Years before I saw any of Richard Van Buren’s sculptures in person, his work would catch my attention as I paged through back issues of art magazines from the late 1960s and 1970s (I can’t quite explain the strange allure of vintage art magazines, though I think it may have something to do with the satisfaction of knowing what people back then didn’t: which artists were destined for fame, which critics would be proved embarrassingly wrong, etc.). I’d see a reproduction in an old Artforum article or an ad with work reproduced in Arts Magazine or Art in America and think how contemporary the sculptures looked. His work also stood out in an exhibition catalogue I happened on in the bargain bin of a second-hand book store of “A Plastic Presence,” a traveling 1970 exhibition that included many other cool-looking images by artists (like Canadian sculptor Walter Redinger) whose work I had never seen in a gallery or museum. At the time (late 1980s, early 1990s) Van Buren’s 20- or 25-year-old sculptures seemed to have striking affinities with the work of some of my favorite younger sculptors like Daniel Wiener and Charles Long. How was it, I wondered, that I’d never seen his work? What had happened to this artist who, judging by the magazine coverage and the important galleries he was showing in, was clearly a prominent figure at the time? It can feel strange to happen on traces of an artist whose work seems to speak to the present moment but has, somehow, slipped out of public consciousness.
What attracted me to Van Buren’s work, which in the 1970s consisted chiefly of irregular cast polyester resin forms into which the artist mixed a diversity of materials, many of them contributing to rich effects of color and light, was what I took to be its Baroque extravagance, its anti-Duchampian reveling in the handmade, and the almost otherworldly strangeness and hybridity of its materials. By speaking with Wiener and Long, and by looking at their work, I saw how they were constructing their own alternative tradition of postwar sculpture, one in which long-forgotten figures such as Herbert Ferber and Ibram Lassaw, and mavericks like George Sugarman exerted more influence than David Smith and Richard Serra. In essence, they were detouring around Minimalism. The place of Van Buren in relation to any anti-Minimalist stance is complex because he was included in “Primary Structures,” the exhibition that is generally seen as defining the Minimalist aesthetic. By 1970, however, he had ventured into defiantly un-Minimalist territory, as had, of course, many of his contemporaries.
Even a mainstream publication like Life magazine noted the changing aesthetic in a Feb. 27, 1970 article that featured Van Buren, Lynda Benglis, Eva Hesse and Richard Serra as artists who chose to “pour their art all over the floor.” The spread that features van Buren and Serra presents an informative contrast. On the left-hand page are two shots of Van Buren. In one the sandal-shod artist is sprinkling “chopped fiberglass” into resin; in the other he is on one knee pouring what looks like molasses from a flimsy container. While Van Buren is wearing a respirator, on the facing page Serra sports not only a respirator but also boots, heavy gloves, goggles and what looks like a wool balaclava to protect himself from the molten lead he is flinging. If Serra epitomizes the powerful male artist, the reincarnation of an ancient blacksmith-god like Vulcan or Hephaestus, Van Buren, whose typical materials of the time include such unmacho items as glitter and glass, seems to have sidestepped the then still-prevalent idea that male sculptors should work in a factory-floor manner with invulnerable materials, which may be why his sculpture, then as now, has far more affinities with Benglis’s and Hesse’s art than with Serra’s.
It was circa 1970 that Van Buren began working on Angels, a wall installation for which he impaled several hundred tiny clumps of multi-colored acrylic paint on pins and arrayed in them in various formations, including a kind of butterfly shape. He created the elements in small groups, sticking a number of pins into a 2-by-4, mixing up a color and then applying the paint with a palette knife. The artist worked intermittently on the piece for several years, gradually accumulating more and more elements, but without a specific goal in mind. Poet-critic Carter Ratcliff, an early supporter of Van Buren’s work, has compared Angels to “a flock of mineral but somehow airborne creatures that has settled for a moment on the wall of a gallery.” Another poet-critic Van Buren fan, John Yau, had a markedly different take, finding something “smart, funny and even nasty” about Angels, which he compared to “balls of dried snot.” I suppose it’s a tribute to a work’s power that it can elicit such divergent responses. For me, Angels is exemplary for several reasons. First, it’s a definitive instance of the interdependence of painting and sculpture. Second, Angels reminds us that beauty can be sought in the modest overlooked things of the world. Third, it disrupts conventional viewing protocols: probably nothing that you’ve seen before prepares you for how to look at it. Fourth, having found this marvelous, new sculptural format, Van Buren declined to turn it into a formula. It’s as if the radical multiplicity of Angels opened the door of total artistic freedom for Van Buren, initiating a ceaseless creative process in which new materials, new techniques, new kinds of formal invention, new responses to the world around him could follow one another in seeming infinitude.
After a long absence following his last solo show at Paula Cooper (in 1977), Van Buren’s work finally began filtering back into public view in New York about 10 years ago, first at small venues such as Mitchell Algus Gallery and Sideshow, and in the revelatory exhibition 2007 traveling exhibition “High Times Hard Times: New York Painting 1965-1975.” More recently a 2013 show at Garth Greenan Gallery titled “Richard Van Buren: the 1970s,” which included “Angels,” filled in the picture considerably. What is emerging is an oeuvre, much of it created in and inspired by coastal Maine where the artist makes his home today, that shifts the notion of polychrome sculpture into overdrive. As willing as ever to combine unlikely materials, Van Buren, who sources his materials from all over the world, has lately been making sculptures from Thermoplastic, metallic acrylic paint and actual seashells. Another group of still more recent work brings ostrich feathers among much else into mix. These highly detailed wall reliefs, which achieve more intensely than ever the artist’s pursuit of light and color effects in sculpture, evoke Hubble telescope images, Murano glass, deep-sea life forms and some unimaginably Baroque confectionary. At the end of his poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” W.B. Yeats, as he conjures a poetic afterlife, draws an absolute distinction between the “bodily form” of “any natural thing” and products of human artifice and craft that depend on such features as “hammered gold and gold enameling.” The opposition between creations of organic nature and products of human artifice is one that Van Buren’s work, which has its own distinctly Byzantine visual qualities, beautifully and forcefully defies.