A Stealth Revolution in Sculpture: John Newman
by Raphael Rubenstein

“Sculpture” may be the most problematic, difficult-to-define term in the discourse of contemporary art and it’s been that way for some time. As the critic Thomas McEvilley recently observed, it was in the 1960s, when the influence of Marcel Duchamp became ever more pervasive, that “the use of the word ‘sculpture’ stretched almost to the point of infinity.” McEvilley cites Gilbert and George’s performance piece Singing Sculptures as a salient example of sculpture’s de-definition. It was similar developments that Rosalind Krauss had in mind when she titled an influential 1979 essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”.

At the same time that avant-garde artists were re-defining sculpture to the point where the boundaries of the medium essentially vanished, for the larger public another notion of sculpture was proving strangely resilient – the tendency to think of sculpture as a class of objects that are big, made of a single material and hard to damage (and usually presented with their “natural” colors intact). Here, against the dissolution wrought by Post-Minimalist, Conceptualism, Earth Art and anti-art was a vision of sculpture that established continuity from Rodin to David Smith to Richard Serra. Received ideas die hard. Even today, decades after the apotheosis of Minimalism, when we hear the word “sculpture” many of us tend to think of a hulking, dark, steely thing. And yet, underneath these persistent conventions about what sculpture should be, a quiet revolution has been underway, fomented by sculptors who don’t feel compelled to make it big, who aren’t afraid of mixing materials, who happily produce easily damaged goods. One of the most impressive of these stealth revolutionaries is John Newman, whose recent sculptures defy the conventions of both Minimalism and Duchampian-derived anti-sculpture.

First of all, Newman’s sculptures are modestly sized, domestic rather than industrial in scale. Secondly, they are always – and conspicuously – made with multiple materials and techniques, eschewing the consistency of welded steel or cast bronze. Thirdly, they are often fragile, incorporating such imminently breakable stuff as glass, papier mâché, gilded paper, and terra cotta. They are also, I hasten to add, not doctrinaire about their fragility. If Homespun (with red flocking and shims), 2000, could easily be knocked over and broken, Homespun (split knot), 1999, is made from tough cast iron – although, in defiance of the old modernist conventions about “truth to materials,” the artist has painted, patinated, and polished the iron to create illusionistic effects, including a section that looks like a fragment of Piranesian masonry.

Part of these works’ strengths derives from the fact that Newman had to overcome the limits of modernist art in his own development. He was at art school when Minimalism still ruled and subsequently struggled, along with others of his generation, to reject the notion that art’s most important task was to move toward some Hegelian endpoint. Embracing Surrealist-inflected biomorphism and baroquely twisted forms, his 1980s work explored formal variety and emotional nuance, often in large metal sculptures. Over the last decade, he has further transformed his art, reinventing himself as a sculptor who can work at his kitchen table, who can utilize techniques once stigmatized by “serious” artists as handicrafts, and who is not afraid to reinvestigate sculptural issues that were not so long ago considered dead and buried. It’s also significant that, drawing on his travels in Asia and Africa, he gives a central place in his practice to non-Western materials, methods and concepts. (Newman’s absorption of non-Western elements has interesting parallels with – and distinct differences from – the use of “primitive” art by early 20th century modernists.)

At the same time that he avidly learns and borrows from foreign cultures (recent works have employed Japanese papering techniques, Calcutta basket weaving and Bengali brass casting), Newman also connects to earlier moments in the history of American sculpture. Along with other contemporary American sculptors such as Charles Long and Daniel Wiener, he is reopening lines of esthetic investigation that were closed off by Minimalism in the 1960s, in particular, the biomorphism of the 1940s and ‘50s. According to critic Klaus Kertess, even Newman’s early work is related to Abstract-Expressionist-era sculptors like Seymour Lipton and Theodore Roszak. Today, the relationship between Newman and an artist like Roszak is all the more evident. Compare, for instance, Newman’s 27-inch high Homespun (black glass clamped down), 1998, and Roszak’s 23-inch high, machined-metal (copper, aluminum, steel, and brass) sculpture Airport Structure (1923). Although they were created more than a half century apart, the two sculptures share a strikingly similar configuration that is heightened by their intimate scale and use of multiple materials. Reconnecting with an earlier moment in the history of modern sculpture that has helped Newman to opened up new space for his own work – a space in which unexpected conjunctions are the rule, in which theory bows to intuition and humor, and associative imagery runs riot.

Another important step Newman has taken is to present his sculptures on tables (his earlier works tended to hang on the wall or sit on the floor). We should remember that the use of pedestals was another convention of sculpture that got discarded in the mid-20th century. For decades, a three-dimensional work that utilized the architectural givens of wall or floor was seen as being more purely sculptural, less encumbered by extraneous matters. While some sculptors, such as the late George Sugarman, found formal liberation in moving off the pedestal, for many it became a self-limiting condition. By raising his work from the floor, and thus setting up a more intimate relationship with the viewer in which details take on new prominence (these sculptures are designed to be looked at from a close distance), Newman appears to have granted himself an incredible sense of permission to invent forms and try out new techniques. His decision to position works off the floor, and thus confer on them a certain degree of dignity, may also reflect his interest in how certain objects are venerated in traditional cultures.

Newman employs a cornucopia of materials and forms, colors and textures, and the means he devises of attaching and balancing his different components are almost as varied. He also loves submitting his forms to extreme torque, sometimes creating topographies that resemble Möbius strips. One recent piece, Homespun (disk trouble), 2001, is typical of his work in its concatenation of diverse methods (and in its unexpected evocation of the human body). Wrapped around a polished copper bar, that is itself held up by a rusted steel brace, are two tubes made of wooden disks which, in turn, plug into curving sequences of differently sized balsa-wood boxes that are tied together with a knotted jute. The two ends of these wood-box sequences are joined by what look like three spinal vertebrae made from terra cotta, green cast glass, plastic, and felt. This complex sculpture is held together by a structural principle that one can discover, in different guises, in many of Newman’s recent pieces. In barest terms, it consists of a C-shaped form in which the gap between the two tips of the C becomes the resting place for an unusual object made from a strikingly different material from the rest of the work. Often the C-form stands alone, but it can also dangle from an armature or be embedded in a panel to create a kind of free-standing relief.

The C-shape format first turns up in Newman’s work in the early 1990s, but it’s only when his work shifted to its current domestic scale that it really comes into its own. Freed from the drawn-out, costly process of making larger works, a process which ties the sculptor to foundries and fabricators, Newman now is able to change his method for each sculpture (or several times within a single sculpture), to improvise and invent at will. One result of this freedom is that each work appears to have been designed according to rules that apply to it alone, like an isolated creature that has evolved under unique conditions. The range of effects is wide. Some of the sculptures suggest erotic episodes from another planet or the ocean depths. In one, a bulbous column of wire mesh is sensually lodged in a pink-satin aperture, in another work a clearly testicular form hovers inches away from a distended red-lipped orifice. At other times, Newman appears to be conjuring some kind of weird scientific apparatus or a display in some fictional museum of natural history. But, however exotic the shapes and associations may be, there are underlying themes and gestures. The critic Nancy Princenthal has recently noted how Newman’s favored C-shape possess a “connection to the body language of offering, catching, and embracing.”

From the beginning, Newman’s table-scale sculptures have profited form the fact that they are frequently based on drawings, a medium in which the artist is free to imagine structures without worrying about sculptural realities such as gravity and the tensile strength of his materials. Once he applies himself to realizing an upright, three-dimensional version of a drawing, Newman must improvise solutions to all manner of unforeseen technical problems. These acts of bricolage not only remain visible in the finished piece, they also become an important part of the sculpture’s subject. During his travels in the developing world, Newman has become drawn not only to objects of veneration, but also to more functional handmade objects, which sometimes turn up in his sculptures.

Tactility and the handcrafted objects are under threat in an increasingly digital world. At the same time, we live in an era when museums and galleries seem to be growing bigger and bigger as the works that aspire to fill them struggle to grow accordingly (not always with the best results). John Newman is wagering that there remains a place for an intimate esthetic experience, indeed, a desperate need for it.