Rashomon, 1998. Steel, 13 x 13 x 13 ft., three units.

A Question of Perspective: Sculpture by Charles Ginnever

Charles Ginnever was on vacation in Maine in 1993 when he went to work on a design that had already been in his mind for a while. He started, as he often did, by tinkering with shapes cut from foam core; when he was done, he had produced an object that could stand freely in 11 positions. By the time a full-scale version of the piece was constructed at mid-decade, further adjustments enabled it to stand in 15 positions, and as a design it fully declared the sculptural concerns that had occupied him for more than 30 years. He called it Rashomon, borrowing the title from Akira Kurosawa’s film version of a novella by the early Japanese Modernist Ryunosuke Akutagawa: after a number of witnesses to a particularly heinous crime are questioned at length, police investigators are startled to find that each story differs from the others in some distinctive way. For both Akutagawa and Kurosawa, this unreliability of witness, based, of course, in the sheer subjectivity of vision, offered an exemplary demonstration of the Modernist program. The reference is just as precise for Ginnever, though it is not bound to anything as specific as literary Modernism. He had discovered that the sculptural Rashomon, an open geometric form without right angles or parallel lines, not only stood in a remarkable number of positions, but it was the rarest of witnesses who could recognize it as the same work from one position to the next.

Ghost of Isenheim, 1961. Steel and mixed media, 84 x 48 x 48 in.

Ginnever was not surprised. To him, the situation reflected the sorry state of the Western spatial imagination. The argument of Rashomon is that many centuries of architecture, urban planning, and perspectival systems in art, all based on the right angle and consequently insistent upon both the readability and predictability of spatial configurations in the human environment, have dulled our ability to anticipate, even to perceive the complexity of form in space. The tendency to control space with form has tangibly altered our sense of what space is, and so we move through a rich, challenging, often exhilarating world of forms without seeing all that is really there, insensitive to the implications of our loss. The origins of this condition are various, and by now perhaps impossible to differentiate, but they must lie to some extent in social and philosophical systems that support the drive for human domination over the natural world—that the world is a place that can and should be controlled.

Like most of the large-scale steel works that Ginnever has been building since the late 1960s, Rashomon is unremittingly experiential. If at first glance it suggests itself to be another of the big, weathered steel objects now familiar in public and outdoor settings, there is something enigmatic about it too, a strangeness that beckons to us. It requests our participation. We approach it, and as we walk around the piece, it reveals formal shifts that were not initially apparent. It is not what it appeared to be, and soon we realize that no single view or perspective will reveal it in its entirety.

(Right to Left) Luna Moth Walk I, 1983, steel; Luna Moth Walk II, 1985, steel; and Luna Moth Walk III, 1982, steel.

A lot of large-scale sculpture is meant to pique our interest by arousing a specifically visual curiosity, and we have grown accustomed to the visual sleight of hand at the heart of these designs. Ginnever is more ambitious. His goal, well before Rashomon, has been to reveal, in a literal, empirical way, that perceptual experience is inseparable from the continuum of space and time in which the experience occurs. The work may prohibit a single comprehensive perspective, but, in fact, the locus of experience lies in the viewer, who can only reveal the work over time, from a continuous, seamless multiplicity of perspectives. Thus the work (ideally) catalyzes the surprise and delight of visual possibility and stimulates a creaky spatial imagination.

A row of 15 maquettes on a narrow tabletop is pretty jazzy, like a line of jagged, swooping, contorted dancers, but Ginnever envisions an ideal setting in which 15 full-scale pieces are spread across a landscape, each in a different position. (In the largest installation to date, three 13-foot Rashomons were placed on the Stanford University campus in 2000, where they remained for two years, providing a lesson in the problems of site. They stood among the groves near the university art museum, where they were difficult to see in a long perspective and even more difficult to see as a network of related forms.) Yet, if Rashomon can be said to constitute a critique of deeply embedded cultural values and the world view in which they originated, it has no desire to draw attention to shortcomings in the individual observer. It wishes primarily to provoke the perceptual imagination, and it is not a harsh instructor.

Rashomon, 1998. Steel, 13 x 13 x 13 ft., three units.

When Ginnever arrived in New York in 1959, he had already been working for more than a year at a large scale, using railroad ties to construct open, exuberant forms—one thinks of David Smith’s notion of drawing in space expanded to the proportions of a giant. These works stood firmly on the ground, refusing to separate themselves from the viewer’s space and offering little sense of front or back or side, with no spine or obvious center to establish an orientation for the viewer. Writing about the young sculptors in the city for Arts magazine in early 1965, Max Kozloff associated Ginnever with George Sugarman, David Weinrib, Mark di Suvero, Tom Doyle, and Ronald Bladen. These sculptors shared, he noted, “a sculptural syntax that stresses extendibility and the proliferation of forms through space.” For Kozloff, the work of these artists showed the breadth of sculptural response at that moment to contemporary conditions; it was typically anti-illusionistic, preferring instead to act against visual and, indeed, sculptural expectations.

Today, most of these artists are well known individually, but their appearance as a group, at that particular moment, remains under-appreciated, partly because their variety resists the summary qualities of a movement and partly because, as a group, they do not adhere to the art historical trajectory of painting during the same era. The work tends to be profuse, incorporative, hot rather than cool, and indifferent to prevailing doctrines. Ginnever worked in many of the current modes, from performances and happenings to painted assemblage. The numerous tabletop-scale constructions that he made during those years often suggest inside-out versions of John Chamberlain’s work with crushed automotive sheet metal, striving for an expansiveness of form where Chamberlain seeks compression and a terse discontinuity of surface. But even Ginnever’s assemblage works ask to be circumnavigated, and, regardless of size, their wily formal shifts can spark considerable surprise.

Moonwalker I, 1989. Bronze with patina, 17 x 17 x 8 in.

As a Californian, Ginnever brought certain concerns of his own to this wide-open sculptural environment. He had grown up on the San Francisco Peninsula, where the crystalline and vast creeping fog banks can produce unusual visual disjunctions that distort cursory readings of space and distance. For him, the mysteries of perception had always been an issue. This, of course, was hardly a novel theme in art; investigations regarding both the subjectivity and the unreliability of sight constitute a significant aspect of the modern tradition. Ginnever had gazed across great distances in much the same way that Cézanne had, with similar questions, and he would become one of the first artists to probe the nature of spatial experience using predominantly abstract sculptural forms; it is a theme that continued in the subsequent decade in the hands of Richard Serra and others.

Ginnever’s breakthrough work during this period was Dante’s Rig (1964), a large, loosely vessel-shaped construction consisting of a hammock-like frame, lots of guy wires, and two rows of quivering trapezoidal aluminum “wings.” A work of ethereal lightness, it was shown in New York at the Park Place Gallery, sharing the space with work by Peter Forakis, and was widely seen by other sculptors in the city, at least some of whom recognized its originality and daring. Within its atmosphere of fragile, tentative reference, Dante’s Rig can be characterized by several related elements: it develops an implied, insubstantial, finally uncertain volume, one in which edge is never clearly defined, or is defined schematically by the use of wires. As a result, the work seems to dissolve at a distance, especially outdoors; as we approach, however, it seems to tingle in skittish, light-footed interaction with the space immediately around it. By the same token, its rendering of form is so different from various points around its periphery that it defies reflexive readings, requiring instead that the viewer be attentive to the experience of engagement. In the end, the leap from the transparency of Dante’s Rig to the puzzle-like geometry of Rashomon, a kind of Rubik’s Cube of the spatial imagination, is not very far at all.

Moonwalker IV, 1991. Bronze with patina, 13 x 29 x 13 in.

Steel permits durability and scale, but, for Ginnever, it had the additional attraction of strength. The combination of material and scale allowed him to erase the kinds of sculptural gestures that typified his work before the mid-1960s—his work is not about personality. But most important of all, anything he imagined could be built in a stable form, and, as a result, a good deal of his work, well into the 1980s, was based on complex, often irregular rectangles and trapezoids arranged in extended, gravity-defying stacks or modular networks. These forms generally have their own internal planes, and so they tilt dramatically or seem to be spinning crazily across space. Many, including 3+1 (1967), the untitled constructions made between 1968 and 1971, or large, planar forms such as Fayette (For Charles and Medgar Evers) (1971), the jazzy Dovecotes (1972), and Détente (1974), seek some pretty dramatic formal shifts. In a “frontal” position, they appear to be immense or impossibly heavy, only to disappear from another vantage point or suddenly to reveal some unexpected hole in space.

These, too, are works of intense visual delight. But for all their high spirits and formal extroversion, they are decidedly peripatetic. Like di Suvero, Ginnever is quite skilled at playing against visual habit—where the eye expects gravity to exert itself, the work springs into space, and as the spectator moves around it, a reading of material weight is challenged as the forms seem to disappear, as though suddenly weightless. This is not mere novelty. Ginnever enjoys working with big forms, but it is serious play. Everything exists to demonstrate the ways in which we interpret form, in its presence and in real time—what we miss as well as what we see.

Moonwalker V, 1991. Bronze with patina, 15 x 24.5 x 11

Still, these forms do little to hide their means. It is very easy to see how they have been put together. With the feeling that this put him, like di Suvero or Tony Smith, too firmly in a strict Constructivist tradition, Ginnever overcame the condition during the mid-1970s in a remarkable sequence of works based on triangular forms (in actuality, they are parallelograms bent along diagonal lines) that lean or tilt precariously into each other; some especially strong individual pieces from the series include Daedalus (1975), Nautilus (1976), Protagoras (1976), Crete (1978), and Koronos II (1978). These sculptures are integrated with the earth on which they stand, contesting the architectural space around them, but, in their crazy tilt, they seem to be holding themselves in place against all odds, with a precarious delicacy of balance at odds with the weight of the steel. As in some of Serra’s large steel installations, material weight adds a bodily sense of peril to the formal shifts. And while the outer edges of the forms may suggest a comprehensive, generic shape—a pyramid, for instance—they in fact look quite different from every perspective.

Writing about an indoor installation of Daedalus for Art in America in mid-1976, Carter Ratcliff observed that commonplace assumptions regarding geometric sculpture did not apply to Ginnever: meaning resided entirely in, and was limited to, direct experience. He recognized, as well, that these designs lie outside the logic of Western spatial design and that Ginnever was attempting to shift responsibility for the experience of the work away from the kinds of cultural determinations embedded in Western spatial systems. The work would always be different, for each viewer, each time it was seen. Ginnever represented an alternative to Western spatial concepts, in other words, by rejecting the reassurances of a predictable right-angled space.

Moonwalker VI, 1991. Bronze with patina, 15 x 18 x 11 in.

For this reason, the work can also be seen as a critique of the Minimalist program, which still had a presence in New York. The Minimalist discourse around materials was pertinent to Ginnever’s enterprise, but what he could not accept was the way in which Minimalism, in his view, acquiesced to the determining influence of architectural space. Movement around a Minimalist installation might provide additional information about the work, but not about its essential form, which remains readable from any perspective. Instead of seizing the opportunity to interrogate the influence of the spatial systems that housed it, it had submitted itself to the system without a fight. This was a big problem for Ginnever, who regarded the right angle as an instrument of spatial control, functioning under the (arrogant) assumption that space could or should be controlled. To accept the right angle—and indeed any perspectival “system”—was to accept the idea that rigid spaces and forms were somehow “good” or “right,” or even possible. When he wrote about Ginnever’s work two years later for Art in America, Ratcliff described the ability of the work to reach beyond its own space, thus encouraging the eye to consider space itself as a flexible, inherently unstable medium in its own right.

Ginnever’s path has not been perfectly straight, of course. There were commissions as well as his own designs, and, over the years, he would work in a variety of modes. Zeus, for example, three I-beams hung in a thunderbolt configuration at Sculpture Now in 1975, crossed the warehouse-sized gallery space like a vast line, forcing viewers to accept the space as a real, interruptible substance and responding to ambient variability by clanging softly when the ends of the beams struck each other. Elsewhere, there have been cool geometric forms (Blue and Black [1979] or Crazed [1980]), emblematic shapes (Godard’s Dream [1982] or Nike [1986]), evocative “standing” forms (The Bird (For Charlie Parker) [1979], Bop [1980], or the “Luna Moth Walk” series [1982–85]), and serial constructions (Cobra [1984] or Stack [1985]). Formal shifts generally occur in these works, but many can be seen as primarily sculptural, existing not so much to challenge perception as to explore or consider the formal ideas that will continue to be of use.

The “Moonwalker” series (1991) would prove to be the immediate predecessor to Rashomon. These works are hardly larger than maquettes, and they had a quirky origin. While he was playing with a design program on a computer, one intended to rotate three-dimensional forms in electronic space, Ginnever noticed that the program was producing subtle formal distortions, and he soon realized that they were a result of its basis in a traditional perspectival system. Needless to say, the irony was not lost on him. The insect-like Moonwalkers were designed around the distortions, and they function most effectively as an installation that treats space as infinitely variable: that is, they can be moved around a room at will, maintaining a relationship with each other, redefining their edge or scale as a unified sculptural work, redefining the space itself, which exists as an integral aspect of the work.

For the Moonwalkers, space is more than a site of occupation. It literally connects the individual components of the work. Each piece has a personality of its own, and while their engagement with space is active, it does not require much participation from viewers, who can observe the entire population by rotating in place. The problem was to effect a similar action at the scale of landscape, and so Rashomon came into being as one solution.

During a trip to Japan in 1974, Ginnever showed photographs of his work to a number of Japanese architects and artists, who were able to anticipate and describe formal shifts without seeing the work itself, suggesting that spatial perception and spatial imagination are indeed acculturated, and what could be unlearned by conditioning could perhaps be relearned. This has been an important aspect of Ginnever’s work, and it assists in defining his sculpture’s larger significance. For Ginnever, the freeing of the spatial imagination is truly a freedom. The question, after all, is not merely what we have lost of our ability to read forms in space, but what other aspects of consciousness are affected by the loss.

Bruce Nixon is currently working on a book about Manuel Neri.

Ginnever’s Early Works Lost to Fire

On July 24, 2003, a fast-moving, 25-acre grass fire spread through Petaluma, California, destroying a barn where many of Ginnever’s sculptures and drawings were temporarily stored. Key sculptures and works on paper, primarily from the artist’s early career were destroyed in the blaze. Among the lost works were a number of brightly painted sculptures made of canvas and twisted metal, sculptures composed of wooden railroad ties and found metal objects, and the seminal work Dante’s Rig (1964). Recent small steel sculptures were damaged but spared.