What Sculpture Might Have Looked Like on Day 1

One of the casualties of culture, brought about by the ascendance of the Dadaist esthetic, is the devaluation of artistic tradition. For many contemporary artists, tradition is not a vital fund of inspiration and a continuum with which to be engaged. It is, instead, a grab bag of stylistic markers to be exploited at will. This phenomenon-the tradition, as it were, of no tradition-has resulted in a scene notable for its dearth of historical consciousness.

After having spent an afternoon with a group of artists and dealers, a critic told me of his astonishment in learning that history in the art world doesn’t extend much beyond Andy Warhol. Given this signpost, Jasper Johns achieves old-master status, and Marcel Duchamp is transformed into, if not God, then the sole pseudo-deity to whom postmodernists will readily bow down.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t artists for whom tradition is still a profound resource to be reckoned with-and sustained. Such an artist is the sculptor William Tucker, whose work is at the McKee Gallery. Mr. Tucker’s work consists of nubbly and craggy monoliths. At first glance, the pieces look vague and lethargic-proverbial lumps of clay or, in this case, plaster. As one spends time with the sculptures, however, an underlying vitality-a muscular logic-divulges itself and they begin to stir, flex and declare themselves.

The figurative connotations of Mr. Tucker’s rocklike entities are unambiguous: We recognize the torso in the towering behemoth that is Pomona (1999) and the tragicomic portrait heads of the smaller bronzes. Even the lumpiest of the artist’s works, the pensive Homage to Rodin (Bibi) (1999), is charged with body language that is particular and emphatic. Yet these figures are never explicitly defined. There’s an intriguing-and quietly dramatic-détente in Mr. Tucker’s art between specificity and amorphousness, representation and material fact, contingency and independence.

The metamorphic character of these hulks make them appear as if they had achieved their fruition independent of the artist’s hand. Of course, the artist’s hand is evident everywhere on these pieces-one critic described Mr. Tucker’s working method as “two-fisted”-and it is an indication of his sculptural faculty that they achieve a primordial autonomy. By subsuming the history of his chosen medium-from Minimalism on back to Rodin and further back to ancient Greece-Mr. Tucker posits what sculpture might have looked like on Day 1.

On paper, this endeavor sounds preposterous. Yet Mr. Tucker imagines-and, more importantly, gives shape to-possibilities deeply rooted within tradition. In our age of diminished expectations, such heroic ambition is uncharacteristic-or self-aggrandizing. Mr. Tucker consummates such ambition with mastery and modesty. His sculpture is a bracing reminder of how encompassing the life of art can be. William Tucker is at the McKeeGallery,745 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, until Dec. 11.

naum Gabo: Back to the Future

In August 1920, the sculptor Naum Gabo (1890-1977) drafted the Realistic Manifesto , a signal document in the history of abstraction in revolutionary Russia and, for that matter, 20th-century art. Gabo’s manifesto was written in response to a conflict of opinion among the Soviet avant-garde as to the role art should play in shaping the revolution. In contrast to Soviet-brand constructivism, which denigrated fine art in favor of industrial and commercial design, Gabo made a case for an art predicated in science and spirit, one emblematic of the “unfolding epoch of human history.” His vision was not one of conformity and politics, but of individuality and esthetics.

When it became clear that his brand of “realism” was no longer a welcome component of the revolution, Gabo defected from Russia in 1922. (Gabo moved to Berlin and, later, Paris; he eventually settled in the United States.) Twenty-two years later, the artist wrote that the “absoluteness and exactitude of my lines, shapes and forms” communicate “the rhythms and the state of mind I would wish the world to be in.” Throughout his life, Gabo’s sculpture was marked by an optimistic futurism.

Which goes some way in explaining why most of the sculptures featured in the exhibition Naum Gabo: Pioneer of Abstract Sculpture , at Pace Wildenstein gallery, haven’t aged very well. Or, to be more precise, it is those sculptures that date closer to our own time that have the sterile air of cliché. Early pieces like Constructed Head No. 3 (Head in a Corner Niche) (1917) and Construction in Space With Balance on Two Points (circa 1924-25) hum with the fervor of revolution-artistic revolution, that is. In these works, the heady atmosphere of Modernism still resonates. The latter piece, in particular, with its intersection of transparent and solid planes, has a dynamism that renders it all but airborne.

Gabo’s later work, on the other hand, is decidedly earthbound, although it is never less than accomplished. Only a sculptor of considerable gifts, after all, could be responsible for objects as perfect and bland as Bronze Spheric Theme (Variation) (1964-66) or Construction in Space: Suspended (1965). Gabo’s quest for an art that would exemplify the philosophical temper of a technological age ultimately led to expert recapitulations of Modernist innovation. His work became, in a sense, stuck in the future.

This exhibition is worth a visit to anyone interested in the history of modem art. But there is another show yet to be organized, one that will better clarify the pivotal achievement of this “pioneer.” Naum Gabo: Pioneer of Abstract Sculpture is at Pace Wildenstein, 32 East 57th Street, until Dec. 11.

What Sculpture Might Have Looked Like on Day 1