By Michael Ennis
To understand the significance of the thirty-five years of work encompassed in Sam Gummelt: Then and Now, it’s instructive to do a bit of time travel: Back to1970, when Gummelt did the earliest work in this show, the sewing machine-stitched Minimalist abstraction Two Boxes. In 1970, Donald Judd’s first modular boxes were just five years old; the seminal Minimalist exhibition Primary Structures had taken place only three years previously; and Judd was still two years away from buying land in Marfa. Frank Stella had begun his Protractor series three years earlier and Sol Lewitt had just started his geometric, programmatic wall drawings. In 1970, Dallas gallery owner Janie C. Lee (noted as a connoisseur of works on paper, Lee later became drawings curator at New York’s Whitney Museum) walked into Gummelt’s frame shop near downtown Dallas and spotted two of his sewing-machine geometric “drawings” tacked to the wall; within days Lee had sold one of them to legendary New York dealer Betty Parsons, who twenty-two years previously had shown the first of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, at a time when Pollock was still trading his canvases to pay his grocery bills. Now, of course, Modernism is overtaking Impressionism as the go-to moneymaker at the big auction houses; as the period style of a previous century, it’s just one of many historical epochs available for borrowing by Postmodern neophytes. But in 1970 Modernism still had a keen cutting edge, and it’s hard to think of another Texas artist whose work was as close to that edge as Sam Gummelt’s was then.
In a 1973 survey of the Texas art scene, Arts Magazine writer Jan Butterfield noted “Sam Gummelt… is working in a manner consistent with nationwide trends, producing work… as strong as any I have seen.” Yet even as Gummelt’s early work was almost universally lauded, reviewers tended to emphasize the poetic qualities – the intricate workmanship and sensitive, muted colors – and never fully grasped the underlying formal rigor and his often aggressively iconoclastic ideas. Now that we are on the other side of the historical divide between Modernism and Postmodernism, Gummelt’s work of the last decade and a half has been similarly well‑received – and has similarly been undervalued simply because his “now” revisits his own “then” with such freshness and originality that he can look more like a talented newcomer brilliantly riffing on someone else’s “then” than a mature artist essaying his own origins. But Gummelt is the antithesis of the Postmodern ingenue revisiting art historical icons such as Jasper Johns or Frank Stella from a distance of four or five decades. Instead he’s an unrepentant, utterly authentic Modernist who has evolved into a contemporary artist of striking stature and ongoing impact, while never abandoning the same tough-minded art-making issues that shot him into the spotlight thirty-five years ago. In an era when esthetic attention deficit disorder is considered a virtue, the consistency of Gummelt’s vision between “then” and “now” is nothing less than a revelation.
For an artist whose early work was welcomed on the scene, in the words of one local critic, as “much more evocative of New York than the Southwest,” Gummelt has unusually deep Texas roots – which often emerge in his work in subtle but important ways. (In that respect Gummelt bears comparison with Agnes Martin, who acquired her formal concerns in New York in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but whose meditative sensibility bears the unmistakable imprint of her decades in New Mexico.) The artist’s great-grandfather, Peter Gummelt, joined a major migration of Germans – many of them highly cultured political refugees – to Texas in the middle of the nineteenth.century; like so many of these well-educated German immigrants, Peter Gummelt ended up working the land. The artist’s father, Harry Gummelt, was born in the family farmhouse near Waco in 1908. A musician who played the ukelele and banjo with Bob Will’s famed western swing band, Harry also ran the Gummelt Griddle in Waco, a prototypical fast food hamburger joint across from the downtown courthouse (the franchise was later expanded to two locations). Born in Waco in 1944, Sam Gummelt was five years old when his father died. He embarked on a Southern gothic childhood as his mother remarried several times, first to the Baptist preacher who buried her husband and later to an abusive opportunist whose marriages had already run into the double digits.
But as a child Gummelt was also immersed in local color of a more nurturing sort. His fondest memories remain those of the venerable family farm: “I went to my grandmother’s farm all the time,” he recalls. “I loved it. Going to that farm was like going to a different century. They didn’t have running water; you’d have to go to the well to get your drinking water and to the outhouse to use the restroom.” On the farm he was exposed to such German folk art traditions as paintings done on the reverse side of framed glass. More importantly, he says, “For years I sewed with my grandmother, who made quilts. She’d make a hoop and stretch fabric over it, and then I’d draw it on it – maybe a picture of swan – and then sew on it, sew and loop, sew and loop, so that I was drawing with a needle and thread. I did lots of those. I discovered you could back loop and make a solid line or go forward and make a dotted line.”
Gummelt also drew on the collection envelopes at Brook Avenue Baptist Church. When he was 7 years old, he copied a picture of all the Disney ducks – Donald, Daisy, Huey, Dewey, Louie, etc. – from a comic book. “Everyone said, ‘That’s great, you ought to be an artist’,” he recalls. “That became my identity. I was an artist.” When Gummelt was 12 years old, the family moved to Fort Worth in very straitened circumstances; there he drew cartoons for his school newspaper and frequently visited the Fort Worth Art Museum (now the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art), where he was particularly taken with Thomas Eakin’s late nineteenth century realist icon, The Swimming Hole. Draftsmanship, precise composition, and painstaking craftsmanship were central to Gummelt’s formative experiences with art, and they have remained central – though often undercover – ever since.
At North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas), Gummelt majored in art and his interests expanded to the French Post-Impressionists Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, whose layered, modulated color would appear decades later in his paintings. Scraping by on a series of jobs and a shoestring budget, Gummelt used salvaged window frames as stretchers and sometimes employed old wallpaper cheesecloth in lieu of canvas; he earned extra money stretching canvases for his fellow students. By the time he graduated from NTSU, he had already been showing his paintings and drawings – which were often abstract representations of houses and architectural details – at Dallas galleries for several years. He had moved to Dallas when William Jordan, then the head of the art department at Southern Methodist University (a highly respected scholar, Jordan later became Deputy Director of Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum), saw a large, Pop Art-influenced painting of the Statue of Liberty Gummelt was showing at 2719 Gallery on Routh Street. Jordan waited around to see who had done the raw but ambitious piece; when Gummelt showed up he was immediately offered a scholarship to the Master of Fine Arts program at SMU.
SMU marked Gummelt’s first real exposure to cutting-edge Modernism. In 1970 he joined a group of fellow graduate students on a trip to New York to see the landmark, Henry Geldzahler-curated exhibition New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I had seen this work reproduced in magazines, but to see it person, the see the staples on the side of [Frank] Stella’s canvases, made the work seem more human,” he recalls. “It made it seem possible.” While the young artist was particularly struck by the work of Stella and Jasper Johns, it was Claes Oldenburg, whose Pop soft objects were closer to Gummelt’s own work at the time, who somewhat surprisingly inspired the transitional piece that grew out of the New York visit: Gummelt did a sequin-covered, V-shaped stuffed canvas object, which his mother sewed. After borrowing his mother’s sewing machine with an eye to doing similar works, the artist had an epiphany when he ran drawing paper through the machine. At the time, he had been experimenting with alternatives to traditional drawing, ranging from making lines with bean pods placed on the ground to photographing jet contrails across the sky. “I didn’t want to paint lines,” he recalls. “I wanted to make lines.” And running his drawing paper through the sewing machine, Gummelt discovered, gave him a unique sort of fabricated line.
Two Boxes (1970) represents a remarkably sophisticated early application of that machine-made, stitched line. The eponymous stripped boxes, joined at their edges, are reminiscent of Frank Stella’s shaped canvases of a few years earlier. However, where Stella used stripes echoing the shape of the canvas’s stretcher to emphasize the flatness of the picture plane and the “What you see is what you get” fusion of image and ground, Gummelt implied a certain perspectival, CAD-like three-dimensionality in drawing the boxes – and then literally stitched the image to its ground with brown thread. Equally important to the late Modern, “object-ness” of the image was the way in which process was evidenced by loose threads and irregular stitching. Just as he had done as a boy at his grandmother’s farm, Gummelt began with a pencil drawing and stitched along that carefully drawn template; when the paper was turned over, the reverse side – the side that is actually displayed as the finished work – revealed none of the drawing but all of the concealed accidents typically found on the underside of a stitched pattern. “I loved this process,” he explains, “because I could have this play between the hard line of strict geometry and the element of chance – these loose threads that I didn’t have any control over.”
With this single precocious piece, Gummelt introduced a series of sophisticated, late Modern issues that he has methodically explored in subsequent decades: Drawing as a function of program and process; the play between primary forms and accidental, “found” pictorial incident; the tension between real and illusionistic space. The 1971 Worcola series (named after a street in the East Dallas neighborhood where Gummelt has lived and worked throughout the last thirty-five years) introduced two other fundamental concerns: An interest in unconventional, process-derived color; and two-dimensional composition as a function of the literal dismantling and reassembly of the picture ground. These intimate, monochrome works on paper were colored with pulverized pastel (excepting a white piece painted with latex) rubbed onto sheets of paper which were cut into small rectangles and then sewn back together in a brickwork-like, herringbone pattern – a process reminiscent of his grandmother’s quilts. The subtle perspective effect of the herringbone pattern was balanced by the evident stitching of the modular components; much like many Minimalist serial structures of the same period (Judd’s wall-mounted boxes, for example), there is an intended painterly effect in the subtle variations of hue and value as one moves around the pieces.
Many of Gummelt’s early works were small-scale fabrications that underscored their meticulous, repetitive handiwork. More than one reviewer used the term “fetishistic” to describe some of these objects, a superficial take that belied the big formal concepts inherent in the work. But from the very beginning Gummelt also did powerful large-scale pieces such as Jacksboro (1971), the centerpiece of his graduate thesis exhibition at SMU and his only important work intended to lie on the floor. Constructed much like the Worcola series, Jacksboro was composed of a large sheet of canvas that was dyed a brownish-gray, cut into myriad small rectangles, and sewn into a herringbone pattern; here the artist left a ragged outline that underscores the primacy of concept and construction. “I wanted it to be somewhat like a work in progress,” Gummelt says. “Like Brancusi’s Endless Column. Theoretically it could just keep going.” Large Black Field (1972) similarly relied on a modular “program” to create random, accidental pictorial effects. Eight feet long, it is composed of stitched-together paper squares sprayed with black enamel; an added wrinkle is the origami-like diagonal fold across each square. The slightly raised folds combine to create long diagonal ridges that appear to move across the stitched grid as fluidly as waves – giving the reflective enamel surface a dazzling, almost Op Art illusionism on a shallow, entirely physical picture plane.
But these early large-scale works ultimately remained the product of small-scale components. Challenging himself to think in more monumental terms, by the mid-1970’s Gummelt was making large graphite drawings composed of a few cut-up and re-assembled squares of paper, covered with densely worked layers of hatching and shading. By 1978 these drawings had evolved into the Palo Pinto series, the artist’s first large-scale paintings. In Palo Pinto Series #6 (1978) Gummelt’s fabricated line became a function of actual physical divisions of the canvas, which is composed of five rectangular panels of varying sizes joined together to form a single large, conventionally rectangular painting. Process continued to be part of an unconventional, muted palette: Working on canvas primed with rabbit skin glue, Gummelt began with acrylic washes that were layered over with a medium of translucent oil paint and wax, applied hot to the canvas with sponge brushes (but not fixed with heat, as in true encaustic). The painstaking, painterly build-up of color, with splashes, drips, and traces of underpainting creating richly nuanced surfaces and complex, optically mixed hues, reflected a number of sources: contemporary painters such as Brice Marden and Jasper Johns; the models of Gummelt’s college days, Bonnard and Vuillard; and the accident-prone process of his own early work. Previously Gummelt’s gifts as a colorist had been apparent in his virtuoso shading of a few color notes: primarily black, white, and red. With the Palo Pinto series, he began using more traditional painting techniques and a far wider chromatic range, and his palette acquired an even more evocative tension between elegiac subtlety and offbeat originality.
Waverly (1978-1979), a fourteen foot long canvas, introduced an element that would become important in Gummelt’s subsequent work: “found” geometry, used in the same fashion that windows and other architectural details inspired Ellsworth Kelly or flags and targets structured the works of Jasper Johns. Since the the early 1970’s Gummelt has photographed doors, windows, walls, and even the backs of trucks (he has recently exhibited his photography); Waverly was inspired by a boarded-up store front on Greenville Avenue not far from the artist’s studio. The arrangement of the boards was similar to his multi-panel works, but the striking asymmetry of the found composition – two small, horizontal panels inserted at the bottom of the second of four panels – offered a liberty he had never taken with his own geometry. Where accident had previously been hung on a perfectly balanced formal skeleton, that sense of randomness became inherent in the basic structure of this work. Waverly also illustrates another sort of drawing by fabrication – the irregular, hesitant white line created by filling the gaps between panels with plaster. The almost monochromatic grays on the surface become rich with underpainting and incident as one comes close enough to be enveloped by the work – and a palette that appears at first to evoke the modern industrial world seems more like a product of time and nature.
Waverly and the Palo Pinto series were at the heart of Gummelt’s one-person exhibition at the Fort Worth Art Museum in 1979 – the same museum where the teen-age artist had admired Eakin’s The Swimming Hole twenty years previously. The prestigious Fort Worth show confirmed Gummelt’s ascent from graduate student to top-tier Texas artist in a few short years, but it came at the beginning of a period that would find abstract artists struggling just to keep going against the powerful current of Postmodernism. Gummelt was no exception; he followed the unalloyed success of his first decade of serious art with a second decade in which he would question almost everything he was doing. He began this lengthy period of exploration with an extensive series (upwards of one hundred) of paintings and collages on the reverse side of glass panes, done principally between 1979 and 1984. This medium, which Gummelt had explored as early as 1976 with First Glass Piece, was inspired by the German folk paintings on glass he had known as a child, but also recalled a trip to Nice with fellow artist Dan Rizzie in the mid-1970’s – the artists had arrived on the day all the shopkeepers in town soaped their windows to clean them. “If I started one I’d finish it the same day,” Gummelt says of the glass pieces. “I liked that immediacy, because most of my life in art has been with pieces that are time-consuming. And I liked the clarity of the colors, because you’re coming at it from the back – it has a quality to it different than any other way you can look at color.” The spontaneous medium functioned much as oil sketches did for nineteenth century landscape painters, allowing Gummelt to develop and refine ideas much more freely than he could with large scale works.
Blue Moon (1984) reflects some of this new freedom in the incandescent underpainting and the figure-ground tension. But Gummelt’s period of uncertainty and gestation wouldn’t end until the end of the eighties. The breakthrough came with the Clear Float series of 1989 to 1992, a succession of painted wooden assemblages that continued the experimentation begun with the freely composed glass paintings. “The Clear Float series was less formal and much more intuitive than a lot of my early work,” Gummelt says. Instead of elaborately crafting multi-panel canvases, he composed with scraps of wood salvaged from old crates or discarded during renovation of the East Dallas house, built in 1914, he shares with his wife, Mary, and their daughter, Lena. “The reason they’re called Clear Float is because back in my framing days I’d get glass from PPG [Pittsburgh Plate Glass] and on the side of the crates it would say ‘clear float’ with the dimensions of the glass. If you look on the sides of most of these pieces you’ll still see the words ‘clear float.’ I’d leave staples in the wood, with pieces of cardboard stuck to them.” Inspired in part by the evocative surrealist assemblages of his longtime friend, Dallas artist David McManaway, the Clear Float pieces, while entirely abstract, are the rawest and most personal – indeed, at times, almost fetishistic – of Gummelt’s oeuvre. However, they launched an ambitious and triumphant return to more formal abstractions. Using the found geometry of the wood scraps to compose even more freely than he had when painting on glass, Gummelt explored a myriad of abstract relationships in two and three dimensions, often physically projecting or recessing planes of quirky, improvised color, as in Clear Float #15 (1992).
The Clear Float series confirmed Gummelt’s instincts of twenty years earlier – that his concerns with line, form, and color were best explored through a process of fabrication, rather than with conventional painting techniques. “By the end of 1980’s, I was through with canvas,” he says. “I don’t like the give of canvas. With wood you can really get physical. And it was much easier to do complicated structured pieces.” Leadbelly (1993) represents the transition from the Clear Float series to larger, more elaborately fabricated yet also more imposingly austere pieces. The eight foot tall construction was composed of a sheet of one-quarter inch thick plywood cut into a number of pieces and fitted back together in a loose, grid and diagonal structure reminiscent of Gummelt’s work of the early 1970’s; these planes, however, physically advance or recede in shallow relief, just like many of the Clear Float series. With Leadbelly, Gummelt inaugurated his practice of working almost exclusively on the floor. The plywood was troweled over with an asphalt filler used to patch cracks in driveways, a black compound that remains visible in the cuts between the plywood pieces. The asphalt-covered surface was next troweled and painted with polyurethane and alkyd enamels in a range of grays varying from brownish to purplish; here and there the asphalt lines are broken with white latex caulk. The original intention was to have a several-inch deep recess, lined with lead sheeting, running down the middle of the piece. Gummelt didn’t like the resulting dead space and constructed a nine inch wide, cardinal red plywood insert – a mini-painting also constructed with scored lines and subtly recessed planes – to fit snugly within the cavity. Painted in enamel over asphalt, Leadbelly Insert (1993) was the first, overly finished attempt; the rawer second effort not only gives a striking chromatic punch to the massive construction, but provides the same sort of complex figure-ground spatial tension that enlivens many of Gummelt’s early works. Though highly improvisational, this return to large-scale work was convincing; writing in the Dallas Morning News, critic Dee Mitchell called Leadbelly “One of the most commanding abstract paintings shown in Dallas in some time.”
The oil on foamboard Rigatti #8 (1994)) is a derivation of Leadbelly, with the long, narrow red bar recessed and anchored to the top edge; the grid-and-diagonal structure has become more allusive. The red bar becomes almost vestigial in another breakthrough work, Red and White (1995), an otherwise dirty white surface of almond-colored polyurethane paint troweled over asphalt crack filler. The small red square is paired with a white square and anchored to the left edge, an asymmetry that recalls the two little horizontal panels in Waverly but also alludes to some of Piet Mondrian’s most austere paintings (Gummelt had seen the 1995 Mondrian retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art), where Mondrian crowded one or two color planes to the edges of a composition crossed with a few horizontal and vertical lines. The right half of Red and White is physically recessed, but the sketchy, lost-and-found grid structure, conjured by a few incised lines in which the black asphalt filler has not been painted over, provides a powerful, Minimalist unity to the daringly out-of-kilter composition.
While the asymmetry of Red and White echoes the found geometry of Waverly and the Clear Float series, Gummelt actually worked out this and many subsequent compositions on graph paper (after first making freehand sketches), much as Mondrian used tape to work out the relationships of his horizontal and vertical lines. Lorena (1995), in which the polyurethane is troweled onto an overall pattern of square linoleum tiles, provides a ghostly sense of the graph-paper-like grid that conceptually underlies most of Gummelt’s work of the past decade; a single diagonal refers back to the herringbone structure of his earliest abstractions. With Marina (1995), painted on paper with enamel, oil, and plastic roof cement, a uniform grid covers much of the streaky, umber and gray surface. A small, pale turquoise plane attached to the edge seems to erupt with chromatic brilliance without tipping the subtle balance of the composition, an example of Gummelt’s gift for handling surprising color relationships. With the polyurethane on wood Cypress (1996), a serene assemblage of disparately-sized off-white and gray rectangles, the underlying grid structure is only implied in a few tracer-like horizontals and verticals (and again a lone diagonal).
Marfa (1996) is a fitting paean to the eponymous shrine of Minimalism. The palette is limited to dirty white polyurethane troweled over asphalt crack filler; there are no physical variations of the surface plane other than the interstices between plywood panels of several different sizes and proportions, assembled into an irregular grid that achieves a precarious but sublime balance. At four feet by a little more than five feet, Marfa is not a monumental work, but it has a gravitas impossible to achieve in a Postmodern context; it represents the cumulative wisdom and mastery of a committed Modernist sifting through a quarter century of dedicated research and spirited trial-and-error. The larger New Hope (1996) offers an even riskier asymmetry, with the more or less regular grid at the top played against a largely uninterrupted expanse of white across the bottom center and a narrow, solid black band at the left edge. Yet the result is the same uncanny sense of balance and composure, an allusive Minimalism in which formal perfection is the accumulation of myriad accidents and imperfections. Like most of Gummelt’s plywood pieces from the nineties on, there is a painstaking foundation for this inventive process: The backs of his paintings reveal an intricate framework of wooden slats (figure xx) that precisely match where the predetermined lines will be sawn completely through the plywood surface. This hidden, carefully crafted form has a function, supporting thinner, lighter plywood sheets – a practical consideration when large-scale works have to be moved and hung.
As much as Marfa and New Hope might have represented an apotheosis, Gummelt continued what has become a recurring cycle of renewal, replenishing his work with freer and more spontaneous experiments. Two works on heavy rag paper, Black and White #1 and #2 (both 1998), were painted with white polyurethane enamel over black roof cement, but the artist didn’t rely on a graph-paper grid to compose these drawings. The fragmentary grid-and-diagonal lines, freely brushed in black enamel on the white fields, were painted over in places with varying degrees of opacity, leaving some of the “erased” lines to fade in and out like pentimenti. “I love the way Matisse would look for a line in his figure drawings,” Gummelt says, citing a precedent. “He’d smudge out the one that didn’t work and do another and smudge it out until he got the right one. I liked seeing that search.”
This lost-and-found quality of drawing also appears in the large scale, plywood Red Sea (2000), where white lines seem to flit in quanta-like pulses across a rust-colored, grainy field. The surface is reminiscent of much earlier, powdered pigment-colored pieces such as the Worcola series, and indeed Red Sea marks a renewed interest in the more programmed, fabrication-intensive esthetic of the 1970’s. After the location of the lines was “sketched” on the plywood panel with strips of paper and the supporting frame built behind it, the lines were sawed into the panel and plugged with balsa wood. The plywood was covered with black gesso followed by an iron-surfacing compound and a clear liquid activator, which overnight produces a warm, rust-like patina; in the final stage the balsa plugs were removed and the lines were filled with plaster. The more painterly, oil and enamel Yellow (2002) employs the same sort of white plaster lines, but the incised grids and diagonals have reappeared in an all-over pattern that recalls the seminal Large Black Field of 1972.
The interest in a more tightly programmed, fabricated line continues with Six Italian Flowers (2004), a series that illustrates the remarkable complexity and equally remarkable discipline of Gummelt’s creative process. These small plywood panel pieces were inspired by a trip to Italy the artist had taken in 1987; he had found the fleur-de-lis pattern drilled into the metal door of a building in Florence (figure xx). Gummelt replicated this heraldic shape in the same fashion, drilling it through the plywood sheets. The closely-spaced holes recall the pattern a sewing machine-stitched line would leave if the threads were pulled out – much as if a fleur-de-lis emblem had been snipped away from a piece of fabric. For the most part the colors are subtle grays derived from a relatively painterly process: layer after layer of oil-based enamel, thinned with turpentine to the consistency of a wash. The Italian Flowers appear almost anomalous amid all the Euclidean geometry in Gummelt’s oeuvre, but they underscore the underpinnings of his Minimalist esthetic in precise draftsmanship, inventive concept, and quirky, autobiographical detail.
More importantly, the perforated, drill-drawn line and thin, transparent color of the Italian Flowers inform the magisterial, culminating works of this exhibition. Boilerplate (2004) features three kinds of fabricated lines, all placed with subtle asymmetry: the familiar, saw-incised horizontals and verticals; a glued seam where two plywood panels abut, running horizontally across the canvas like a raised scar; and drilled holes arranged in a grid-like series of rows. Played against the vaporous, heavily thinned oil enamel washes layered on the surface, the physical nature of these lines creates a spatial tension familiar in the artist’s work. The holes were not drilled entirely through the plywood panels, and implied line and process color fuse in the rows of cup-like cavities, which were filled with iron-surfacer and activator. The resulting highlights (adding to the surface tension, they are actually physically recessed) vary from yellow ochre to a copper-like patina.
In Grey Wall (2004) these elements are pared down to produce the most strikingly Minimalist of Gummelt’s recent works. The hazy grey surface, again built with layers of oil and turpentine washes over black gesso, is crossed by a single horizontal, raised line, asymmetrically placed below the midpoint. The only other articulation of the surface is a uniform, all-over sequence of drilled holes arranged in a repeated diamond pattern. As with the Italian Flowers, the pattern of holes subtly alludes to the sewing machine-made lines of the seventies, but here the grids and diagonals of the seventies have been reduced to a Euclidean essence, an arrangement of evenly spaced points (the implied lines that connect these points are physically present behind the plywood panel, in the lattice-like wooden support). The tension between the pocked, mural surface and the eye’s effort to trace points into lines (and construct three dimensional shapes from those imaginary lines) makes this meditative, serene primary structure anything but inert: As in the best Minimalist works, Grey Wall combines “what you see is what you get” with the sense that if you stick around a little bit, you’re also going to get some optical surprises and an unexpected emotional engagement.
Grey Wall undoubtedly presages the continued evolution and refinement of Gummelt’s work. But alongside the 1970 Two Boxes, it also closes a circle, bringing an extraordinary thirty-five year journey back to its beginning. The conceptual fiat is the same in both pieces: a machine-punched, fabricated line (a line reduced to a vestigial sequence of points in the later work) pins the geometry to the picture ground, an ingeniously pragmatic solution to a dominant issue of the 1960’s, the problem of identifying an image with its physical support. Both pieces are restricted to elementary geometric forms, yet for both pieces the subtle accidents of the process are central to our experience of the work. Most remarkably, however, Grey Wall seems as fresh and improvisational as the seminal early work; there is absolutely no sense that this tightly focused repertoire of problems and images is leading to any sort of myopia or hackneyed repetition. Gummelt is that rare artist who soars by continually clipping his own creative wings, always balancing innovation with a reductive discipline, always playing the accidental world around us against the ideal of pure Platonic form.
For all his discipline, Gummelt has never been a doctrinaire Minimalist at any stage during the past thirty-five years – Minimalism, after all, was a movement invented by critics and curators, and many of the artists credited with being present at its conception disdained the label. But the institutions that are now shaping the Minimalist legacy – principally the Judd-founded Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, and Dia:Beacon in Beacon, New York – are inviting us to rethink late Modernism in ways that offer a fresh perspective on Gummelt’s esthetics. The installations at both Marfa and Beacon suggest, for example, that so-called Conceptualism and so-called Minimalism, seeming in many ways antithetical, were always chattering back and forth: Joseph Beuys’s stacks of felt comment on primary structures, while Judd’s milled aluminum boxes illustrate the concept of using precise manufacturing specifications and mute, industrial objects to evoke unprecedented, painterly effects of light and color. Much of Gummelt’s work starts with similar late Modern conceptual conceits: What if a line is made by a sewing machine, saw, or drill bit? What if planes are fabricated rather than painted or drawn? What kind of subtle, painterly color can be produced with industrial materials and processes? These were cutting-edge questions when Gummelt precociously began asking them back in 1970; with the renascent interest in Minimalism (or maybe we should say minimalism-conceptualism) and the continuing reappraisal of its ideology, they have returned to the cutting edge.
Indeed, younger artists and collectors are being drawn back to Minimalism by some of the less-really-is-more qualities evident in Gummelt’s work, such as the obsession with intricate if often hidden craftsmanship or the poetic accidents that occur within a tightly programmed process. Judd’s work in Marfa has acquired particular interest because it suggests that so-called Minimalism can actually have sense of place. Judd, a midwesterner, put his concrete and mill aluminum works onto the prairie so that they could reflect – often literally – the western landscape (in this communion with landscape, Judd was the heir of Albert Bierstadt as much as he was the successor to David Smith). Gummelt is a native of an entirely different region, the east-central Texas cotton country, an essentially southern, rural culture that was rapidly urbanizing when he was growing up; the tension between the natural and industrial worlds that animates his inventive color palette – one of the most subtly original in contemporary painting – has autobiographical origins. So, too, does the emphasis on painstaking fabrication, a legacy of the German immigrants who prided themselves on farming their fields without slave labor and building their solid limestone houses (an important model for Texas’ twentieth century, regional Modernist architecture) with their own hands. And, of course, his process reflects the rural folk traditions of quilting and embroidery he learned from his grandmother.
“Then” – meaning back in the early 1970’s – Sam Gummelt was acclaimed for seeing beyond the parochial focus of Texas art at the time. “Now” we can see that he also occupies a unique position in the history of Texas art. As the successor to a tiny group of first and second generation non-objective Texas artists such as Toni LaSelle, Joseph Glasco, and Myron Stout, he was the first Texan to adopt the late Modern esthetics of the 1960’s in a sophisticated fashion – a fact acknowledged by his contemporaries. Yet he remained almost sui generis throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, as Postmodernism dominated the attention of the state’s artists and institutions. Now Postmodernism has engendered (or is being succeeded by, in some opinions) a robust Modernist revival, and talented younger artists are starting to go where Gummelt went thirty-five years ago. Because his career got such a precocious start, Gummelt assumes a rather ironic position amid this revival: He is still in mid-career, exhibiting and evolving alongside a generation free to excavate the history that his own early work represents. But what the revivalists in general lack is the sense of mission, urgency, and iconoclasm that informed Modernism’s last great burst of innovation. That sense of historic moment – and commitment – in Gummelt’s work has made him an artists’ artist and a collectors’ artist (at least among that very select group that collects Texas abstract art).
In 1980, at the end of his fast-track first decade as a serious artist, Gummelt told critic David Dillon, “I’m only 35. I can’t be in a rush to have everything happen overnight. I may be 60 before I finally make the big breakthrough. That will be OK.” Gummelt is now 60, and perhaps the big breakthrough is the time-lapse appraisal of the artist’s career that this exhibition (Gummelt is adamant that it is not a retrospective) at last allows us to make. What we see is a progressive sequence of more modest breakthroughs, a steady accretion of creative critical mass over thirty‑five years; the big breakthrough comes when we realize that today there is no abstract artist in Texas – and few nationally – whose work, over time, matches the seriousness, rigor and sublime focus of Gummelt’s oeuvre. The contemporary art world has a fair representation of talented young “now” artists, as well as any number of mature artists who have lost contact with their “then,” either through heedless repetition or heedless reinvention. Gummelt, by contrast, followed his explosive start with a remarkably careful and thorough exploration of the potent concepts that catapulted him onto the scene. This body of work, in which the threads of earliest invention run tautly, if never predictably, through thirty-five years of painstakingly studied evolution, makes Sam Gummelt: Then and Now the transcendent testament to an extraordinary commitment and a singular vision.