Essays

BRIAN WALL: SQUARING THE CIRCLE
by George W. Neubert

Now to pure space lifts her ecstatic stare,
Now running around the circle, finds its square.
-Alexander Pope, Dunciad, 1742

Brian Wall is an intuitive artist, arriving at “a kind of rightness” through improvisation. “Simplicity” is a word he uses often, and it is a clue to his sculptural objective. His best work has been described as representing an art of balance and tension at rest. Confirming his individuality and personal contribution to modernist sculpture, his current series of stainless steel pieces titled Squaring the Circle illustrates the artist’s linear development of his artistic expression from the time that he made his first welded steel sculptures in 1956.

Untitled, 1958, Painted Steel, 41″ x 10″ x 45.4″ h

A native of England, Wall has been a resident of California for more than four decades, and he is one of the few sculptors on the West Coast working consistently within the tradition of Constructivism. A characteristic of Wall’s sculpture has always been that it is non referential; it is purely abstract. “I like the uncompromising clarity of abstraction precisely because it is impossible to interpret the work in any other way than the artist means,” he has stated. For him, formal purity is a finite thing: self sufficient wholeness. Wall’s syntax of monochrome industrial steel I-beams and simple geometric shapes articulates and describes the experience of space with the most minimal of elements. The strength of his work, which reflects the Constructivist principles of formality and simplicity, lies in its completeness – that expressed energy and imagination controlled by the intellect.

The freestanding, wooden, architectonic boxes that were Wall’s initial step in sculpting, or rather constructing, were painted in primary colors, like open-spaced, three-dimensional Mondrians. These Constructivist works were produced during a time in England when contemporary sculpture was almost exclusively concerned with biomorphic, Cubist-related volume and mass. The welded steel sculptures that Wall began to make in 1956 were logical descendants of those painted wooden constructions. Among the first abstract steel constructions produced in England, these works initiated Wall’s consistent preoccupation with the articulation and description of space by linear means.

The technical process of welding provided Wall a new freedom of expression in which drama took the place of equilibrium; the absolute verticals and horizontals of the self-contained wood constructions disappeared from his work. Varying in size and weight, these new metal pieces introduced a dynamic equilibrium of constructive energy through diagonal forces. They served as an important breakthrough for the artist, representing a new conception: sculpture that activates the space it occupies. Composed of a limited vocabulary of similar rectangular elements, pieces such as Landscape II and Caldo Nero of 1958 introduced this new energy.

Wall says, “My work shifted in emphasis from a preoccupation with buildings. I felt that successful pieces of sculpture should be an integral part of the landscape and should not overpower or be overpowered by natural environments.” He was working exclusively in metal and had developed his mature aesthetic by 1960, when he left Cornwall for the city of London. There he achieved major recognition both in England and beyond while heading the influential sculpture department at the Central School of Art and Design (now Central St. Martins.)

A new series of large scale works emerged in 1962, representing another important breakthrough. The absolute independence of these objects offered no exterior associations except their own form, space and scale. Created through his intuitive responses to sensation, rather than a predetermined formal language, these works are less complex and more monumental than their predecessors.

Four Elements II, 1965, Painted Steel, 60″ x 144″ x 72″ h

During 1964, Wall began to further explore the physical possibilities of his material while expanding his vocabulary of forms and ideas. These open, sprawling works employing industrial materials have a horizontal orientation in which the ground becomes the basic reference plane of the sculpture. The viewer is compelled to walk around the sculpture to experience the changing relationships and forms, in effect entering into a dialogue with the space surrounding the work. This was also the year that Wall introduced circular forms into his iconography, often employing discs or rings, for instance in the major work Four Elements, 1965, which seems to embody the cultural influence of Londons “Swinging Sixties” era as it appeared in Antonioni’s film Blow Up. Circles were prominent in the low-lying pieces comprising his all-white show in 1967 at the Arnolfini Gallery, a public exhibition space in Bristol, and in Three Circles II, 1966, which is in the collection of the Tate, London.

Brian Wall solo exhibition at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, England, 1967

In 1969, when Wall was invited to the University of California at Berkeley as a visiting professor, he almost immediately introduced arcs into his works. Now painting his large-scale welded steel constructions a uniform matte black, he cut and welded industrial sheets and beams to his specifications. Wall moved to California permanently in 1972, and in his work during the following decades he continued to employ a variety of geometric steel tubes, bars, sliced boxes, I-beams, grates, and sheets – industrial forms transformed by his mastery of cutting and welding techniques. From tabletop sculptures to monumental installations, from linear drawings in space to chunky piles of blocks, Wall composed these works combining disparate elements in the improvisational manner of jazz.

Four Circles, 1968, 26″ x 23″ x 33″ h

At the beginning of the 21st century, Wall began another series of sculptures with fabricated steel arcs, marking a fundamental shift in his method of art-making. These linear arcs provide him with a new limited and physical vocabulary: because each piece is composed of portions of a circle, the arcs within each piece all have the same diameter. These sculptures possess a greater degree of simplicity and unity in the form of their component parts than any of the artist’s works since the early welded steel pieces of the 1950s. The flowing curves of this arc series have been referred to as “spatial calligraphy”, blending Wall’s Constructivist aesthetic with his keen interest in Asian culture and the influence of Zen Buddhism on his intuitive approach.

Lotus II, 2006, Painted Steel, 63″ x 128″ x 108″ h

Wall began to work in stainless steel in 2006. The new series, titled Squaring the Circle, is a bold departure in the artist’s chosen material as well as in the pieces’ fabrication and construction, but it continues to conform to the limited vocabulary that was applied in the “spatial calligraphy”of previous works. Constructed of muscular, square-truncated arcs, these space-creating sculptures have an assertive physical presence. Their energetic gestural thrusts and juxtaposition of rhythmic forms serve as a physical visualization of kinetic energy. Defying gravity, their heavy steel forms are often cantilevered, raised off the ground, reaching upward and outward towards the viewer. The surface treatment of polished, directional strokes along each arc contributes to the impression of flowing movement.

The earliest stainless steel sculptures were small in scale, about two feet long and composed of one-inch- or half-inch-gauge square arcs. Over the following years, Wall enlarged the scale of the components up to 16-inch-gauge square arcs in the largest works, which measure almost twenty feet in length.

Elegy, 2012, at Santa Clara University

Geometry is the vocabulary of Constructivism, and the use of the square and the circle has been the primary language of Wall’s aesthetic and artistic expression as a sculptor. Of course, these basic shapes also preoccupied ancient geometers. Known as “squaring the circle,” the challenge of constructing a square with the same area as a given circle was proven to be impossible. While referring directly to the idiom of Wall’s latest work, the title of this series also acknowledges the metaphor of artistic ambition as an attempt to achieve the impossible.

Wall’s recent sculptures are potent, animated works reflecting a dramatic equilibrium of poise and movement. The sacred geometry at their core is rooted within our subconscious minds and affects the nature of our physical and emotional orientation to the universe.

George W. Neubert
Director
Flatwater Art Foundation

From the exhibition catalogue for Brian Wall: Squaring the Circle, de Saisset Museum, Santa Clara University, 2015