Times Art Writer

It has taken almost a full year for the big sculpture show called “The Third Dimension: Sculpture of the New York School” to trek across the country from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York to the Newport Harbor Art Museum. The delay presents the most paranoid among us with yet another manifestation of living on the tail end of the art world, but this time consternation is unwarranted. “The Third Dimension” is neither a hot contemporary property nor an overexposed blockbuster. It’s just a good, solid historical show that’s as timely now as it was last year.

The exhibition of about 50 works in metal, wood and other materials covers 1945 to 1960--an era far better known for painting than sculpture. This was the prime time of Abstract Expressionism, a post-World War II movement that cast off American provincialism and shifted the center of contemporary art activity from Paris to New York. It’s a period so loaded with emotion and chauvinism that it has assumed mythical proportions. Such giants as Pollock, Rothko and De Kooning--all painters--are its heroes.

“The Third Dimension,” organized by Lisa Phillips at the Whitney, doesn’t so much contradict that view of the late ‘40s and ‘50s as expand it. We are reminded that sculpture didn’t get trampled in the rush toward new painting. In the hands of no less a master than David Smith--well represented here by five pieces (from 1946 to 1953)--sculpture became drawing in space, with a range that few would have imagined. Smith can spin a wiry web into a “Star Cage” or erect a spare, upright “Hero” with a few well-chosen, weighty elements.


Alexander Calder’s spidery wall piece, “Bifurcated Tower,” sets sculpture afloat with breathtaking ease. Isamu Noguchi turns biomorphic forms into sleek abstractions evocative of figures. John Chamberlain seems to merge aspects of Abstract Expressionism and Pop art as he constructs lyrical forms from brightly colored crushed auto bodies.

Smith, Calder, Noguchi, Chamberlain--those are familiar names. So are Nevelson, Bourgeois and Di Suvero, all of whom have notable work in “The Third Dimension.” What helps us see them anew is the context of Abstract Expressionism and the work of lesser-known practitioners.

As Newport Curator Paul Schimmel says, the good news and the bad news about the exhibition is that it has no “hindsight.” Art that has worn well and made its makers deservedly famous is presented alongside work that has diminished with time but remains important to an understanding of the period.

Take Theodore Roszak’s massive steel “Night Flight,” which dominates one gallery. It’s an overwrought hunk of theatrical anguish that emulates a great bird and sums up the struggles of an era even as it begs to be shut in a closet. David Hare’s attenuated, welded steel “Dinner Party” looks simultaneously turgid and fussy, but it represents efforts to extract the essence of the figure in recalcitrant material. Seymour Lipton’s pod-like forms grow repetitive, as do Ibram Lassaw’s lumpy accretions of molten metal.

In general, the sculpture that looks most dated is most closely related to Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist painting, and that shouldn’t be surprising. The artists who mine the energy of a period in an individual way are bound to be more interesting than those who don its appearances.

Along with presenting the unflattering truth about some of these lesser practitioners, the show delivers revelations. Michael Lekakis is one. His bulbous wood forms perched atop pedestals and a suspended piece that resembles some remains of a prehistoric beast’s skeleton are so vigorous and fresh that it’s hard to believe they were made in the late ‘50s.


Louise Nevelson comes across very well, if atypically, in an elegant black piece that branches out from a vertical plane with all the fluidity of satin ribbon. Both Lekakis and Nevelson hold forth in the most effectively installed gallery which concentrates on wood and leaves a warm impression of organic maturity.

I initially thought that the traveling exhibition had been almost halved from the original at the Whitney, which strung along through many small galleries, but only a handful of pieces are actually missing. The show only seems more compact because the works are restricted to three galleries and the spacious lobby. Another change is that the most recent and largest work appears first. As you follow Frederick Kiesler’s directions and walk through his enormous bronze and aluminum gate, called “The Arch: A Sculpted Rainbow to Walk Through,” you walk backward in time into a chapter of history.

The show runs through Jan. 5.