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Artist Athena Tacha; When you step into these works, the artist takes over

I have seldom felt so much like saying "This is an artist of importance" as I do now, a half-day after seeing an the exhibition of Athena Tacha's work at the Zabriskie Gallery here.

And seldom either have I felt so clearly that the ideas and forms in an exhibition were as vital, relevant, and crucial both to our present and our future as are hers.

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Every once in a while an artist comes along whose work is not only utterly reasonable, but highly lyrical as well, an artist whose ideas have both the clarity of a mathematical equation and the resonances of poetry. Such an artist is Tacha

Having written that, I feel much like a speaker impelled to toss aside his carefully prepared speech and to continue on extemporaneously, for I find that the notes I jotted down while viewing the show do little to convey either the nature of my first impression of the work, or my considered judgement of it.

The drawings as well as the foam-core and balsa-wood sculptures on view are studies and small-scale models for landscape sculpture intended to be given final form in white concrete and in solid wood constructions. But the remarkable thing about the scale models is that it is incredibly easy to visualize them full-size and completed, and to imagine how it would feel to walk along or to climb them.

My first impression of the foam-core pieces, which make up most of the show, was that their forms were derived from the Greek amphitheaters of the time of Sophocles and Euripides. Not only were they designed in tiers, they also gave off that aura of passivity, of watchful waiting associated with theaters and stadia before the play or the athletic event begins.

This resemblance is quite uncanny, but it gradually dissipates as it becomes obvious that the purpose of these works is not passive but active. In fact, the whole point of Tacha's art is to involve us in movement and physical activity. In every sense of the work, her art is participatory: We are intended to interact with these terraced areas and stairlike structures by walking along and climbing them -- by being, in other words, activated by them to respond rhythmically and sequentially in time as well as in space.

We don't just look at one of her works, we must actually enter it and take a step upon it. And once we do, the artist takes over. By a subtle and complex series of adjustments and variations of height, depth, and angle, she draws us along these terraces and winding curves much as we are drawn along a piece of music, a sentence, or a path through the woods.

As she has written: "These are the means I employ to transform the body-rhythms of walking into a receiver of artistic expression, a sensor of a new kind of form. By disrupting the usual expectations about walking, ascending , and descending, I try to re-attune our sensitivity to kinesthetic experiences. By breaking up the ground into steps . . . and by varying the height, depth, width, inclination, direction, and regularity of these steps, I aim to create a rich variety of temporal patterns, a different feeling of space and a new awareness of gravity."

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The visual effect alone of these sculptures is beautiful and impressive. And that applies as well to the drawings, which are large, precise, and modestly colored -- in those instances when color is used at all.

My particular favorite is entitled "9 Rhythms (Fragments From a Dictionary of Steps)," and consists of nine separate stairlike structures made of balsa wood and painted various colors. I would love to see it completed and standing erect and colorful on a flat stretch of land, but the model is a lovely thing in itself. It's overall effect is as much musical as spatial, for the eye, moving up and down its numerous steps and landings -- and then crossing over and repeating it with subtle variations -- registers patterns and rhythms in space that echo those made by musical notes.

There are also several pieces in which the design of the whole has been fragmented. The idea here is to present the viewer with the creative task of mentally reconstructing a formal whole from a given fragment of that whole. The concept is intriguing, but the works are much less so -- I suspect because the fragments themselves are not particularly attractive or challenging, and also because they don't cry out for such a reconstruction. As a result, they remain just what they are -- fragments.

Viewing this show was a complex experience for me. My wariness of being overwhelmed by novelty or charm in art was gradually dissipated as I looked at and walked among these extremely handsome works of art. Here, I thought, is an artist whose sense of linear continuity with the past is clear and well-defined, whose grasp of the art of today is obvious, and whose insights about where art is going seem totally on target.

It's not just that these sculptures and drawings (and the various full-scale projects she has already completed) are attractive. It's also that they are extremely humane -- and deal sympathetically and dynamically with mankind in areas of public as well as private concern. Not since the Noguchi retrospective of 1979-80 have I experienced such a feeling of total interaction of formal and human realitites, such a fusion of aesthetics and humanity. In its counterpoint to human scale and needs, Tacha's work reaffirms and reactivates the classical ideals of her Greek heritage.

This exhibition at the Zabriskie Gallery will remain open to the public through April 25.

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