Matter and Vision - The Brooklyn Rail

Matter and Vision – The Brooklyn Rail | Pro Club Bd

new York

Victoria Munroe
Jonathan Silver: Matter and Vision
May 11 – June 30, 2022

The existential sculpture practiced by Alberto Giacometti, his confrontational and often desperate portrait subjects staring back rigidly or open-mouthed howling, has been little practiced since. It sleeps like a buried high-tension line, as dangerous as a third rail. No artist who is not completely serious and enriched with gallows humor should touch it.

But once upon a time there was Jonathan Silver (1937–1992): an artist’s artist. His work is what the market calls for very strong and goes alone. It was an existential project and difficult to fathom – which apparently didn’t bother Silver at all. He didn’t trade in stylistic eye candy. Nothing compares to (quote from two relevant colleagues) Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s grunting satisfaction at the dull opacity of polished lead or Giacometti’s manic scratch-grill compulsion that leaves traces of run-in ruts. Silver practiced a visual astringency of pleasures in small doses managed by rigorous concepts, and yet his work has a physical and mental delicacy all its own, bordering on tenderness. And a carefree beauty – his mind was elsewhere.

Raised by friends of Victoria Munroe Fine Art and the recently established Jonathan and Barbara Silver Foundation, this is evident in the current exhibition – an affair of the heart. It makes a narrow figure of eight, heads at one end, figures at the other, numerous drawings along a wall in between.

Silver’s work began right from childhood. school was impossible. The first day he was acquitted (he was studying at home) he finally retired alone to draw from a great Michelangelo book. It seemed like the delicious first day of a new life. He was equally attracted to music at the time and later reluctant to give it up for art history –Not Sculpture. At Columbia University he was restless and protected by Meyer Schapiro, who encouraged Silver’s artistic practice, although he intended to keep him for art history and regretted his loss.

Back to drawing, this time from life. His unfinished dissertation linked cubism with the painting of Giacometti. Silver was stuck with Analytical Cubism and had delved into the subject in his own work, but his rather small pencil studies of heads, like thumbprints, clumping letter-size pages in the style of Old Masters, are not a convincing observation or analysis. They are addressed by forces that lie beyond what is portrayed and are stronger than the reporting of the maneuver. Loaded as they are, his drawings delight in marking, swiping, and re-marking, visible delights of a mind working almost alone, but in drawing, as elsewhere, his head began things that his hand, which corresponded to the imagination, ran away with.

From the drawing to the head. A silverhead is just that, all alone in the world. The body has nothing to do with it. He couldn’t help himself—sometimes a bare stalk of plaster stands there, staggeringly incorporeal and embarrassed. The heads closely study the cranial structure and volume, revealing to us, as if for the first time, the head’s nervous space occupation. But they are also strikingly inward and contingent. Silber was the sculptor who simply didn’t take material existence, matter, for granted. So conveniences like “finish” and “presentation” hardly came to his mind. He just stopped. The heads, most obviously those inverting shards of inner surface, are also uncomfortably at odds with themselves – undecided between observation and metaphor, both rendered with the characteristic lucid precision. Ideas and allusions have never been so tangibly real, never before has human presence been so insubstantial. Our hard, essential, real Head? In these band-aids, you seem to be able to touch it, but it’s not there.

What did the sanguine mortal body mean to Silver? He said his characters came out of his head. The four bronzes and a tall plaster here are like smoke waterfalls. They escape the life scale; the aptly titled Little Venus (1980), for example, is a headless fragment, only a hand’s breadth in diameter, but life-size. Silver’s entente with the real world had faltered like a milestone at that number. Silver searched this license. The spirit does not need life. It can take any picture it wants.

Apparently round figures were modeled like a free-standing curtain draped around a body, often open at the back: a torn curtain. Or hospital gown. A seated Hellenic figure (four pieces have titles with classical references) appears to gather the loose robe from within with one hand, asserting or withdrawing from within. The crests of the hips, the angles of the shoulders, the narrow waists, the fleeting prominences of breasts and streaky fat are defined by smeared and rippled surfaces of singular subtlety, but they rarely resolve fundamental questions of identity. As if the artist himself were one of his called forms, no longer of any particular state, in any ascending position of authority. The most crucial part of an entire figure is typically the junction of the torso and legs, a favorite territory of this artist that is not only indefinite but frequently garbled. Disfigurement was a high point of his practice.

Individual figures led to groups and a series of improvised installations. Most of us have not experienced them. They were one-shot essays in space and quite ephemeral – only three individual plaster figures from the last installation survive. Silver intentionally put these groups at physical risk and courted their ongoing weakness in real time by incorporating material (e.g. wet clay and rose petals) that would dissipate over the course of the exhibition. This kind of sculptural performance came full circle which he had joined in his youth with Michelangelo and the otherworldly theater of the Medici Chapel. Nothing else had sufficed since then. The later characters are believed to have occupied a plateau where Silver had come to himself. And disappeared.

He had lived in his head. Sharp in conversation, he was unbearably self-critical, but was also fondly remembered as funny. Some people see that in his work. His impressive intelligence, acting alone, failed to make adequate methodical progress in his work. His thoughts actually moved on his fingertips. His work is extremely extraordinary, almost deviant, to the touch. Touch is something less tangible and explainable than “hand”. Whereas Giacometti’s hand emerged relatively incidentally (he loved the knife so much, after all), Silver’s contact is more than the traveling fingerprint of intelligence. We witness an intimate coincidence of outside and inside, seemingly found without sight. It happens before our eyes and is fascinating, although perhaps as difficult to observe as something we spontaneously notice but were not invited to.

Silver was certainly among the most struggling artists, yet all his work is a caress from start to finish, even in its mutilating impulse.

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