For his most recent New York exhibition, Keith Sonnier presented nine sculptures, three collages and five drawings, all from the second half of the 1960s, made before he began to work intensively with neon. The show was titled “Files”; several of the objects are wall-mounted reliefs that take the shape of a nail file—a long, slim, flat, slightly tapering ellipse; several drawings are studies for them.
The smallest (and earliest) sculpture is Small File Study (1966)—an actual nail file, 6 1⁄2 inches long, wrapped in dark, crisscrossing cotton thread and exhibited vertically, the wider end at the top. Lead File (1968, 4 feet long) is similarly mounted. The largest in this format is Purple File (1969, Sculpmetal and paint on metal screening); placed horizontally on the wall at about eye level, it has a slightly convex front surface and spans 10 feet. Brass Finger File (1969), at 3 1⁄2 feet, juxtaposes two round-tipped vertical shapes of different lengths; the resulting form suggests a middle finger and an index finger extended next to each other. In tightly woven aluminum mesh, Loop File (1969–89) comes across as particularly tough and industrial. An elongated, narrow ellipse, it resembles a running track with a very tight turn at each end. Here, the file outline is the negative shape in the middle.
Intruding into this galleryful of monochrome metal objects were several contemporaneous works incorporating fabric—most surprisingly, a smooth, sensual, pale-pink satin. In two collages, Pink Tuck and Silver Tuck (both 1968), sheets of cardboard are irregularly slashed and the satin fabric, which has a degree of crispness and body, is pulled through from the back to form oddly fleshy protrusions. The other fabric used is limp, loosely woven cheesecloth. Lay In (1967), a floor piece, echoes the narrow, extended ellipse of Loop File—but in stuffed pink satin. There is nothing human about the shape beyond its longitudinal stretch, delicate hue and rounded contour; however, veiled by a sheet of clingy, sheer cheesecloth, the double tube conveys a funereal aura.
Each piece, of whatever material, invites close scrutiny, and each, despite its reductive format, has its own “personality” as to scale, texture, color and emotional tone. Given the context of High Minimalism from which—and also against which—this work grew, one can deduce a range of formal and reactive strategies adopted by an ambitious young artist seeking to extend a viable way of working, and making sure to particularize his own work. He liked to subvert his own premises: pink satin connotes femininity and luxury and hints at decadence, thus encouraging a phallic reading of the big robust metallic file shapes. But a nail file is typically found on a woman’s dressing table. So much for seeing these contrasting works simply as a discreetly sexy minuet. The show’s small, elegant catalogue contains an informative conversation between Sonnier and Barbara Bertozzi Castelli, from which one learns some biographical facts that broaden the interpretive possibilities. Sonnier, born in a small Louisiana town, grew up surrounded by fabrics, since his mother was a professional upholsterer—a person who shaped fabric in sculptural ways. Sonnier also remarks that he associates the satin with his mother’s final illness. All of which floats tantalizingly around this spare, low-keyed, thoughtful exhibition.
Photo: View of Keith Sonnier’s exhibition, “Files,” of work from the late 1960s; at Castelli.