In the late 1970s, Lynn Umlauf was making low-relief paintings—on paper adhered to unstretched canvas—in which biomorphic shapes curled slightly off the wall. In the 1980s and ’90s she ran with this sculptural implication, making 3-D paintings such as acrylic-encrusted loops of galvanized wire mesh that lie or hang curled over themselves. This mini-survey of work from 1992 to 2016 demonstrated Umlauf’s scavenger aesthetic, connecting her to the DIY collage approach of younger generations. Acrylic, oil, and enamel paint, industrial light fixtures, and heterogeneous bits of rubber, wire, metal, and plastic appear to cohere in only the most loose-limbed way.
Umlauf (born 1942) comes from a family of distinguished artists. Her father, Charles Umlauf, was a figurative sculptor and, in the 1940s, an early member of the University of Texas’s arts faculty. Her mother, Angeline Allen Umlauf, was a poet (depicted by her husband) and was instrumental in deeding the Umlauf house, studio, and land as well as a large group of her husband’s work to the city of Austin, where the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum remains a cultural fixture. Umlauf’s environment growing up must have been an exalted and enervating one in which to emerge as an artist; she escaped first to New York and then to Italy, and she continues to split her time between the two places.
In her sculptures from the ’90s, suspended loops of overpainted wire mesh suggest cradles, baskets, cornucopias, even womblike forms. Angeline 10.10.96 (1996), named after the artist’s mother, was perhaps the show’s most impressive work from this period. Its bravura hanging element features overlapping pieces of green metal and yellow plastic daubed with paint. These are rendered translucent and reflective by an internal lightbulb and together suggest a dappled forest cover, a huge cowled headdress, or a late Matisse cutout. Suspended below them, a copper circlet with puckered edges may evoke a wide belt or corset, minus a figure. The open copper form in turn casts shadows on a flat, biomorphic metal shape on the floor.
Umlauf’s collage sculptures always seem to be presenting evidence of how they were made. The newest piece on view, 1.1.16 (2016), appears quite pleased with the way that it sits slouching to one side. Light reflects brightly off shiny scrap-metal coils. Large wire and metal arabesques are wrapped in vinyl tubing painted in red, yellow, and blue, suggesting an eviscerated ode to the primary colors. The cut lengths of metal are sharp to the touch, recalling that old joke about catching tetanus from Frank Stella’s ’80s metal reliefs. (When I touched the sculpture, it rattled and swayed slightly, while a pair of big screws and bolts at one end announced how these skeletal arabesques were in fact secured in space.)
In several pieces, tangles of wire look like ornamental finials, suggesting an extension of Umlauf’s work into contemporary design: light fixtures and outdoor furniture seem to be right around the corner. That Umlauf’s sculptures remain bits of twisting metal in space tells us a lot about her adamantly modernist, concrete, and down-to-earth stance. Though she has been making good work for decades, she hasn’t had a show in New York for many years. Hopefully, this exhibition will be followed by more opportunities to see what we’ve been missing.