March 2005

Sidney Geist: Phases of Sculpture

There are examples of free standing, table top, and wall hung sculptures, dating from 1937 to 2004, in this exhibit. Geist’s work is empowered by his consistent inventiveness. Being content to create never before seen objects that reflect the artist’s and our own inner states is rare these days. The jaded gallerygoer typically has to resist the temptation to dismiss abstract sculptures as pricey chotchkes. The cries of “Sculpture is dead!” are ludicrous. These pronouncements probably have more to do with the general backlash against abstract art than with anything else. The ability to make thoroughly convincing new forms that echo material reality and encompass a unique set of formal relationships should not be ridiculed. Contemporary sculpture is thoroughly pluralistic, but many object makers are considered to be retardaire because they choose not to use unusual materials, pornographic imagery, live performance, or multi-media.

Sidney Geist makes playful and unpretentious sculptures, mostly in wood. The bright colors he uses (he favors primary colors), and his manipulation of the vertical, give many of these sculptures a certain vitality. Geist’s in-depth formal analysis of the work of Constantin Brancusi, “Brancusi: A Study of the Sculpture,” which was first published in 1967, provided a number of insights into the work of the Rumanian master that could also be applied to Geist’s work: “The primary experience on seeing a sculpture by Brancusi is that of knowing it at once. Prolonged attention or the accumulation of a series of views from a series of angles of vision adds nothing or little to the initial knowledge. Time only confirms what the first instant revealed; time continues to reproduce the first sensation.” Geist’s free standing, slender vertical sculptures, Mantra I and II, tapered striped planks that resemble packs of Lifesavers candy, Femme Fleur, a Picassoesque and chesty symbol of womanhood, Blue Tower, a neat stack of blue letter-like forms, and Studded Figure, a long squiggly blue line covered with dull metal studs, (all ranging from 85 to 105 inches tall), are really made to be seen from the front only. They are too thin to be studied from the sides and their backs are placed close to walls, which inhibits looking at them in the round. Verticality animates these sculptures, lends them presence in the sense that their erect postures mirror our own orientation in space and we tend to scan them with our eyes from top to bottom or vice versa, in a psychologically charged way. Geist explores the essentials of figuration, the effect the human figure has on conscious and unconscious modes of thought.

The biomorphism of Arp and Miro, the Constructivists’ desire to rebuild reality through use of rectilinear units and primary colors, and the psychological re-imagining of the totem, are all present in this exhibit. Goddess and Femme Fleur, are two feminine abstract totems which share one characteristic: they have large breasts. We don’t know if Geist is exploring the history of fertility goddess imagery or if he is expressing his own penchant for a specific body type.

Dryad is an example of action carving. It is an asymmetrical rounded form that is covered with violent chisel marks. There is no fine finish. It is a historical record of the modification of a resistant surface. The artist intuitively reaches an end point and we are left with the evidence of his sculpting process.

Geist’s use of color tends to flatten out his thee dimensional objects, the biomorphic totems in particular. This vacillation between two and three dimensional space generates a weird blurring at the edges of these works. A few of the tabletop sculptures, Construction, a constructivist form made of rectangles seen from the front and sides, Object, which resembles a billy club with big spikes, and Skyscraper, which melds the outlines of buildings and the open spaces they frame, are interesting when looked at from eye level, but become diminished when looked at from above eye level.

Geist uses objects, architecture, and the human figure for inspiration. These sculptures are humble because of the transparent assembly process; pieces of wood are glued or bolted together, sanded, and cleaned with Murphy’s oil soap or painted. Some sculptures are symbols of the human form or a familiar object like a guitar or palette, but most of the sculptures are ambiguous objects with no immediately obvious parallel in the real world. Although much of Geist’s vocabulary is a loving tribute to the Modernist masters, the interplay between representation and inspired thing making enlivens much of his output and his bold use of color is the most innovative aspect of his oeuvre.