This exhibition of five of George Sugarman’s painted-wood sculptures from the 1960s was his biggest show in New York in 25 years, and it prompted one to wonder why his work isn’t a more integral part of the discussion of sculpture today. It’s tempting to call him the anti-Tony Smith, his work being all wiggly and colorful where classic Minimalist sculpture is mostly monochrome and tied to the cube and the grid.
Sugarman came to art-making fairly late. He went to Paris to study art on the GI Bill in 1951, and after a year of study he spent much of the next three years traveling around Europe looking at art and architecture. He was deeply impressed by the torquing forms in Baroque sculpture and architecture, by the animated exchange between convexity and concavity. All that illusory motion was to enter his sculpture after he got back to the States in 1955. While in Paris he became friends with Al Held, and the two of them carried out an extensive visual dialogue about color in the 1960s.
By the late ’50s, Sugarman was producing twisting, carved and chiseled wooden forms that sometimes bridge two pedestals. In 1959, he decided to do away with the pedestal for the most part and to paint the wood in bright, flat, primary and secondary colors. What followed was a decade of riotous invention with polychrome wood sculptures that combine Pop and formalism, before he moved on to larger-scale public commissions executed mostly in aluminum, which also became the material of choice for his smaller, indoor work. Some of the austere tastemakers of the time were nearly apoplectic in their response to Sugarman’s output. William Rubin wouldn’t even speak to him. Color was felt to be the province of painting, while sculpture hewed to a “truth in materials” monochrome that evinced both the bleached bones of antiquity and the “serious” palette of Cubism.
Sugarman avoided working in series, so the pieces in the Snyder exhibition ran a wide range of forms. The earliest work, The Shape of Change (1964), is like a mindless squiggle jotted on paper, given volume and direction through its conversion to sculpture. Placed on a pedestal, the piece is red at the base and blue above. Black and Red Spiral (1968-69) stands on the floor, with a stepped series of 2-by-2-inch beams fanning outward to either side. The grandest sculpture and one of the greatest wood sculptures Sugarman ever made is Threesome (1968-69), which consists of four freestanding vertical elements that suggest awkward guests at a cocktail party. Two of these elements—each a hollow ramplike form, greenish yellow on the exterior and white on the interior—stand close together and mirror each other like a couple, registering as a single unit and thereby whittling the number of “autonomous” figures to the threesome of the title. Nearby is a celadon green rectangular figure, its top edge sagging into a wonderful, deep U that resembles the sad-sack droop that Amy Sillman can hilariously exploit in her figural abstraction. The final element is an orange zero with its bottom bent to rest on the floor and its top bent in the opposite direction, evoking a person looking around for a drink. A spirit of caricature haunts Sugarman’s work from this period, suggesting that his abstract forms could be in conversation with Guston’s, just as his palette engages with that of Held and late Stuart Davis.