THE ART OF ESSIE PINSKER
David J. Shapiro
Art Critic, Vorpal Art Gallery
1987, SoHo, New York City
There are two competing paths in modernist sculpture. One has been the way of Kurt Schwitters and the rescue of the everyday in the use of humble, almost degraded materials of the quotidian. The struggle there is to make the familiar strange and to take the debris of the ordinary and transform it into something luminous. The other approach is to take the traditional materials of the Greek legacy- the luminous marble and other stones- and to find the expressive sanity of these already wonderful materials. Both of these paths are necessary to the imaginative venture of sculpture: neither exactly has a victory over the other. Essie Pinsker's art involves her in the struggle to express, with sensuous stones and steel, something of the power and strength of New York.
She was born in New York and is a cosmopolitan artist who desires to express the volumetrics of the city. She has not been stopped by the difficulties of working in stone and intrepidly learned welding and other techniques she needed at a time when other artists might have yielded to a temptation to quit learning. For a long time she found the challenge of direct carving compelling and now she is successful both in powerful maquettes and in carving. Her strongest sense is to express some emotional configuration, as in the abject remorse of her "Lamentation" and the tragically brooding "Doloroso."
Her sense of the sculptural legacy involves her in an inflection of the achievements of Rodin and of Brancusi, and her learning exhibits itself in allusions to Pomodoro and Bernini. The work desires to be as public as possible, particularly in certain Gothic, vertical, thrusting geometries. Some of her most minimalist steel pieces are very effective with "ragged edges." These are leaning works that have gravity as their subject matter and correspond to some of the drastic "leaning" pieces of Serra and Heizer's montages of stone. The constructivist bias is evident here, and there is more tectonic zeal than expressionism. One is not wrong in discovering the architectural here, as the titles "Tower" and "Megalopolis" indicate that the sculptor has a neo-Nietzschean love affair with New York.
After all, New York is the chief topic of the twentieth century as Paris was of the nineteenth, and Pinsker's volumetrics are a cadenza on this urban theme. Still, the human body is not deleted from these works, where marble lovingly becomes an analogue and symbol of the human. De Kooning once said that oil paint was invented for the representation of flesh, but one will have to admit that the white and pink marbles were also part of some divine teleology to express the image and appearance of the human body. The sculptor has coined the term "psychic sculpting" for these resolutions of mass and intuition. She avoids the mechanical in rendering and creates as if for landscape and city sites, her gritty powerful sculptures. Her urge toward monumental is perhaps best seen in the grey cararra of her death's "Embrasse" with its allusion to Rodin's shocking Balzac. Thus, it is in a polarized field between the most abstract "ragged edges" and the human in trouble that she makes her domain.
It is important to note that the artist is and regards herself as centrally a worker in stone and in the marriage of concept and volume. Her studio in Long Island City is impressive for its concentrated arrays of stone knots and bulging "Sumo" wrestlers. Anyone who has worked with the pneumatic and other tools and felt pressure of stone will sense what the artist strenuously achieves. And with what variety of textures, in Belgian Black, in Persian Travertine, in Portuguese Pink, in Nero Marquinia, in Serpentine Marble, stones whose very names speak of the mysterious diversity that Pinsker plays with and defines. The artist writes that she is "obsessed by mass and volumetric forms, forms that interact dynamically with space and create new tensions. I never stray far from the human scene." She has made stone into the "Family," and her knots might delight the psychoanalyst Lacan, who spent his last years dreaming of a mathematics of the mind that could be calculated in the fascinations of knots. I am interested in the surrealist element of these dream knots, and the way in which the artist seems to have a sophisticated understanding of the metaphorical quality of her work.
The eroticism in her work is spelled out in such works as "Affinities," an eroticism that may seem analogous to the works of Louise Bourgeois. But this artist is less interested in minimalist repetition. Her forms achieve a burst in a kind of musical forte, and she keeps the tension high. As she writes, "I look for forms that make forceful statements. Forms that burst with organic energy. Forms that pierce the air." What the psychoanalysts call a healthy aggressivity animates the forms and a tenderness is seen in her symbolic references to maternity. Her sense of "high seriousness" is seen in the repeated references to a mythical kingdom and the symbolic world of the Old Testament. It is for this reason that she alludes to the prophetic world of Isaiah, who spoke of a "spirit of judgment and a spirit of burning." It is this sense of burning judgment that makes the stone carver herself a metaphor of artistic energy and moral intent.
Some artists are biased toward the geometrical, as toward the grammatical; others favor the biomorphic and the freer rhythms of an anti-geometry. In an artist like Essie Pinsker, one finds an alternation between works dedicated to geometry and works that are the apotheosis of the psychic and carnal. She taboos neither in her line of research. Her dominant theme is what Frank O'Hara called the topic of pride in the ballet of Balanchine and the sculptural ballet of David Smith. Sculpture displaces us with its hubristic gravity, and with its grace it invites us with illusions of embrace. Claes Oldenburg has reminded us that touch is always the center of the sculptural idea. Pinsker's tactility reinforces this grand theme of embodiment.