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Yesterday's Sculpture

Much of what seemed promising 20 years ago looks bedraggled and silly today

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I DON'T know which disappointed me more about the Whitney Museum's current exhibition, ``The New Sculpture 1965-75: Between Geometry and Gesture,'' the art or the explanatory wall texts. Actually, I suppose it was the art. After all, I had been looking forward to this presentation of 90 works by 10 American sculptors who had dramatically challenged accepted sculptural norms in the 1960s and '70s. I knew a number of the sculptures would be re-created specifically for the exhibition, and that I would also be able to reacquaint myself with several other pieces I hadn't seen in decades.

There was also my very special regard for what Eva Hesse (one of the 10) had accomplished before her death in 1970 at the age of 34, as well as my longtime interest in the sculpture and drawings of Joel Shapiro.

Robert Smithson had impressed me, largely because of his rather grand ideas, and so, to a lesser extent, had Bruce Nauman, Richard Tuttle, Richard Serra, and Keith Sonnier. I wasn't familiar with Alan Saret, Barry Le Va, and Lynda Benglis, but I fully expected to respond to their work as well.

I couldn't have been more wrong. With the major exception of Shapiro's three-inch-high cast-iron chair, sitting all by itself near the middle of a large gallery, my initial reaction to almost everything was negative. And three subsequent visits only made them worse.

At first, I thought it was my fault, since I had been somewhat preoccupied during my initial visit. I made a special effort to be alert when I returned the next day. It didn't help. With the exception of the Shapiro chair and two or three other pieces by him, Sonnier's ``Dis-Play,'' Hesse's ``Untitled (Rope Piece),'' and a handful of other sculptures, everything struck me as dull or forced.

I turned to the explanatory wall texts and found, toward the end of one, what seemed like a clue to my disappointment. ``Profoundly independent, the work of these 10 artists is distinguished by a willingness, even a desperate need, to supersede existing categories, and to reinvent sculptural form while investing it with nuance, gesture, and a content reflective of human presence.''

The words ``a desperate need ... to reinvent'' remained with me while I walked slowly through the exhibition. That sentiment dovetailed more and more with my own thoughts, as I went from piece to piece, a few hanging from the ceiling, some standing free, and others plopped directly onto the floor as though by accident. And as for materials, well, Richard Marshall, writing in the exhibition catalog, was correct when he indicated, ``Each artist offered innovative forms of a new sculptural expression, using new or non-traditional materials - plastics and neon, mirrors, salt, felt, rubber and video - employed in ways that forced a redefinition of sculpture.''

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