Steven Henry Madoff
Christopher Wilmarth:
Light & Gravity.
Princeton, 184 pages, $49.95

Christopher Wilmarth tells a tragic story of American art—the story of an artist who held his own against aesthetic inhumanities only to succumb to more personal demons. Wilmarth committed suicide in 1987 at age forty-four. He departed at a time when, even taking into account his early successes, his career was still in flood stage.

Wilmarth was something of a messianic figure. His statements, quoted in Madoff’s essay and elsewhere in the monograph, reveal just the sort of battles a serious artist faced when surrounded by Minimalism and Pop. It’s not hard to imagine. While Donald Judd famously maintained that “I’m totally uninterested in European art, and I think it’s over with,” Wilmarth believed that “The past is nourishment and support for the present.” He was echoing T. S. Eliot (“the history sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence”) and Cézanne (“One does not substitute oneself for the past; one merely adds a new link to the chain”).

Wilmarth saw the spirit as art’s common bond. While taking up many of the idioms of Minimalism (scale, abstraction, the industrial materials of metal and glass), he sought a different end from the soullessness of Judd or Stella. “When art is Art (and not all art is) it is of the spiritual,” he wrote in 1978. All the while he decried Minimalist certainties as “a disease, this materialistic ‘what you see is what you see’ denial of the spirit (but a perfect vehicle for trade).”

The medium of glass allowed Wilmarth “to depict not the thing but the effect that it produces,” in the words of Mallarmé. Glass set Wilmarth apart from his “specific object” contemporaries. Brancusi, Tatlin, Lissitzky, and Giacometti were his models. Wilmarth’s acid-washed surfaces became windows into a modernist past and portals through which light and spirit could pass.

Minimalist proportions take on a new dimmention when the soul enters the equation of human scale. Wilmarth breathed life into sculpture at a particularly airless moment and infused his work with poetry. In the early 1980s this process led him to create a series of head-like objects out of blown glass, based on seven poems by Mallarmé as translated by his friend Frederick Morgan. Wilmarth titled this series “Breath.” It formed the final and most haunting motif of a brief life.

Wilmarth froze the history of modernism in glass, all the while preserving the seeds of rebirth. One hopes this monograph will encourage artists to take up where Wilmarth left off.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 9, on page 89
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