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.

In the gallery's large back room, Wright's "Gallery 414 Based on 24-foot" is a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling showstopper. At the front of the work are wooden rails set at an angle, suggesting a broken split-rail fence or a mangled highway barrier. The piece's backdrop is a large, continuous wall of smooth Styrofoam, painted in three shades of cool, battleship gray in bold, geometric shapes that move the viewer's eye back and forth across the scene. Narrow triangles of color disguise flat boards. One piece of the assemblage is an arc based on a 24-foot circle. Wright's color scheme and the eye-confusing graphics are hallmarks of "dazzle" camouflage, a technique developed by the Navy. "People are familiar with jungle camouflage with green and brown biomorphic shapes and patterns," Wright says. "Dazzle camouflage was used on ships and sometimes on planes. If you saw a ship at a distance, painted this way, you couldn't tell what kind of ship it was." Wright says it's a little-known fact that artists who found themselves in the military were enlisted to design and paint camouflage. "This dazzle technique breaks up the pattern so that observers who saw a ship on the horizon couldn't tell what direction it was going, or what kind of ship it was, so they couldn't launch attacks effectively."

The effect of Wright's installations is more soothing than sinister, but the flat, orderly precision of the work limits a viewer's emotional response. That's on purpose, he says, and references the constructivist movement's fondness for simple, pure abstraction. But, particularly in the smaller works, like "Tableaux Series," Wright's square tubes, box, and chimney shapes against flat, dark sheets of steel look like models for avant-garde theater sets or some Cubist's accidental landscape. "A lot of it is landscape-based," Wright says. "What I see driving around is fences, overpasses, and guardrails. I don't want to say that they're strictly representing X or Y. I'm using the linear stuff to move your eye back and forth."

Continuing the camouflage theme, Wright installed three small, all-white sculptures on waist-high columns against all-white walls. One of the pieces is framed by ascending rectangular boxes. "I wanted to give a sense of compression," he says. "These allow me to look at the idea of dealing with a niche." He built the three white pieces in one week. "I don't sketch them out, and I don't see them until I start working," Wright says. "I'll cut out a shape, put together a structure, and then start building on that. It's real intuitive stuff." The constructions are more stable than they look. "I have a fascination with architecture, drawings, and floor plans," Wright says. He first learned welding and metal work in shop class in high school.

Wright admits that installations as an art form limit the artist's potential for commercial success. Over his 15-year career, he's had countless solo shows around Texas and has garnered a small, solid group of patrons who collect his work. He was represented by Glen Lane's Modern Dallas Art Gallery until Lane's death, and was selected for the Modern Art Museum's "Metal and Stone: Six Young Sculptors" show in 1991, back when the Modern made more of an effort to showcase local contemporary art. The museum still collects work by local artists, but rarely mounts a local exhibition these days. Maybe Tadao Ando's inspirational building will change all that; and, with more exhibition space, maybe the Amon Carter can focus on local contemporary painters and photographers. Maybe the Kimbell will use its undeveloped acreage to construct a venue for contemporary art. When Fort Worth's museums unveil their new façades over the next couple of years, maybe there will be renewed commitment to the artists who truly build a city's cultural climate. As surely as form follows function, a museum must support the community that sustains it; and, with bigger buildings, surely there will be more room for local art.

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