Art With an Edge 

Geometric abstractionists angle their way toward truth.

"Winged Bell Harp," by John Clague, stainless steel - and bronze.
  • "Winged Bell Harp," by John Clague, stainless steel and bronze.
A substantial slice of local art history is on view in the Cleveland Artists Foundation's Harmonic Forms on the Edge: Geometric Abstraction in Cleveland exhibit at Beck Center. This is a historical overview of work that was created mostly during the 1960s and '70s, a period that saw a revision of what was previously known as "Cleveland art." The seven artists in this show employ a lean, hard-edged geometric style that seeks to bypass life's details in favor of eternal truths. Their art seems dry and cerebral at times, but it also reveals unexpected (and welcome) flashes of intuition. Works by John Clague, David Davis, and Julian Stanczak have aged particularly well.

Recent exhibits mounted by the foundation have argued persuasively that, throughout the Great Depression and leading into the years immediately following World War II, representational art held sway here. This was, above all, an art rooted in a sense of place. William Sommer painted his beloved Brandywine Valley. Carl Gaertner, the Flats. The work of such Cleveland artists portrayed recognizable locales but, in all other respects, varied remarkably in tone and content. For example, Sommer's art frequently took on a visionary cast, his mercurial watercolors jumping and dancing in a variety of moods, from the lyrical to the vaguely hallucinatory. By contrast, Gaertner's sensitivity to place was of a different hue -- noticeably darker. With a radically restricted palette consisting of browns and various shades of orange, he turned the Flats into a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Cleveland, with some notable exceptions, seems to have been strangely immune to the abstract expressionist fever that swept most of the country in the '50s and made Jackson Pollock a household name. In the '60s, there was a shift, and this exhibit documents it. One can speculate why geometric abstraction took hold at that moment in the city's art history. The artists worked in this style, in part, to provide "therapy for our ailing city," writes the show's co-curator Elizabeth McClelland. However, that's a peculiar notion, because the 63 works in this show are not about Cleveland, at least in the way Gaertner's or even Sommer's were.

Rather, in the words of John Gordon, author of the catalog for the Whitney Museum of American Art's 1962 exhibition called Geometric Abstraction in America, geometric abstraction is "chiefly concerned with the square, rectangle, the triangle, and geometric volumes such as the cube and cone," and it's all about a search for "ultimate reality." In other words, artists working in this style are interested in the big picture, not with the puny problems of cities with burning rivers and mayors who set fire to their hair. That indeed seems to be the case with the artists whose paintings and sculptures are on view here.

Sculptures by Clague and Davis are among the highlights of this show. Davis's "29th Mark" and "Black and White Priest" are pure and distilled in tone. In the former, a towerlike creation is constructed from interlocking pyramid shapes fashioned from steel and aluminum. These shapes, sometimes hollow, more often solid, are colored white, yellow, or orange. Overall, the piece has a controlled dynamism that rewards repeated scrutiny. There are well-judged contrasts between solids and voids, and the bright color offsets the basic austerity of the conception.

Meanwhile, Clague is a master at creating elegant mobile-form pieces whose many sections can be set in motion by the viewer. Push the base of his "Winged Bell Harp," a stainless steel and bronze sculpture fashioned from gently rocking multisectioned arches, and you'll get an impressionistic wash of sound that is at once both harp-like and bell-like. Pieces such as this combine conceptual rigor with mystery.

Most of Stanczak's acrylics also stand out. Some are in the familiar op-art vein that he developed earlier in his career. The acrylic "Gossip" depicts waving bands of vertical black and white stripes that shift before our eyes and blur as in an optical illusion. This kind of trickery hasn't dated too well, but take a look at an acrylic called "Chartres." The glowing amber-like color, set against an intricate grid-like foreground, evokes the feeling of a bright mid-afternoon sun streaming past the stained-glass window of a cathedral. Like the early 20th-century abstractionist Arthur Dove, Stanczak has a talent for summing up the look, sound, and feeling of an experience in a single evocative image. The results are memorable.

The Cleveland Artists Foundation is thoroughly committed to the cause of art in this region, and exhibits like this are proof. This is an ideal opportunity to see a show that traces a seismic shift in the area's artistic priorities.

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