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A quiet world

Ruth Vollmer: Drawings and Sculptures At Inverleith House, the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh until 5 May

Curators Paul Nesbitt and Graham Domke have, over the past few years, put together a programme of exhibitions at Inverleith House which has brought to this fine gallery artists of standing and subtlety such as Myron Stout, Alan Johnston, Lawrence Weiner and Richard Tuttle. The current show of Ruth Vollmer's drawings and sculptures could not be more relevant to the gallery's ambitions, or to its location in a botanical garden.

Ruth Vollmer was born in Munich in 1903, emigrated to the US in 1935, and died on New Year's Day 1982. This show, her first in Britain and probably the largest of her work to date, therefore marks the 20th anniversary of her death.

She was an artist's artist, as many of those within Inverleith House's programme have been - artists who operate in the shadows pursuing a highly personal and committed line of exploration. Their work is often highly influential within their discipline, yet relatively unknown outside it. In architectural circles, the recent exhibition and book on Swiss architect Peter Märkli have come as a revelation (AJ 14.3.02). Here, too, we have mature and significant work shown to us for the first time.

Little has been said of Vollmer, and even less published, yet within her discipline her influence is felt and her work is known. She was an enthusiastic supporter of young artists: Sol Le Witt, Richard Tuttle, Robert Smithson and Eva Hesse all acknowledge her example.

Vollmer worked for New York's Museum of Modern Art on children's carnivals and contributed to the Children's Creative Center in the US Pavilion at the 1960 Brussels World Fair. She entertained artists, philosophers and architects at her apartment on Central Park West with, says B H Friedman, 'unobtrusive generosity' - 'she becomes part of the gentle ambience which she has created'. This gentle and peaceful ambience has descended on Inverleith House, itself a sequence of calm and harmonious rooms in a sublime garden.

A more intellectual relevance of her work to the Royal Botanic Garden is to be found in the Scottish Enlightenment, and the pursuit of knowledge through experience as espoused by David Hume and James Hutton. D'Arcy Thompson followed these great thinkers, and in his treatise of 1917, On Growth and Form, argued that animals and plants could only be understood in terms of pure mathematics - the shell of the Nautilus and the hexagonal cells of the honeycomb are seen to be related to logarithmic spirals.

Vollmer continues this tradition, with art that reveals a passion for science, mathematics and nature.

The Inverleith show is divided into two.

On the ground floor, sculptures and drawings are collected around the title 'Exploring the Sphere'. One room contains a series of cast bronze pieces with almost figurative qualities of gourd-like pods and seeds. Some invite play, such as Musical Forest, or laughter, such as Walking Ball. In the other main room on the ground floor, in contrast to the bronze pieces, are more finished spun-aluminium spheres. In a small room which connects the two main ones hangs the emphatic and enigmatic spun-aluminium Pseudosphere of 1969.

On the first floor the theme is 'Drawing Space'. Throughout the more modestly scaled rooms on this level are a series of vitrines, which contain small sculptures in wire and Perspex that explore spirals and surface.

A beautiful collection of wire forms used to make bubbles foretell Sol Le Witt's permutations of the grid.

Sleeper Gallery within Edinburgh's Georgian New Town hosts a small companion show with two more pieces by Vollmer, Steiner Surface of 1970, and a large Pseudosphere drawing on canvas. This is indeed a 'quiet world', contemplative and intelligent.

There is no rhetoric, just - to paraphrase Le Witt - beautiful thoughts made solid.

Neil Gillespie is an architect with Reiach and Hall in Edinburgh

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