The shape of things

Form, function, and abstraction blend in sculptor Anthony Wright's new show

People are as likely to talk about the architecture of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth as they are to talk about the art. The building is art, many have said, and some argue that its relevance as an aesthetic monument is as important as its function.

Louis I. Kahn -- an undisputed modern master of understatement, natural materials, and a reality-defying use of natural light -- designed the Kimbell. His last masterpiece, completed in 1972, just two years before his death, is a testament to the artistic talents of architects and engineers, who choose to sculpt I-beams, steel girders, concrete, and glass into functional forms on a grand scale. While some complain that Kimbell director Dr. Timothy Potts is mucking up the Kimbell's essence and Kahn's purist aesthetic with new wall coverings in the hallowed museum's grayish halls, for the time being at least, the Kimbell is the only Fort Worth museum not undergoing massive redesign and reconstruction.

Fort Worth's Amon Carter Museum, originally designed in 1961 by American architecture Hall of Famer Philip Johnson, is closed for two years while its Philip Johnson/Alan Ritchie-designed expansion is under way. Due to be finished at about the same time, in 2002, is Tadao Ando's vision of the Modern Art Museum's new building.

Thanks to a technique derived from the military's "dazzle" camouflage, you can't be sure what you're seeing in an Anthony Wright installation.
Thanks to a technique derived from the military's "dazzle" camouflage, you can't be sure what you're seeing in an Anthony Wright installation.

Ando slipped quietly into Cowtown from his offices in Osaka, Japan, in mid-October to conduct a decidedly Eastern-flavored ceremonial tree-planting to signal the beginning of the construction of his first American museum project. Like Kahn, Ando favors natural materials, natural elements, and the serenity of clean, simple lines. He elevated architecture to fine art during his invitation-only "pep talk" to the Modern's assembled construction consultants and museum brass October 18. His "address to the workers," communicated through an interpreter, was spiritual, poetic, and slightly egotistical. Onlookers noticed when Ando referred to the new museum as "my building" and expressed his desire that his artful architecture serve as an "inspiration to artists."

Big-name architects and rampant construction may define the Fort Worth art scene of late, but the hammering going on all around Anthony Wright isn't what influenced or inspired his new "constructivist" art exhibition at Fort Worth's Gallery 414. It's sheer coincidence that Wright's day job involves installing art exhibitions at the Modern. He's never met Tadao Ando, never studied architecture, and, like every other artist with a day job, he would prefer to downplay the work he does to earn a living and focus on the art he makes to satisfy his soul.

Wright's new work includes three room-sized installations at 414 and reflects a fascination with the constructivists who broke down the barriers that divided creative works of art and innovative industrial design. For the first time, around 1917, art borrowed principles and materials from engineering. Artists took purist painting off the canvas, assembling wheels, gears, levers, cantilevers, and trusses made from sheet metal, wood, and glass into precise, smooth, three-dimensional sculpture. For his Interiors show, Wright incorporates these ideas, an appreciation of classical landscapes, and a talent for sculpture uncovered when he was an undergraduate in Indianapolis. The Herron School of Art's sculpture department head, Gary Freeman, discovered Wright's aptitude by accident.

"Tony was an awfully good student and a dedicated student," Freeman says today from the Indiana university, where he still helps students find their way around the art department's foundry. One of Freeman's teaching assistants in the sculpture work/study program was Wright's roommate in 1979. Wright recalls assembling odd pieces of metal while waiting for his friend to finish cleaning up the sculpture studio one night. Freeman saw the rudimentary work the next morning, asked who had done it, and called Wright to talk to him about his ideas and convince him to change his emphasis from drawing to sculpture. "The images in this new work are similar to the images I remember toward the end of Tony's undergraduate experience here," Freeman says. "He was really cooking. He was doing spatial landscapes in steel. Now they're larger, low, fabricated horizontal pieces. But it surprises me to see these recurring, unique images. That was a long time ago."

After graduating from Herron, Wright received a full scholarship in sculpture at Texas Christian University and completed his master's of fine arts in 1983. He started to work by day at the Modern, sculpting nights and weekends at his home studio. He worked in steel on a small scale, but couldn't shake ideas for bigger pieces, even though he rarely had the money to buy enough steel for larger work. "This is years ago," Wright, 41, says, walking through the gallery that contains his latest small steel sculptures as well as the installation pieces. "Installations were the logical step for me to take. I knew it would be difficult to sell them, but I was trying to figure out how to do some big pieces to satisfy myself." Wright hit on the idea of building 3-D "landscapes" out of inexpensive Styrofoam and wood, cutting geometric shapes and painting linear elements on the assembled sculpture. "I would spend a few hours and make them outdoors, photograph them, and take them apart when they were done," he says. These early experiments exist only in photographs now, but Wright has refined the concepts in his current work.

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