MARJORY SUPOVITZ, EXHIBITION TEXT, HAYDEN GALLERY, MIT
“CHRIS SPROAT: MADE IN HAYDEN” 1976
Last fall, Professor Wayne Andersen offered Boston artist Christopher Sproat the Hayden Gallery as a ‘studio’ for a period for an exhibition to open in 1976 ? 1977 season. In early August, Sproat undertook the challenging task of building a coherent body of works right on the spot. Although the nature of the gallery plan is a flexible one with innumerable options for spatial division, Sproat chose a basic installation design that consists of one large area devoid of natural light. The resultant austere atmosphere enhances the quiet drama and ethereal spirit that is common to all Sproat’s constructions. At a later date, one of the works in the show will be reconstructed on another campus site as part of the MIT permanent collection.
Although they draw upon the lexicon of electrical hardware parts which Sproat has developed since he began showing in 1970- wire, coil, electrical metallic tubing and junction boxes, incandescent and neon light- the proportions of usage, selection of parts and inclusion of painted and chalk drawn images on the wall indicate that the ambitious pieces in the exhibition represent a new focus
They are an intensified realization of the dialogue of dualities Sproat has often articulated in the past. The new works are at once sculpture, relief and picture; machine produced and handmade; dense and weightless; open and closed; artisanship and poetry. Mass and line and counterpoise and equilibrate strikingly. The bulk of the conduit is real; that of the colossal somber painted shapes implied. A linear complement is sensitively provided in the fine wire, springy coil and stringently used neon or incandescent light. Light also functions conversely as an atmospheric, dematerializing tool, an illusory negation of the solid elements in the works.
Earlier, Sproat worked principally with light. Minimizing his use of hardware as a formal, as well as functional element, Sproat built luminous, delicate pieces that were essentially light drawings emphasizing the physical conditions of a particular location and often expanding across the floor, up the wall and onto the ceiling. More recently, he had begun to employ rather stout electrical conduit and other conspicuous hardware with either weighty or delicate neon fixtures. The thick neon tubing served as a recapitulation of a room’s architectural character while the thin strips of neon light in the more self-contained pieces were often shaped into rhythmic arcs or undulating curves emulating the pliancy of cords and wires.
The personality of the site still determines much of the character of Sproat’s work. On the gallery’s far wall, “Loom,” for example, developed its two systems and overall configuration from the adjacent doorway. Sproat’s general impression of the MIT campus also informs the body of the works as a whole. A range of measurement from expansive to economical that he has discovered in the various architectural features of the campus are reflected in the shifting scale of the pieces in the show.
All Sproat’s work, whether composed solely of an assembly of industrial products or incorporating tangible evidence of the artist hand, communicates a humanized presence. Sproat advocates art that expresses human values: poetry, beauty and feeling supersede internal problem solving. His spiritual heritage emerged from the lineage of Brancusi, Giacometti, Henry Moore and various literary masters as well, and he has set about to paradoxically load upon those machine age materials of his choice the personal associative content of humankind.
If his aesthetic philosophy is wedded to tradition, Sproat’s working methods and awareness of the artifacts of today are an outgrowth of recent trends in art. Since the historic Primary Structures exhibition in New York’s Jewish Museum in 1966, when artists like Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Dan Flavin were commissioned to design for and execute works in a specific situation, the notion of place has become a source of inspiration for many artists, and the character of the surroundings assumed important status in the formulation of the works rationale.
The use of electric light as an art producing material gained particular credence in the past decade mainly through the pioneering efforts of such sculptors as Dan Flavin, Chryssa and Steven Antonakos, although many Process oriented artists especially Morris, Sonnier, Serra Nauman have employed light incidentally in the service of their respective interests. In the ‘hard-core’ group of contemporary light artists Flavin has been a primary exponent of ‘anti-form,’ devising fluorescent light arrangements that reiterate an interior space and stress installation over object. Chryssa and Antonakos, on the other hand, immersed themselves in the making of objects whose main component was neon. For both originally, a major catalyst was Pop Art with its commercial sign associations and such precedents as the actual incorporation of electric light in works by George Segal, Robert Indiana and James Rosenquist among others. Amplifying the viability of the medium, Sproat has evolved an independent expression. He has emphasized that his choices are governed ultimately by the laws of how electricity flows. Not only the visibly lighted areas but also the channeling of electricity back to its source are input for the pieces configurations. Another duality between the scene and the unseen unfolds.
The relationship of real objects to a painted or drawn background that Sproat addresses in his new work became a central issue for Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper John, and later Jim Dine. It is Dine chiefly to whom Sproat’s recent work most closely connects. In his output of the 1960’s, Dine often confronted the vestigial canvas with all kinds of hardware- even electrical. And like Jim Dine’s lyrically expressive tools, Sproat’s inanimate parts are bathed in organic being. However, the associative content that envelops Sproat’s pieces has little to do with any inherent suggestiveness as is the case with Dine’s urban junk or used hardware. Rather, Sproat reintroduces a metaphoric text into pristine, industrially fabricated elements by assembling them in a fresh and personal way.
The authority of Sproat’s new work is underscored by the process of electrical energy. The referents to outside systems, both physical and metaphysical, suggest a profound iconography and links to Process and Earthworks ideology. Embracing a complexity of artistic concerns, Sproat ranks as one of the most challenging sculptors working today.