Making Waves

Essay by Klaus Kertess

Richard Van Buren has called upon the memory of past travels to help catalyze some of his recent sculptures.  “Kumasi” a 2010 wall piece that glides and curves into a dazzling opening out into a porous curvilinear structure studded with shells and sparkling with wonder is named after the capital of Ghana’s Ashanti region that is known as a garden city in what is a rainforest region. For those of us who have not traveled to Ghana as Van Buren did some four years ago, we must seek words that somehow re-enact the sculpture – words like “effluence” meaning the process of flowing out and “effloresce” meaning to blossom as Van Buren’s sculpture indeed seems to enact. The rhythms of breaking waves are familiar to most of us, but we do not have enough words like effluence and effloresce that seem to enact the flow of their meaning.

Van Buren’s trip to Ghana left sufficient visual residue in his head to propel several other sculptures to be seen in the exhibition this text accompanies. In conversation, he mentions the bright colors of the shoes the fishermen and women wore. Working shoes, the colors and forms of tropical vegetation, possibly the smell of spices all might well have impacted Van Buren’s liquidity.  Takoradi is the second largest city in Ghana’s Ashanti region and gives its name to another Van Buren sculpture created in 2010.  In Takoradi, Van Buren thinks he encountered those brightly colored fishermen’s shoes; and, indeed, a deeply lush red spreads throughout most of its porous, arcing and winding structure studded with volute shells painted a deep gold and flickering here and there with a metallic mauve, a mottled bright green under a leaf like section of that rich red, and bristling at the edges with shiny silvery shells emitting prickly, pointed shoots that might warn the uninformed of toxic behavior.

The red, the gold, the green, the mauve, and the silver are not colors customarily enveloping sculptural forming.  Van Buren has rejected the patinated metal finishes that continue to color so many sculptors’ works. He mixes aluminum paint into his colors to achieve brighter hues and light. Even in the 1960s, when he was creating forthright geometric structures that gained him entrance into the realm of Minimalism and into that movement’s first and most important museum exposure, the “Primary Structures” exhibition at the Jewish Museum, in New York, in 1966, Van Buren went beyond the kitchen-appliance-like neutrality of the work of so many of his peers. He encased his structures in fiberglass as though each had emitted an opaque light that then solidified and became congruent with the wood structure – almost like a nimbus or a corona of light that imbued each work with an aura not normally associated with Minimalism’s neutrality.  Since 1968, when he began to infest poured fiberglass with tiny pins that were then painted with bright colors giving them a vibrant effervescence, color has played a key role in Van Buren’s making.

With his move to Maine, first as a second home in 1971 then as permanent home and studio for him and his wife Batya who is a choreographer, in 2001, the movement of water, more specifically the movement of the Atlantic Ocean not far from his studio has had an increasing impact on his sculpture. The curving roll of waves flowing in and flowing out echoed in the twisted porous webs of poured thermoplastic, andthe incorporation of countless painted shells leave little doubt about the ocean’s prominence in Van Buren’s forming. Van Buren does not give us representations of the ocean and some of its inhabitants but abstractions redolent of the ocean. He starts with a kind of idea but one not too specific and then improvises around that idea as he moves from pour to pour calling to the ocean but not attempting to reproduce the rise and fall of its currents. Attempting anything more literal would be futile. The bright colors employed in this liquid fabrication occasionally call to the colors that might be seen in coral reefs found in more tropical climes – reefs now frequently rendered colorless by Climate Change, but when still intact, awash in a carnival of colors.  Van Buren’s colors, such as the slippery mauve of the core of “Rogue Bluffs” (2010) extending into twisting and curving gold protrusions capped with pearly blue volute shells, are as variegated as those of a coral reef but totally artificial, even risking vulgarity, as does many a shell to be found in nature. The title here refers to a beach fronting the Atlantic and backed by dramatically coruscated cliffs located in the environs of Van Buren’s studio.  Returning to Ghana again, we are confronted with a fabulously swirling tangle of shiny, flashing pale blue adorned by a gorgeous constellation of volute shells with their curved stages of the path of their growth mirrored by the trail of black and white patterning that marks each shell. “Tokoradi” is the capital of Ghana’s western side and titles this stunning watery phantasm created in 2010.
Van Buren has recently created two much larger sculptures that, in their animated delicacy and seemingly animated creature- like movement more readily call to coral reefs, with their outcroppings that look like stone sculpture but are instead living animal organisms.  The floor piece “Walking with Garth” (2011) stretches some twenty-five feet across the floor.  Its golden body seems to end in a giant almost-alligator-like distended head on one end and something fat and tail-like at the other end. Instead of a covering of scales the piece is studded with sharp nautilus shells cut in half and painted gold. This work is at once threatening and beauteous as the eye moves from delicate porosity to the pointy threat of the sharp gold half-shell scales. The title refers to one of Van Buren’s gallerists Garth Greenan to whom he owes the opportunity of exhibiting this work. 

The other large piece “Botticelli’s Revenge” (2011) stretches across fourteen feet of wall space with its dusty rose tinted body and an array of blue and god volutes stretching across its length. The title refers to the plethora of delicate colors Botticelli occasionally employed, especially in the countless flowers appearing in his painting of Spring (“Primavera") that are at once readily identifiable, pale and fragile.
This body of work presents a deeply imagined liquid forming exuding a kind of baroque, lyric splendor at once singular and transparent in the revelation of its making. In conversation, Van Buren alludes to the layering of pigmented pours of polyurethane that have configured many of Lynda Benglis’ works both on the wall and the floor. And, at a further remove, there is some kinship with Alan Saret’s unfurled open and porous chicken wire sculptures, more air-bound than Van Buren’s underwater explorations or Benglis’ polyurethane pours. Van Buren’s is a stunningly and willingly beautiful mode of creating and gives brave evidence of the power of imagination, so often repressed in the past by the dictates of modernism.