CARL BELZ, 1974 EXHIBITION CATALOG FOR ROBERT ROHM / CHRISTOPHER SPROAT
AT THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON, MA.
In drawing parallels between the two artists:
One of the most fascinating aspects of this combination of sculptures is that they together reflect an age-old phenomenon in the development of Western-style. I am referring to the distinction between the Venetians and the Florentines, the Rubenists and the Poussinists, and the Romanticists and the Classicists – in short, the distinction formulated by Heinrich Wolfflin between artists who emphasize color and artists who emphasize drawing. During the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries, the Venetians explored the possibilities of bright hues and rich brushwork, while the Florentines suppressed color in favor of clear linear design. Likewise in the Baroque: Rubens and his followers carried on the painterly Venetian tradition, while the Poussinists stressed the importance of crisp sculptural outlines. In 19th-century France, the dichotomy reached the level of public debate. Delacroix and the romantics were viewed as bitterly opposed to Ingres and the classicists: ambiguity, inspiration, and feeling on one hand, and precision, discipline, and reason on the other. In our own century, the distinction can be seen in a comparison between the Fauves and the cubists or, in sculpture, between the gestural expressiveness of Rodin and the patient refinements of Brancusi. Given the authority of such a tradition, we should not be surprised to find it still operating, however consciously or unconsciously in the present day.
??????Christopher Sproat represents the other side of the coin in our comparison of the painterly versus linear. His sculptures are serene and delicate, cool in their overall effect, yet exquisitely handled in terms of their smallest details. They penetrate their surroundings with gentle planar rhythms that balance the vertical and the horizontal and generally eschew sharply angled thrusts into space. The directions they assume are, of course, largely dictated by the right-angled spaces we normally inhabited and work in. Compositionally, this gives the works a distinctly rational dimension. As arbitrary arrangements are kept to a minimum, the sculptures make their appeal to our need for some kind of predictable order and structuring discipline. None of the pieces, however, are literally ordered; that is, no single element or relationship in them would enable us to predict succeeding elements or relationships in the way we were able to do with so much minimal or, as it was sometimes called, ABC art. Sproat’s acknowledgment of logic, in other words, is consistently humanized; it is never strictly mathematical or merely cerebral. In structuring his intuitive decisions, he recalls, despite his radically different methods and materials, either classicsizing modernists such as Brancusi in sculpture and Degas in painting.
On first encounter, his sculptures tend to be passive, partly invisible. The subtle beams of neon tubing seem rather inconsequential in relation to their attached electrical hardware. Moreover, they project no light into their surrounding environment. As lights, they are not functional in the ordinary sense, and we may even wonder why they want electricity at all. As it turns out, the neon beams have an entirely aesthetic function. In many cases they are either hover in space, measuring and delineating it, or else they trace one or another of the surfaces – wall, floor, ceiling – that constitute their particular location. As with Rohm’s sculpture, relations between the object and its situation materialize slowly – not because the objects initially overwhelm us, but because the redefined use of light, like any redefinition of our everyday experiences, takes time to absorb. ????.
Sproat’s materials have color properties that are also more “classical” than “romantic.” First, his hardware fixtures are painstakingly selected for surface value and shape as well as for the functional jobs of connecting and insulating that they have to do. They are invariably clean and cool, and their natural colors – gray, white, silver – are equally reserved and quiet. Though the colors subtly interact with one another, the relations consist of delicate shifts of value rather than dramatic contrast of hue. No color in the hardware stands out as a sensational moment. Even the strongest potential contrast, between the gray hardware assemblage and a black cord or transformer, feels more like an appropriate tonal accent than a jarring, coloristic flurry. Finally, the color of the neon beams reinforces the general restrained aura of the works as a whole. Whether blue or violet their cool illumination at once harmonizes and punctuates the sculptures’ even, contemplative serenity.
With respect to the creative act, Sproat reveals neither his presence nor his process. His sculptural materials look untouched, as if new or at least unaffected by previous handling. They are designed and manufactured by someone else, usually for purposes only vaguely related o the one Sproat adapts them to. They may indeed be electrical fixtures, that is, but we are unlikely to have seen them joined in this particular way. In joining them at the same time, Sproat gives no clues as to what came first or second in his decision-making or assembling process. The sculptures appear to have been started and completed in a single, particularly calculated gesture. As a result, they suggest permanence, like a phenomenon outside of time, something that transcends the capriciousness of ordinary human endeavor. Thus, they reflect a classical, idealizing temperament – which comes as a surprise in view of the work’s obvious physical delicacy and of the fact that we could easily terminate its existence by pulling a plug from the wall. But such sensations constitute a literal, superficial reading of the objects. For their permanence, it should be pointed out, resides not only in their deeper stylistic traits but also in their sturdy manufacturer and in the fact that they could be operated constantly, 24 hours a day, for approximately 25 to 30 years – at a cost of a penny or two a day. Such “lights” are not common within our experience.
Sproat “draws” with both his hardware fixtures in his neon beams. The fixtures, for instance, are functional, though not merely functional. They enable the artist to complete an electrical circuit; but not just any fixtures will do. In his recent work, Sproat has generally favored clusters of precisely fitted elements that come together in crisp, right angle configurations. The clusters are clearly articulated in terms of their small-scale, separate parts, and they usually occur after long but regular intervals of neon beams and connected conduits. Compositionally, the clusters of intense detail serve to balance and counteract the uninflected linear passages of the beams and conduits, providing welcome pauses in the latter’s broad and sweeping movement. The “drawing” in other words, is executed through the selection and assemblage of a wide variety of carefully chosen hardware items. Sensing those processes of selection and assemblage, but unable to recreate them imaginatively, we thus regard their products as objective, though certainly not inhuman. Their overall effect is something like that of an Ingres drawing, where delicate lines sweep gracefully through space and suddenly gather into clusters of intense detail. Everything looks objective – the quiet outline of a dress in one place, the agitated detail of the lace in another – as if all the lines had been dictated by the facts of the visible world. The more we look, however, the more we see the artist’s deliberate choices and decisions. As we do, the real differences between art and life become manifest.