New YorkVictoria Munroe
Jonathan Silver: Matter and Vision
May 11 – June 30, 2022
Existential sculpture as practiced by Alberto Giacometti, his via confrontational and often desperate portrait objects that stare back unblinking, or howl open-mouthed—has been little exercised since. It sleeps like a buried high-voltage line, as perilous as a third rail. No artist who isn’t perfectly serious, and tinged with gallows humor, should touch it either.
But then, there once was Jonathan Silver (1937–1992): an artist’s artist. His work is what the market calls very strong and leaves alone. It was an existential project and hard to look at—which seems to have concerned Silver not at all. He didn’t deal in stylistic eye candy. Nothing comparable to (citing two relevant colleagues) Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s grunted satisfaction with the dull opacity of burnished lead, or Giacometti’s manic scratching-grooving compulsion, leaving trails of worn-in ruts. Silver practiced a visual astringency of pleasures in small doses, administered by stern concepts, yet his work has a peculiar physical and intellectual delicacy quite its very own, amounting nearly to tenderness. And a careless beauty—his mind was somewhere else.
Which becomes clear in the current exhibition, raised by friends at the Victoria Munroe Fine Art, and the recently established Jonathan and Barbara Silver Foundation—a labor of love. It makes a narrow figure eight, heads at one end, figures at the other, numerous drawings along a wall between.
Silver’s work began straightaway in childhood. School was impossible. On the first day he was absolved of it (he homeschooled), alone at last, he retired to draw from a big Michelangelo book. It seemed the delicious first day of a new life. He was then just as attracted to music and was reluctant to give it up later, for art history—not sculpture. An uneasy fit at Columbia University, he was protected by Meyer Schapiro, who encouraged Silver’s artistic practice, though he meant to retain him for Art History, and regretted his loss.
Back to drawing, this time from life. His unfinished dissertation connected cubism and Giacometti’s painting. Silver was hung up on analytic cubism and dilated on the subject in his own work, but his quite small pencil studies of heads, like thumbprints clotting letter-size pages old master-style, are not convincing observation, or analysis. They are accosted by forces beyond the sitter, and stronger, that outmaneuver reportage. Fraught as they are, his drawings delight in marking, wiping, and re-marking, visible pleasures of a mind working nearly alone, but in drawing as elsewhere, his head started things his hand, which answered to imagination, ran away with.
From drawing to heads. A Silver head is only that, quite alone in the world. The body has nothing to do with it. He couldn’t be bothered—sometimes a mere stalk of plaster, jarringly un-body and embarrassed, stands in. The heads closely study cranial structure and volume, revealing to us, as if for the first time, the head’s nervy occupation of space. But they are also strikingly interior, and contingent. Silver was that sculptor who simply did not take material existence, the matter of matter, for granted. So creature comforts like “finish” and “presentation” hardly crossed his mind. He merely stopped. The heads, most evidently those that turn shards of interior surface inside out, are also uncomfortably at odds with themselves—undecided between observation and metaphor, which are both rendered with signature clear-cut precision. Ideas and allusions have never been so knock-wood actual, nor human presence so insubstantial. Our hard, essential, real head? In these plasters, it seems one can touch it, but it isn’t there.
What did the sanguine mortal body mean to Silver? He said that his figures came down from the head. The four bronzes and one tall plaster here are like waterfalls of smoke. They escape life-scale; the aptly titled Small Venus (1980) for example, is a headless fragment, only a hand’s breadth in diameter, yet life-size tall. Silver’s entente with the real world had lapsed at the figure, like a milepost. Silver wanted that license. The mind doesn’t need life. It can make all the pictures it wants.
Figures in ostensible round were modeled like a freestanding curtain draped around a body, frequently open at the back: a torn curtain. Or hospital gown. A posited Hellenic figure (four pieces have classical-reference titles) seems to gather the loose garment with one hand from within, asserting or withdrawing itself, from the inside. The crown of hips, angle of the shoulders, narrows of the waist, the fugitive prominences of breasts and belly fat, are established by smudged and rippled surfaces of once-in-a-lifetime subtlety, but hardly settle basic questions of identity. As if the artist were himself one of his summoned forms, of no more definite condition, in no ascendant position of authority. The most decisive passage in a whole figure is typically the juncture of torso and legs, a favorite territory of this artist, which is not merely indefinite, but frequently mutilated. Disfigurement was a summit of his practice.
Solitary figures led to groups, and a number of improvisatory installations. Most of us have not experienced them. They were one-shot essays in space and quite perishable—only three constituent plaster figures of the last installation still persist. Silver put these groups at deliberate physical risk, and courted their lingering debility in real-time by including material (wet clay and rose petals, for instance) that would disintegrate over the course of the exhibition. This kind of sculptural performance closed a circle he joined in boyhood, with Michelangelo and the otherworldly theater of the Medici Chapel. Nothing else since had sufficed. One gathers that the later figures occupied a plateau on which Silver had come to himself. And vanished.
He had lived in his head. Sharp in conversation, he was excruciatingly self-critical, but also fondly remembered as funny. Some people see that in his work. Acting alone, his formidable intelligence could make no seemly methodical progress in his work. His mind, in fact, moved on his fingertips. His work is most extraordinary, almost aberrant, for touch. Touch being something less tangible and explicable than “hand.” Whereas Giacometti’s hand was relatively incidental to form (he so loved the knife, after all), Silver’s contact is something more than the traveling fingerprint of intelligence. We witness an intimate coincidence of outside and inside, that seems to have been found without benefit of sight. It happens as if before our eyes, and fascinates, though it may be as hard to watch as something we notice extemporaneously but were not invited to see.
Silver was surely among the most existentially troubled of artists, yet all his work from first to last, even in his maiming impulse, is a caress.