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Christopher Wilmarth emerged during American sculpture’s most tumultuous period, but his elegant constructions in steel and etched glass diverged sharply from nearly all of his post-Minimalist contemporaries using similar industrial materials. If something like the six-foot bowed plane of sea-green glass in Long Memphis (1973), fastened to the gallery wall with a slender steel cable, emphasized process or duration, it was to effect a transcendental moment of suspended time. After all, the artist wrote, “I’m in the transportation business.”
Wilmarth’s third solo exhibition at Betty Cuningham in six years presents drawings and a portfolio of prints titled Seven Poems by Stéphane Mallarmé (1980–81), which pairs sketches corresponding to blown-glass pieces from the artist’s Breathe series and text by the French Symbolist. But it’s the five poised, confident sculptures that fully enthrall. Two works on plinths—Days on Blue (1974) and Gift of the Bridge (1975)—consist of steel structures holding single panes of icy glass in rigid vertical positions. The subservience of fragile to durable is clear, but light passing through these translucent partitions produces a sense of hazy wonder and beauty unachievable with the denser substance. In contrast, the electric blue, burnt amber, and furious gray pastels in a drawing, The Whole Soul Summed Up (1979), suck light in—darkness offsets luminosity.
Wilmarth’s interest in elevated experience, his impeccable craftsmanship, and his allegiance to his modernist heroes—Cézanne, Brancusi, Matisse—must have seemed quaint, even regressive, to the New York avant-garde. Since his premature death in 1987, the artist’s work has often appeared in isolation, which has left it untested against peers and successors. How would his sculptures look next to Rachel Whiteread’s colorful resin casts of doors and windows or Gedi Sebony’s casual drywall constructions and carpet pieces? As uninspired architects of municipal bus shelters and luxury condominiums co-opt Wilmarth’s aesthetic—frosted green glass is everywhere—reconsideration of his work and legacy becomes increasingly imperative.