The best show on Newbury St. is at the Rigelhaupt where eight sculptors of the "$2000-for-that-thing-I-could-make-it-mayself" schools try to show the gallergoer that he can't. "Art in Process: The Visual Development of a Structure" collects some of the most questionable genres of modern art and affords a glimpse into their creation by surrounding each sculpture with the notes and drawings that helped form it. As a study of the creative process the exhibit is spread much too thin--each artist has only the most token representation, and each work only a few suggestive notes accompanying it. But still the show proves that ideas and careful planning lie behind the seemingly artbitary art of neon and aluminum. It allows the viewer who has wandered mildly amused through collections of similar artists to take the works seriously for the first time. Once such work is recognized as an honest attempt, the good ones can be enhoyed and the bad ones can finally be ignored without pangs of conscience.
Describing the "process" behind the work of art quickly points up the difference in quality. The good works are enhanced by a view of their formation. For the bad, removing the mystery of their creation merely exposes their absurdity. In general, the poorer sculptures are simplistic works with sententious justifications. Dan Flavin, for instance, exhibits two parallel neon tubes, one yellow-gold, the other blue. The explanation? "Here will be the basic counting marks (primitive abstractions) restated long in the daylight glow of common fluorescent tubes. Such an elemental system becomes possible (ironic) from the context of the previous work." Such an elemental system is also possible in most light fixtures. Italo Scanga, on the other hand, is interested in "polite art." His sculptures are groupings of identical cylinders meant to be hung between the window-top and the ceiling. "Ton hang a work of art so high," he says, "is to make a polite gesture to the viewer who should not be forced to look." And he won't.
The technical and visual material is generally more satisfactory than the philosophical. And arresting group of sketches, variations on John Willenbecher's "Nuit. Blanche," explain the artist's choice of a design. A note book of ideas which inspired the work is a disappointment, because it hints at the lack of meaning of the work for the artist--the lack of a forceful idea underlying the work itself. It seems the sculpture was inspired by Yin and Yang, cycloids and orbiting planets, hardly a coherent unifying idea for a work of art.
The best works at the Rigelhaupt are by artists who ignore philosophy entirely and concentrate on visual effect. Though these works are technically complex, sketches show that every effect is carefully anticipated. Stephen Antonakos and Victor Millonzi play with the unique relationship between light and space embodied by neon. As Millonzi points out, "Light as sculptural mass can create forms that contain space and light instead of displacing it." Millonzi's work is a carefully balanced contrast between aluminum and flashing neon; first the angular volume of the metal dominates and then the spreading light. Antonakos' sculpture is more complex, with colored fluorescent tubes flashing through a number of different time sequences. The sketches show how the timing is programmed and reveal the way the sculpture was planned to relate to its surroundings. Here the creative process merges with craftsmanship to produce a work of art by any definition.
If neon sculpture seems deceptively simple at first glance, sculpture through optics appears hopelessly complex. Mary Bauermeister contributes a lens box, or tri-level arrangement of lenses and optical patterns, some cemented to roating discs. Notes and sketches show that she visualized a rough relief map of her work before she began, and then worked out the specific effects as she went along. The final product is satisfying in its complexity but like all the works at the Rigelhaupt it demands time to be appreciated.
The new artists do not offer immediate satisfaction, and the all-too-facile entertainment afforded by seeing common commercial materials in arty forms often obscures the value of the works. By showing the thought that went into the sculptures, "Art in Process" encourages the viewer to invest a similar effort.
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