ESSIE PINSKER AND SCULPTURE TODAY
Curator, Las Vegas Art Museum
1997, Las Vegas, NV
The art form called sculpture is problematic nowadays, and has been for much of the 20th century. In what is lately considered sculpture, there is little that has actually been sculpted, in the true sense of the word. Usually, there is no figure released from the stone, nor from the block of wood, nor modeled in clay and cast in bronze, aluminum, plaster, or anything else. Today, sculpture is often a matter of
putting things together-often disparate things-and not a question of carving or modeling anything out of a given material.
What makes it "sculpture" in contemporary terms is that it exists in three dimensions, rather than being an iconic image sculpted out of a mass of uniform matter like marble or wood. Little of the "sculpture" made today could be called traditional,
in the sense this word would have implied prior to World War II. There is the further matter, in the most recent art history, of
so-called Site-Specific sculpture, another name for Installation Art.
Usually in a work of Installation Art, its lack of referential resonance is obvious. The palpable plainness, of such work's mundane artistic carpentry, is unaccompanied by any transforming imaginative lift. Unlike words in a poem, or imagery in a painting, the materials in a work of Installation Art point to nothing beyond themselves that is fundamentally different in kind or substance, nothing on a higher level of abstracted meaning. The physical objects in such work, mostly left to speak for themselves, don't have much to say, compared to the transfiguring resources that real sculpture once had at its command - and has again in the work of Essie Pinsker.
Pinsker's first one-woman exhibition was held at the Bodley Gallery in New York in 1981, when she was still the busy owner of a prospering Manhattan ad
agency. As a sculptor, she broke into the New York art world just after American Neo-Expressionism and the European Trans-Avant-garde had done so, at a date when the continuing authoritarian dominance, of the late-dismantlement esthetic of deconstructive Post-Modernism, was unquestioned. A time when that esthetic's overthrow, downfall, and supersession were unimaginable.
Like the painters of the Trans-Avant-garde/Neo-Expressionism, Pinsker began by seeking to recover many of the lost resources of her chosen artistic
discipline. In an impoverished period when advanced art curricula no longer even paid lip service to neglected technique like stone-carving, Pinsker traveled to Italy to learn the requisite skills from studios and artisans. To extend her expressive range, her use of colored stone for sculpture - black, green, pink, red, gray, white - shows a restless reaching for further dimension, as she strives to include and exploit as many of the available resources and possibilities of art as a given work can carry. One can find references in Pinsker's oeuvre to a bewildering array of culture-wide iconography: from Bernini to Brancusi; mythology to mummy case; Old Testament to New. Yet with such tremendous range, or perhaps because of it, she never betrays her work with derivative indebtedness. In the present catalogue, Pinsker divides here work into six groups, modes or genres, and these demonstrate her full command of the vocabulary of sculpture, from Renaissance marble, to bronze, to finely manipulated sheets of steel.
A Pinsker sculpture called Flight, in white statuario marble, recalls the greatest sculpture of Italian Futurism, Umberto Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), a fairly small bronze which she would know well from New York's Museum of Modern Art. And Boccioni's piece in turn recalls the sublime, monumental Winged Victory of Samothrace (c. 200 B.C.) in the Louvre, a museum Pinsker also knows well. Yet the title Flight could mean either flying or fleeing, and there is the suggestion of two co-moving figures in the modal discontinuity of Pinsker's white marble, one bioform perhaps protective of the other. Could the present interpretation hazard one further correspondence? Namely, to a 19th-century masterpiece of French salon schmaltz, Pierre-Auguste Cot's The Storm, which depicts a pale, frightened couple fleeing dark, pursuing clouds. A picture found, coincidentally, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The above hypothetical genealogy means to illustrate the resounding imagistic profundity and breadth of Essie Pinsker's contemporary image-making, through varied cultural levels and periods past and present. She seems an artist completely at home and anchored in art history, which she uses as a constant well-spring for engendering newly created visual image-combination and composition. And Pinsker unfailingly takes up the challenge of attaching verbal denotation, resonance, and meaningfulness to the often ambiguous, mysterious visual forms she creates, thereby adding a further dimension of interpretive profundity to these works.
In her sometimes vaguely anthropomorphic pieces, Pinsker takes on some great, time-honored subjects: the family, mother and child, the spectral, female beauty, the prophet, the graces, the enemy, man and woman, thought, genesis, betrayal, remorse, grief, the visionary, the oracular: Her work demonstrates that it is possible to transcend the abstraction/figuration polarity, and to derive superior expressive power from that very transcendence. Moreover, her choices of subject matter show her ambition to be at the highest level of art-historical consciousness. She courageously casts her hat into the ring, to compete and contend with the great art of the past.
While Pinsker's pieces grouped as "Metamorphosis" and "Other Realities" seem to give an illusion of mass through an involuted, bronze skin of crushed drapery, an ironic avoidance of mass, her extensive "Gordian Knot" series does quite the opposite. Through variously interlocking, colossal curved masses, these pieces seek to convey a force of impenetrable solidity. The "Abstract/Figurative" pieces amount to something of a marriage of the two previous modes for dealing with and articulating mass. The "Constructions" mostly eschew mass altogether by consisting of flat and curved planes, and the "Windows" once again acknowledge mass, geometrically created and penetrated by precise, hard-edged voids.
In all her phases and modes, Pinsker has worked through the analytical application of the physical materials she employs, while at the same time restoring thematic content, with intellectual and formal complexity, to the practice of the art of sculpture. Even her monumental "Constructions" engage the problem of objectifying form with thematic meaning. Pinsker's work has been both of its time and beyond it: fully in touch with the theoretical problems of contemporary sculpture, yet able to recover and redeploy the age-old technical and expressive resources that give her pieces a unique, regenerative strength.
Such strength distinguishes Pinsker, among a maddening crowd of lesser talents, as resolving, with the greatest effectiveness, the intellectual challenge which the discipline of sculpture represents today, in order to demonstrate and clarify the esthetic terms, in and by which the search for man-made beauty in three dimensions will be conducted in the new, coming age of art after Post-Modernism.