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Christopher Wilmarth / MATRIX 62

May 22, 1983 - August 7, 1983

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Christopher Wilmarth: Saint, 1979-80; glass and steel; 14" x 11-1/2" x 7"; lent by Frederick Morgan, NY.

Download the exhibition brochure (PDF).

"Breath is the first vehicle for a poem; blown glass is breath made physical." -Christopher Wilmarth

Breath is the name given by Christopher Wilmarth to his suite of seven sets of pastels, charcoal drawings, etchings, and glass and steel sculptures created in response to each of seven poems by the 19th-century French symbolist poet St?phane Mallarm?. The effect of the fragile vessels of blown glass (sometimes paired with steel elements) depends as much on the light and shadow they create as on ther physical form. Wilmarth understands Mallarm?'s stated desire "to paint, not the thing, but the effect it produces."

That Wilmarth should be drawn to Mallarm?'s poetry is not surprising. Mallarm?'s affinity with artists is well known. His coterie included the great French artists of the day-Manet, Degas, Monet, Renoir and, later Matisse illustrated his poems. After studying Mallarm?, Wilmarth wrote, "His work is about the anguish and longing of experience not fully realized, and I found somthing of myself in it."

Wilmarth has worked with etched glass and steel for well over a decade, often, as in Breath, producing works in series. Earlier works, however, have a more constructivist look. Coming of age as an artist in the mid-sixties, Wilmarth absorbed the influence of minimalist sculpture-non-objectivity; simple, geometric form; seriality. Nine Clearings for a Standing Man, for example, are large works composed of rectangular sheets of steel and etched glass. In each work, two panels of equal size stand on the floor and are joined to the wall with a wire cable. Variations between one piece and the next are due to the angles formed by bending each steel plate away from its glass sheet, a process which, in turn, controls the amount of light between each pair of panels.
The curved forms of the Breath sculptures are created by blowing the glass. Wilmarth made the works in collaboration with master glassblowers Marvin Lipofsky and Andy Magdanz of the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland in 1979, while he was Visiting Artist at UC Berkeley. Turning to organic form for the first time since the early sixties, Wilmarth in a sense draws closer to two of his artist heroes, Henri Matisse and Constantin Brancusi. The sculptures and works on paper have something of Matisse's sensuous line and romanticism. They also reflect Brancusi's mystical attitude toward reductive, precise form.

The unifying element of the series is the oval, with its myriad associations-egg, head, mouth, womb. In each set of works (sculpture, pastel, charcoal, and etching), Wilmarth suggests Mallarm?'s poetic metaphor through a visual one. In "Soupir" (Sigh), the oval can be seen as an open mouth. "The curved piece, leaning against the inside wall, is like a tongue against a palate," critic Dore Ashton wrote in her analysis of the works. In "Salut" (Toast), Wilmarth subtly echoes Mallarm?'s poetic motifs, a champagne glass and a ship's prow. Wilmarth regarded "M'introduire ans ton histoire..." (Insert myself within your story...) as a poem about lovemaking and responded with a pale green orb pierced by one metal plane and enclosed by another, as if between the pages of a book. "Sonnet" (When Winter on forgotten woods moves somber...) was written for a friend whose young wife had died. The circular opening in the frosty ovoid sculpture suggests the open mouth of the deceased speaker in the poem.

The exhibition includes the limited edition book of Wilmarth's etchings and translations of Mallarm?'s poems by the American poet Frederick Morgan, as well as a book of Wilmarth's own poetry inspired by Mallarm?. Breath is also the title of an award-winning catalogue containing illustrations of Wilmarth's works, the Morgan translations and a major essay by Dore Ashton.

Wilmarth was born in 1943 in Sonoma, California. He moved to New York, where he presently lives, to study at The Copper Union, from which he graduated in 1965. He has received many awards, including rants from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 1970 and 1983, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1969, 1977 and 1980.

Constance Lewallen

MATRIX is supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Federal Agency.