In the early 1960s, George Sugarman (1912-1999) did more to challenge the prevailing conventions of sculpture from within sculpture than any other artist of the time. First, he embraced color—“embraced” is far too mild a word: he plunged into color, danced with it, unfurled it, in boldly polychrome works. Second, he took sculpture off the pedestal, a radical move for which Anthony Caro always gets credit but which Sugarman did much more forcefully, and at about the same time. Third, he fashioned a plastic freedom in which eccentric forms could proliferate with an intensity that (apart from Baroque Italian sculpture, one of Sugarman’s great inspirations) had been found only in two-dimensional art. Fourth, during his first great period (1960-1969) he achieved his breakthroughs not with standard 20th century sculptural materials such as bronze or steel, but with painted wood, then an eccentric option for sculpture. (He wasn’t quite alone is preferring wood: a great show could be done of wood sculpture with H.C. Westerman and Sugarman as its stars.)
It’s not easy to see Sugarman’s work, even though it is represented in many major museums. Two spirited polychrome wood sculptures from the early 1960s, Criss-Cross (1963) and C-Change (1965) are rarely unearthed by their owners, the Whitney Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, respectively. For its part, MOMA has practically erased from art history (and its own online database) Sugarman’s Ten (1968-69), his last painted-wood sculpture and one of the most sublimely beautiful works of postwar American art. It would change our sense of 1960s sculpture if the museum were to ever release it from whatever dungeon to which it has been condemned. The Blanton Museum of Art in Austin has done a far, far better job in putting on view Sugarman’s other 1960s masterpiece, the sprawling Two in One (1966) which Irving Sandler, a longtime fan of Sugarman’s work, described as the sculptor’s “challenge to purist, see-it-all-at-once, single-image, Minimalist art.” (Until December 18, 2010, there’s a rare chance to see some of Sugarman’s sculptures in New York, including several unpainted 1950s carved-wood pieces, at Washburn Gallery.)
Around 1970, Sugarman largely turned away from art destined for galleries and museums and started to create public sculpture. He’d pushed things as far as he thought he could with indoor work. He was also responding to the social and political upheavals of the 1960s. Sugarman was never going to give up his interest in formal invention but, like so many other artists of the time, he felt a pressing need to reach out to the public, to get out of the relatively safe domain of the white cube. The issues relating to what he called “social sculpture” and the “outdoor eye” certainly brought him that. The paradoxical price he paid, like so many other artists devoted to public art, was exclusion from the spotlighted realm of galleries, museums and art criticism.