain physical circumstances, to be sure, they could claim a certain beauty. I have a particularly vivid memory of the exhibition that was mounted in Bryant Park in 1967. A light snow had fallen the night before I went to see the show. The entire park was thus transformed into an immense, immaculate white space-a kind of show garden-containing seven stark black Minimalist forms. It was enchanting. When I entered, I also saw in the distance, at the other end of the park, Smith himself taking Ad Reinhardt and his wife Rita around the installation. Reinhardt, as I recall, was then suffering from heart disease and looked very frail-he died soon after-and Smith was very gentle with him. It occurred to me to wonder if Reinhardt’s own all-black geometrical paintings had been a direct influence on Smith’s Minimal sculptures.

It was not to be expected that the few small black sculptures in the current show at Hirschl & Adler Modern would offer anything like that enchanted moment-and they don’t, of course. Indoors, these Minimal forms revert to their status as pseudo-architecture, inert, abstract structures that never quite attain the sculptural reality they aspire to.

The part of the exhibition devoted to the sculpture of Christopher Wilmarth is another story entirely. Chris Wilmarth was one of the most original and accomplished artists of his generation, and his death just 10 years ago was an immense loss to the life of art in our time. And while Wilmarth was not himself a Minimalist, certain aspects of Minimalist practice were essential to the very poetic sculptural imagery that he created in his abstract constructions of steel and etched glass. Yet equally essential was the Matisse-like delicacy of the work, the subtle orchestrations of light and shadow that place the sculpture at a considerable distance from the Minimalist esthetic. In speaking of that esthetic, Robert Morris once identified one of its central imperatives as the avoidance of “intimacy.” In Wilmarth’s sculpture, however, the element of lyric intimacy is a defining feature. In the current exhibition, it makes itself felt with a particular poignancy in the sculpture called Arcore End (1973), one of the artist’s finest accomplishments.

It was that Tony Smith exhibition in Bryant Park in 1967 that brought these two artists together. The winter wind had toppled one of the Smith sculptures in that installation-I think it was made of painted plywood-and to help re-erect the work, Smith’s dealer at the time, the late Donald Droll, called upon the services of Chris Wilmarth, who was then supporting himself as a carpenter and builder. This led to Wilmarth going to work as Tony Smith’s studio assistant and to the friendship that developed between them. Smith was unstinting in his support of Wilmarth’s own work, doing everything he could to get him grants and otherwise assist his development. This was one of the things I most admired about Tony Smith.

Yet in retrospect, Smith was the lesser artist who came too late to the sculptural vocation to create a distinctive achievement in that medium. He wasn’t, in any case, the “father” of Minimal sculpture. Nor is it correct to claim that he and Chris Wilmarth shared “a kindred vision” in their sculpture. There is a delicacy of draftsmanship as well as a poetry of light in Wilmarth’s sculpture for which there is no analogue whatever in the art of Tony Smith. They were friends who were immensely helpful to each other, which is a rare enough thing in the contemporary art world. But their relation should not be burdened by the falsifications of historical revisionism.

The exhibition remains on view at Hirschl & Adler Modern, 21 East 70th Street, through Feb. 1. Chris Wilmarth Is the Hero In a Tale of Two Sculptors