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Christopher Wilmarth: Light and Gravity

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By Steven Henry Madoff. Princeton University Press, 2004.184pp. £27.50

The American sculptor Christopher Wilmarth, who died in 1987 aged 44, wrote: 'Light gains character as it touches the world; from what is lighted and who is there to see. I associate the significant moments of my life with the character of the light at the time.' It could almost be Louis Kahn, writes Andrew Mead. And in the margin of an essay that a critic had written about him, Wilmarth asked: 'Where is Matisse?

Where's Rothko? Where's Brancusi? Where's Joseph Paxton? Where's the glass and steel structures of 19th-century England?' Wilmarth made sculptures out of etched glass and steel, which captured light in a highly nuanced and evocative way. Working in the wake of Minimalism, and part-responsive to it, he distinguished himself from contemporaries like Judd by so readily relating his sculptures to an earlier tradition of art and architecture, and by deliberately seeking to give them an emotional or spiritual content. Wilmarth used the word 'spiritual' without the wariness you would expect today. He believed that art could be more than the sum of its materials: that glass and steel, variously treated and combined, could create places of repose in which people might find something deep within or outside themselves.

And he succeeded in his aims. Though varying considerably in size, his works are always human in scale, never monumental, and their reference to doors, windows, screens, etc, qualifies their abstraction.

The glass is magical in its range of effects, with its pale blue-green spectrum, its milky etched panels part-masking the steel, and its bright exact edges. In the drabbest gallery, these sculptures are engaging; in a good one, alive with natural light, they cast a spell.

The only quibble with this volume - the first monograph on Wilmarth - is that some of the larger pieces suffer in illustration, both in the quality and size of the image; and none of the sculptures are photographed sequentially in changing light, which seems to miss one of their points.

But Steven Madoff writes perceptively about Wilmarth, responding to the poetry of his works, and few who look closely at this book will think of glass, steel, and their conjunction, in quite the same way again.

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